“Taxing Imports, Not Exports,” Steve Lohr, NYTimes, 12/13/16

“President-elect Donald J. Trump has vowed to protect and create American manufacturing jobs, even threatening high tariffs on imports to help achieve that goal. So far, though, his plan seems to lean heavily on one-at-a-time deals, like the one struck late last month to save jobs at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis.

But proponents of a more far-reaching approach say it could achieve many of Mr. Trump’s goals without tariff walls or presidential jawboning: a sweeping overhaul of the corporate tax system that embraces a concept endorsed by House Republican leaders in their blueprint for tax reform, announced in late June.

“It would be the biggest change in business tax law ever in the United States,” said Martin A. Sullivan, the chief economist at Tax Analysts, a nonprofit tax research organization and publisher. “It might actually work, and I don’t think it’s a partisan issue.”

A central idea is that goods would be taxed based on where they were consumed rather than where they were produced, meaning that imports would be taxed by Washington while exports would not. Tax experts call this a destination-based consumption tax.

This would be a sharp departure for the United States in a number of ways, but taxing imports but not exports is in step with nearly all of America’s trading partners, which have so-called value-added taxes. The import-and-export tax treatment is known as border adjustment.”

OECD, “Consumption Tax Trends, VAT/GST and Excise Rates, Trends and Administration Issues,” December, 2012

Spread of VAT.

The spread of VAT has been the most important development in taxation over the last half century.  Limited to less than ten countries in the late 60’s it has now been implemented by more than 150 countries.  VAT now raises approximately 20 percent of the world’s tax revenue and affects about 4 billion people.  The recognized capacity of VAT to raise revenue in a neutral and transparent manner has drawn all OECD member countries to adopt this broad-based consumption tax, except the United States, which continues to employ retail sales taxes at the state level (and below) rather than apply a federal consumption tax.  Its neutrality principle towards international trade has also made it the preferred alternative to customs duties in the context of trade liberalization.

VAT has become a major source of revenue for the OECD member countries that have implemented it.  Over the last twenty-five years, the share of VAT as a percentage of total taxation has almost doubled passing from 11.2% on average in 1985 to 19.2% in 2009, this share remaining stable since 2000.  These taxes are globally the third important source of revenue for governments, behind social security contributions (27%) and personal income taxes (25%) but far above corporate income tax (8%); specific consumption taxes (11%) and property taxes (5%).  These ratios vary considerably between countries, but in 27 of the 33 OECD countries with VAT, the tax accounts for more than 15 percent of total taxation.  Following its adoption by a growing number of countries, a shift occurred within the category of taxes on consumption so that while the share of VAT rose, the revenue from consumption taxes on specific goods and services (mainly excise taxes) fell from 16% to 11% over the same period.”  p. 44

The revenue from general consumption taxes stabilized after 2000 as a percentage of both GDP and total taxation.  This followed a period of many years of increasing importance.  Between 2000 and 2009 the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Korea, Luxembourg, and Sweden were the countries where general consumption taxes have increased the most as a percentage of GDP (by at least 0.5 percentage points), while in Canada, France, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey and the United Kingdom the percentage fell by at least 0.5 percentage points.

Over the longer term, OECD member countries have relied increasingly on general consumption taxes.  Since 1965, the share of these taxes as a percentage of GDP in OECD countries has more than doubled, from 3.3% to 6.7%.  They presently produce 20% of total tax revenue compared with only 11.9% in 1965.

This is especially true for VAT, which is the largest source of general consumption taxes, accounting for 6.4% of GDP and 19.2% of total tax revenues.  VAT is now operated in 33 of the 34 OECD countries, the United Stats being the only country not to have adopted a VAT.  In 1977, fourteen of the current OECD member countries had a VAT.  Greece, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Mexico, Japan and New Zealand introduced VAT in the 1980’s while Switzerland followed shortly afterwards.  The Easter European economies introduced VAT in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, some of them adopting the EU model with their future EU membership in mind.  The tendency for VAT rates to rise over the long term also contributed to the growing share of general consumption taxes in the tax mix.” p. 61

OECD Consumption and VAT Tax Trends (Table: VAT Percentages by Country; General Consumption Taxes by Country (% of GDP; % of Total Taxes); VAT Taxes by Country (% of GDP, % of Total Taxes)


Bartlett, Bruce, “Tax Reform That Works; Building a Solid Fiscal Foundation with a VAT,” New America Foundation, 11/30/12

In advocating a Value Added Tax, this concise paper by Bruce Bartlett takes on the myths about VAT and the mistaken political resistance to it.  It is highly recommended in the context of the realities of the “fiscal cliff.”  The link to the article is repeated at the bottom of this entry.

“…In my opinion, the greatest potential to break the tax reform gridlock is to get away from the model of cutting popular tax preferences in order to pay for rate reductions. That is the political equivalent of World War I-style trench warfare. I think it makes more sense to adopt a different approach, one more akin to Douglas MacArthur’s strategy of leapfrogging Japanese strongholds in the Pacific during World War II, leaving them impotent.

The tax equivalent of MacArthur’s strategy would be to leave in place all the existing deductions and credits, but make them irrelevant for most people. Prof. Michael Graetz of Columbia University has devised exactly such a plan.  He would institute an exemption of $100,000 for married couples ($50,000 for singles, $75,000 for heads of households).  All the existing deductions and credits would remain in place and could still be used by those with incomes above $100,000, but for the vast bulk of taxpayers they would become irrelevant because they would have no taxable income against which to take them. About 100 million of the 140 million people now required to file federal income tax returns would no longer have to do so.

Graetz would replace the lost revenue with a value-added tax (more below) combined with a rebate mechanism to relieve the regressivity on those with low incomes and also replace refundable tax credits for the poor. A recent analysis of the Graetz plan by the Tax Policy Center concluded that it could be done in a deficit-neutral manner with a VAT rate of 12.4 percent – well below the rates that prevail in Europe…”

“…For many years, official Republican Party platforms have opposed a VAT for the United States. The 1992 platform said such a tax in Europe “has resulted in higher prices, fewer jobs and higher levels of government spending.”  The 2008 platform said, ‘In any fundamental restructuring of federal taxation, to guard against the possibility of hypertaxation of the American people, any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to simultaneous repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, which established the federal income tax.’  The 2012 platform repeats the same language.

Fear that a VAT might come on top of the income tax and hence constitute some sort of double taxation is only one of many conservative objections to a VAT.  (No country imposing a VAT has ever abolished its corporate or individual income taxes, although excise and other taxes were often replaced.)

The irony is that the VAT is probably the best tax ever conceived from a conservative point of view. As a broad-based tax on consumption, it creates less economic distortion per dollar of revenue than any other tax – certainly much less than the income tax…”

“…A VAT would address a common conservative concern about the growing percentage of the population that pays no federal income taxes. In 2011, 46 percent of all returns had no federal income tax liability according to the Tax Policy Center.  It’s unrealistic to think that income taxes will be imposed on such people once they have become exempt. A VAT would be a way of getting all Americans to pay for the federal government’s general operations…”

“…Perhaps the strongest evidence that the VAT was considered the conservative tax reform is that it is the foundation of the flat tax, which is still supported by practically every conservative tax reformer. The flat tax, originally devised by Hoover Institution scholars Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, is a subtraction-method VAT with one twist; businesses are permitted to deduct cash wages paid from the base on which they calculate the VAT. Workers pay the same rate on their wages less only a personal exemption. The purpose of this adjustment is to create transparency so that everyone sees the tax they are paying, and to redress its regressivity.

This is not the only case of conservatives supporting a VAT when it suited them to do so. When former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, proposed a VAT plus a flat rate income tax in 1992, this was widely hailed by supply-side economists such as Arthur Laffer and Gary Robbins. Similarly, conservatives have recently embraced a proposal that would have replaced California’s state income tax with a VAT.

In Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Republican Party’s nominee for vice president in 2012, received high praise from conservatives for his “Fiscal Roadmap” plan that would eliminate the national debt by slashing spending. But its first version would also have replaced the corporate income tax with what he called a Business Consumption Tax that is, again, a type of VAT. Sen. Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, generally considered to be the most conservative member of the Senate, cosponsored this legislation.

Nevertheless, whenever a VAT for the U.S. is suggested, conservatives are the first to denounce the idea. It is an article of faith among them that the VAT is a money-machine that must be fought to the death…”


Porter, Eduardo, “Broader Tax For Fighting Inequality,” New York Times, 11/28/12

“…Progressive taxes make it hard to raise money because they distort people’s behavior. They encourage taxpayers to reduce their tax liability rather than to increase their pretax income. High corporate taxes encourage companies to avoid them. High taxes on capital income also encourage avoidance and capital flight. High income tax rates on top earners can discourage work and investment, too. So trying to raise a lot of money with our progressive tax code would probably not achieve the goal and could damage economic growth.

Big-government social democracies, by contrast, rely on flatter taxes to finance their public spending, like gas taxes and value-added taxes on consumption. The Nordic countries, for instance, have very low tax rates on capital income relative to income from work. And they have relatively high taxes on consumption. In Denmark, consumption tax revenue amounts to about 11 percent of the nation’s economy. In the United States, sales taxes and excise taxes on cigarettes and other items amount to roughly 4 percent.

Liberal Democrats have long opposed them because they fall much more heavily on the poor, who spend a larger share of their incomes than the rich. But these taxes have one big positive feature: they are difficult to avoid and produce fewer disincentives to work or invest. That means they can be used to raise much more revenue.

Public finances are under strain today on both sides of the Atlantic, as governments struggle to cope with our long global recession and the aging of the baby boom generation. In Southern Europe, the pressure to pare back universal welfare systems is intense. In the United States, political leaders on both sides of the partisan divide have realized that even our relatively meager package of social goods cannot be sustained with our slim tax take.

But the United States has one option that most of Europe’s flailing economies do not. Its tax revenue is so low, comparatively, that it has more space to raise it. A more efficient, flatter tax schedule would allow us to do so without hindering economic activity.

Bruce Bartlett, a tax expert who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, told me last week that he thought federal tax revenue could increase to 22 percent of the nation’s economic output, well above its historical average of 18.5 percent, without causing economic harm. If President Obama tries to go down this road, however, he may have to build a flatter tax code.

“We should reform the tax system, no question,” William Gale, a tax policy expert at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, wrote in an e-mail. “We are going to need to move beyond the current set of tax instruments to raise the needed revenues — a VAT and or a carbon tax seem like the obvious ways to go.” And Mr. Bartlett, who writes a column for The New York Times’s Economix blog, also pointed out: “We can’t get all the revenue we need from the rich. Eventually, everyone will have to pay more.” “



Alm, James and Asmaa El-Ganainy, “Value-added Taxation and Consumption,” Tulane University Economics Working Paper 1203, July 2012

Does the value-added tax affect consumption?  Using a sample of fifteen EU countries over the period 1961-2005…we find that the effective VAT tax rate is negatively correlated with the level of aggregate consumption.  More precisely, a one percentage point increase in the VAT rate leads to about a one percent reduction in the level of per capita aggregate consumption.  This result is consistent across various estimators, alternative time periods, and additional explanatory variables.  To our knowledge, these estimation results are the first attempt to include explicitly and to estimate directly the effects of the VAT on consumption behavior.

Our results have the clear implication that policymakers should consider the potential impact of the VAT on households’ consumption decision when designing a VAT.  Our results are also consistent with the often-stated view of proponents of consumption taxes that taxing consumption rather than income generates more savings, and so leads to higher growth.

Of course, there are many considerations that influence any decision to tax consumption versus income.  The effects on consumption choices are clearly important, but other dimensions also matter: how are other aspects of behavior (e.g., labor supply, portfolio choice, tax evasion)affected, what are the distributional effects of different forms of taxation, how does a country make the transition from one major tax base to another, what are the administrative dimensions of taxing different tax bases, how are different levels of government affected by income versus consumption taxes, how does consumption versus income taxation affect the international decisions of firms and individuals, to name just a few.  Even so, our results demonstrate that greater use of the VAT has led, at least in EU countries to less consumption and more savings, a finding that has broader implications for the choice of a consumption tax versus an income tax.

Toder, Eric, Jim Nunns and Joseph Rosenberg, “Implications of Different Bases for a VAT,” Tax Policy Institute, 02/12

“The federal budget outlook is unsustainable over the long run.  The latest (June 2011) projections by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)1 show the ratio of publicly-held debt held to GDP, which was 40 percent at the end of 2008, rising from 69 percent in 2011 to 187 percent in 2035 under their Alternative Fiscal Scenario, which assumes that current federal spending and revenue policies will largely continue.  Even under CBO’s Extended-Baseline Scenario, which assumes that all of the 2001-2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012, the AMT will no longer be patched, and that Medicare and other health-related spending will be held to modest growth rates, debt held by the public is projected to rise to 84 percent of GDP by 2035.  Rising debt levels increase the chance of a fiscal crisis, a sudden spike in the interest rate the federal government must pay on its debt that would necessitate large adjustments to spending, revenues, or both.  More gradual adjustments could be better designed and less damaging to long-run growth and social welfare.

Two prestigious groups, the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, both recommended a sweeping set of changes in taxes and spending policies to address future deficits and eventually reduce the ratio of publicly held debt to GDP below its current level.2  The Debt Reduction Task Force recommendations included adopting a “debt reduction sales tax” structured as a value-added tax (VAT).  A VAT is a broad-based tax on household consumption that is collected incrementally by businesses at each stage of their production and distribution of goods and services.  VATs are an important source of revenue for nearly all countries, and among major countries, the United States is alone in not imposing a VAT.

VATs around the world typically exclude certain consumption items from the VAT base for policy or administrative reasons.  This paper describes the policy and administrative reasons for exclusions from the VAT base and the design of a rebate as a substitute for base exclusions to address distributional objectives.  The paper then analyzes the effect of possible exclusions from a U.S. VAT base or a rebate on the VAT rate necessary to achieve a specific deficit reduction target and on the distribution of the tax burden.   Two options for the base of a VAT are analyzed: a broad base, which would allow the lowest rate necessary to meet the specific target for deficit reduction, and a narrower base that is designed to address the distributional effects of a VAT by omitting items that are disproportionately consumed by lower-income households.  A higher rate would be required on this narrower base to meet the deficit reduction target.  A third VAT option that takes a different approach to addressing the distributional effects of a VAT also is analyzed.  This option uses the broad base of the first option but provides a rebate to households, so it would also require a higher rate than the first option to meet the deficit reduction target.”