Having a vision of a free society doesn't mean libertarians are incapable of common-sense political calculations.
For example, the long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that's how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I'm advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.
Why? Because that's the best that we can hope for at the moment.
Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don't trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they'll want to increase the burden of government spending.
Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.
And that's a good segue to today's topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.
Here's the issue: I'm getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.
I don't object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don't want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.
And if that was the final--and permanent--outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a "permanent" outcome. That's because I have two requirements for such a deal:
1. The corporate income tax could never be reinstated.
2. The VAT could never be increased.
And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn't part of the discussion.Read the rest of this post »
It's no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.
But this isn't because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax.
And that's a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America's corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.
But not all roads lead to Rome. Proponents of the flat tax and sales tax want to replace the income tax. That would be a very positive step.
Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That's a catastrophically bad idea.
To understand what I mean, let's look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.
There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. ...a 1986-style tax reform -- broadening the base and lowering the rates -- isn’t politically achievable today. ...the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.
I agree with everything in those excerpts.
So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?
Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we're very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he's talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.
Partisans can argue whether Clinton actually deserves the credit for these good results, but I'm just happy we got better policy. Heck, Clinton was a lot more akin to Reagan that Obama, as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests.
Moreover, Clinton also has been the source of some very good political humor, some of which you can enjoy here, here, here, here, and here.
Most recently, he even made some constructive comments about corporate taxation and fiscal sovereignty.
Here are the relevant excerpts from a report in the Irish Examiner.
It is up to the US government to reform the country’s corporate tax system because the international trend is moving to the Irish model of low corporate rate with the burden on consumption taxes, said the former US president Bill Clinton. Moreover, ...he said. “Ireland has the right to set whatever taxes you want.” ...The international average is now 23% but the US tax rate has not changed. “...We need to reform our corporate tax rate, not to the same level as Ireland but it needs to come down.”
Kudos to Clinton for saying America's corporate tax rate "needs to come down," though you could say that's the understatement of the year. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate among the 30-plus nations in the industrialized world. And we rank even worse—94th out of 100 countries according to a couple of German economists—when you look at details of how corporate income is calculated.
The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the short run is that we can balance the budget in just five years by capping spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, a very modest level of fiscal restraint.
The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the long run is that more than 100 percent of America's long-term fiscal problem is too much spending.
So why even consider giving politicians a new source of revenue such as the VAT, particularly since this hidden form of national sales tax helped cause the European fiscal crisis by facilitating a bigger welfare state?*
And now Europeans are doubling down on that failed approach, thus confirming that politicians will rarely make necessary spending reforms if they think more revenue can be squeezed from taxpayers.
Here's a chart taken from the recent European Commission report on taxation trends in the EU. As you can see, the average VAT rate in Europe has jumped by nearly 2 percentage points in just five years.
As I explained last week, European politicians also have been increasing income tax rates, so taxpayers are getting punished when they earn their income and they're getting punished when they spend their income.
Which helps to explain why much of Europe is suffering from economic stagnation. Given the perverse incentives created by redistributionist fiscal policy, it makes more sense to climb in the wagon of government dependency.
For more information, here's my video that describes the VAT and explains why it's a bad idea.
*The same thing is now happening in Japan.
P.S. I don't know if you'll want to laugh or cry, but the tax-free bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually argue that the VAT is good for jobs and growth.
What's the worst thing about Delaware?
No, not Joe Biden. He's just a typical feckless politician and the butt of some good jokes.
Instead, the so-called First State is actually the Worst State because almost exactly 100 years ago, on February 3, 1913, Delaware made the personal income tax possible by ratifying the 16th Amendment.
Though, to be fair, I suppose the 35 states that already had ratified the Amendment were more despicable since they were even more anxious to enable this noxious levy.
But let's not get bogged down in details. The purpose of this post is not to re-hash history, but to instead ask what lessons we can learn from the adoption of the income tax.
The most obvious lesson is that politicians can't be trusted with additional powers. The first income tax had a top tax rate of just 7 percent and the entire tax code was 400 pages long. Now we have a top tax rate of 39.6 percent (even higher if you include additional levies for Medicare and Obamacare) and the tax code has become a 72,000-page monstrosity.
But the main lesson I want to discuss today is that giving politicians a new source of money inevitably leads to much higher spending.
The folks at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity have been on a roll in the past few months, putting out an excellent series of videos on Obama's economic policies.
- A look at the President's failure to control government spending.
- A review of the Obama's dismal track record on jobs and growth.
- A video showing how the auto bailout has been a costly mistake.
Now we have a new addition to the list. Here's Mattie Duppler of Americans for Tax Reform, narrating a video that eviscerates the President's tax agenda.
I like the entire video, as you can imagine, but certain insights and observations are particularly appealing.
1. The rich already pay a disproportionate share of the total tax burden - The video explains that the top-20 percent of income earners pay more than 67 percent of all federal taxes even though they earn only about 50 percent of total income. And, as I've explained, it would be very difficult to squeeze that much more money from them.
2. There aren't enough rich people to fund big government - The video explains that stealing every penny from every millionaire would run the federal government for only three months. And it also makes the very wise observation that this would be a one-time bit of pillaging since rich people would quickly learn not to earn and report so much income. We learned in the 1980s that the best way to soak the rich is by putting a stop to confiscatory tax rates.
3. The high cost of the death tax - I don't like double taxation, but the death tax is usually triple taxation and that makes a bad tax even worse.
Especially since the tax causes the liquidation of private capital, thus putting downward pressure on wages. And even though the tax doesn't collect much revenue, it probably does result in some upward pressure on government spending, thus augmenting the damage.
4. High taxes on the rich are a precursor to higher taxes on everyone else - This is a point I have made on several occasions, including just yesterday. I'm particularly concerned that the politicians in Washington will boost income tax rates for everybody, then decide that even more money is needed and impose a value-added tax.
The video also makes good points about double taxation, class warfare, and the Laffer Curve.
Please share widely.
My Iowa caucus predictions from yesterday were hopelessly wrong, probably because I was picking with my heart rather than my head. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Mitt Romney's openness to a value-added tax makes him a dangerously flawed candidate, and I hoped Iowa voters shared my concern.
In a column for today's Wall Street Journal, I elaborated on those concerns, explaining why a VAT is bad fiscal policy. I had three main points. First, I noted that the big spenders need a VAT in order to achieve a European-sized welfare state in America.
... the left needs a VAT. It is the only realistic way to collect the huge amount of revenue that will be necessary to finance the mountainous benefits promised by our entitlement programs. Which is exactly what happened in Europe, where welfare-state policies only became feasible after VATs were adopted, beginning in the late 1960s.
Second, I explained that the left favors this giant tax on the middle class because they want more money and soak-the-rich taxes don't generate much revenue.
Read the rest of this post »
First, there aren't enough wealthy people to finance big government. According to IRS data from before the recession, when we had the most rich people with the most income, there were about 321,000 households with income greater than $1 million, and they had aggregate taxable income of about $1 trillion. That's a lot of money, but it wouldn't balance the budget even if the government confiscated every penny—and if it did, how much income do you suppose would be available in year two? Second, higher tax rates don't raise as much revenue as expected. Upper-income individuals are far more likely to rely on interest, dividends and capital gains—and it is much easier to control the timing, level and composition of capital income, so as to avoid exposing it to the tax man.