“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.”

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…”


White, James R., Director, Strategic Issues, GAO, “Value-Added Taxes: Potential Lessons for the United States from Other Countries’ Experiences,” Testimony Before the Committee on Ways and Means, July 26, 2011

“…Some available data from our study countries indicate a VAT may be less expensive and easier to administer than an income tax. In 2006, the tax administration agency in the United Kingdom measured administrative costs for the VAT to be approximately half a percent of revenue collected compared to over one and a quarter percent for the income tax. Officials at the New Zealand Inland Revenue Department also told us that administering their VAT was easier than administering some of their other taxes. For example, only 3 percent of VAT returns submitted to New Zealand’s revenue agency are found to have errors, compared to approximately 25 percent for income tax returns. ..”

“…One overriding lesson about VAT design is that, like our income tax system, adding tax preferences to the system may satisfy economic, distributional, or other policy goals but at a cost. Tax preferences—in the form of exemptions, zero rates, or reduced rates—often reduce revenue, add complexity, and increase compliance risks. To mitigate the increased risk, countries have imposed additional record-keeping and reporting requirements on businesses, delayed refunds, and done more auditing of businesses. The end result is an increase in compliance burden for businesses and administrative costs for the government…”



Altshuler, Rosanne, Department of Economics, Rutgers University, Testimony Before the Committee on Ways and Means, Hearing on Tax Reform and Consumption-Based Tax Systems, July 26, 2011

…“A VAT is a type of consumption tax that is similar to a retail sales tax but is collected in smaller increments throughout the production process. This form of consumption tax is part of the tax systems of nearly 150 countries worldwide. All OECD member countries except the United States have VATs. In 2007, revenues generated by the VAT represented almost 19 percent of the total tax revenues of OECD countries and about 20 percent of the total tax revenues of European OECD countries.

Adding a VAT to the U.S. federal tax system could help address the medium and long-term revenue shortfalls forecast for the United States. The VAT is particularly effective in raising substantial amounts of revenue in a relatively efficient manner and has proven to be an administrable tax.

If the U.S. were to adopt a VAT, it could rely on the experience and best practices of other countries in setting up and administering the tax. In addition to these attributes, the VAT has a number of other advantages. First, a portion of the revenues from a VAT could be used to finance reductions in statutory income tax rates. Two tax systems (a VAT and an income tax) with low tax rates may be superior from an efficiency and administration perspective to an income tax system with higher statutory rates. Second, given the size of projected future budget deficits, adding a VAT to our current system to generate revenues for deficit reduction alone would likely have positive effects on economic growth. Third, a pre-announced and phased in VAT might stimulate the economy by encouraging consumption in anticipation of the imposition of the tax.

Finally, while the states are likely to protest, a properly designed VAT may actually help force them to redesign or improve their retail sales taxes.”…

“…The VAT on its own cannot solve the country’s fiscal problems. And introducing a VAT has its own problems.  If we adopted the VAT, we would have to institute some form of rebate to offset its regressivity and make every effort to adopt the broadest possible base. We would need to increase IRS resources for administration and be attentive to a range of compliance issues. But we must recognize that near and long-term fiscal pressures will require that we raise more revenue from our tax system. The VAT is an efficient revenue raiser that is likely to be significantly less damaging to economic growth than increasing personal and corporate statutory rates. After considering the range of issues associated with adopting a VAT, I conclude that the United States may be best served by combining a base-broadening reform of the current income tax system with the introduction of a VAT.”




Hufbauer, Gary Clyde and Woan Foong Wong, “Corporate Tax Reform for a New Century,” Policy Brief, Peterson Institute for International Economics, April, 2011

“In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stressed four ingredients of American prosperity: faster innovation, better education, less deficit, and more jobs. As the president recognized in his address, the US free enterprise system drives the private sector to innovate, invest, and create jobs. This policy brief concentrates on how reforming the corporate tax system can strengthen the private sector, thereby spurring both innovation and jobs.

Since any change in the tax system potentially affects the federal deficit, we start by summarizing a fact that everyone knows: The US budget outlook is a fiscal disaster. We conclude with a prescription for fiscal sanity that is entirely consistent with corporate tax reform—namely a broad-based consumption tax.”…

“When Japanese, European, or other non-American MNCs export goods and services from their home territory, those sales enjoy a rebate of VAT or goods and services tax (GST).  Likewise, when non-American MNCs ship goods manufactured abroad back to their home countries, the imports must pay the home country VAT or GST.

At a typical rate of 15 percent, a VAT or GST is essentially equivalent—in terms of altering the price of traded goods and services relative to nontraded products—to an exchange rate devaluation of 15 percent. Since the United States so far has resolutely rejected the VAT or GST, American MNCs do not enjoy these tax incentives for exports and home production.”…

“Five anti-VAT arguments are often voiced in the public debate: first, its regressive character; second, its intrusion into revenue sources that have historically been assigned to the states; third, its role as a facilitator of excessive government spending; fourth, the prospect that the VAT or GST will acquire a “jagged profile” over time; and fifth the administrative burden of a new tax.

Briefly we rehearse answers to each of these arguments. Yet in the end a national consumption tax will be adopted by the United States, if at all, only when public finances are in peril and only when it is generally accepted, to paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that “[VAT is] the worst form of tax except all the others that have been tried.”…

“A national consumption tax fits Winston Churchill’s axiom. We recognize that many members of Congress and large segments of the public violently oppose a national consumption tax. Their arguments are strong but equally strong are the answers that can be put to their objections…(O)rganized labor rightly acknowledges that most US competitors have VAT systems, which favor exports. Without substantial new tax revenue of the magnitude that a VAT system could deliver, the United States must either sharply raise individual and corporate incomes taxes or rely on draconian budget cuts, much deeper than a large majority of Americans will support. These alternatives are highly implausible. The United States shares the federal spending habits of other advanced economics, and these habits are deeply ingrained, but the United States remains the only OECD country that has not implemented a national consumption tax. Circumstances compel the United States to join up.”



Domenici-Rivlin, “Restoring America’s Future,” The Debt Reduction Task Force, BipartisanPolicy.org, 11/17/10

“Phase-in a Debt Reduction Sales Tax (DRST)

The tax reforms described above greatly simplify the income tax system, and make it fairer and more economically efficient. The combination of reduced tax expenditures and lower individual and corporate rates, however, leaves federal revenue roughly unchanged through 2020 and does not raise enough revenue to reduce the debt sufficiently in the long term, as population aging and rising healthcare costs drive up the cost of entitlements. Building on the base of a greatly improved income tax, with strengthened provisions that support low- and moderate-wage working families and retirees, the nation can add an additional source of revenue to reduce the debt without sacrificing fairness or economic growth.

The Task Force proposes a new broad-based tax on goods and services, the Debt Reduction Sales Tax (or DRST), that will phase in over two years to a rate of 6.5 percent (3 percent in 2012, and 6.5 percent from 2013 onward). A national sales tax has many advantages compared to increases in income tax rates. It does not tax the return to saving and investment, so it will not provide a disincentive for long-run wealth accumulation or for the capital accumulation needed to generate economic growth. Unlike an increase in the corporate income tax rate, the sales tax does not provide an incentive to shift investment overseas. Because a sales tax is based on domestic consumption instead of production (see below), preferences for some goods and services, unlike income tax preferences, will not affect the relative costs of producing different goods and services in the United States, and therefore does not place some industries at a competitive disadvantage. The proposed DRST will be consistent with international norms and easy to coordinate with the tax systems of other countries, while allowing the United States to set whatever specific exemptions it deems appropriate.

The DRST will be designed roughly like the national sales taxes in effect in over 150 countries around the world, including all of our major trading partners. Businesses pay tax on all of their sales, but receive credits for taxes that their suppliers pay when they purchase materials and capital goods from other firms. Final consumers in the United States, however, will not be able to claim credits on their purchases. The resulting total tax will be the same as for a tax collected from retailers only, but collecting the tax in stages from all businesses has two very large advantages over the form of retail sales tax used by most states in the country.

First, collecting it in stages facilitates tax compliance because businesses that try to operate outside the system will lose their ability to claim credits for purchases from other firms. By contrast, under a retail sales tax, if the retailer fails to pay the tax, the tax that should have been imposed on the entire value of the goods and services he or she sells is lost to the government.

Second, collecting the tax in stages reduces the “cascading” that occurs with a retail sales tax, under which sellers have difficulty distinguishing between sales to other businesses and sales to final consumers. Under most current state retail sales taxes, an estimated 40 percent of receipts come from business-to-business sales; consequently, some goods and services bear several levels of tax, first when sold to a business and then when resold to the final consumer. In contrast, under a multi-stage tax, there is no need to separate sales to different purchasers; all sales are taxable, but business purchasers can wipe out the tax liability from the prior sale by claiming a credit for the tax that the supplier pays.

Following international practice, the DRST will exempt exports (allowing exporters to claim credits on purchases, but pay no tax on sales) and tax imports (requiring importers to pay tax on sales, but allowing them no credit on purchases). Contrary to some assertions, these rules do not amount to either an export subsidy or an import tax (and they are allowed under international trade agreements). These “border adjustments” merely ensure that the tax base is domestic consumption only. Goods and services produced for domestic use bear the same tax burden whether produced in the United States or overseas. Goods and services produced for foreign consumers bear no U.S. sales tax, whether exported from the United States or produced overseas.

The tax will fall on a very broad base that includes most goods and services. However, government services, services produced by charitable organizations, educational activities, the imputed value of financial services (services that financial institutions finance by paying reduced interest to depositors instead of charging them explicit fees – like free checking) and government subsidies to health care (Medicare and Medicaid expenses, for example) will be exempt from the tax. Housing rents will be untaxed, but sales of new homes and rental properties will be taxable. All other consumer goods and services, including privately funded healthcare costs, food and beverages, clothing, legal and accounting services, and many other items not typically captured by state retail sales taxes, will be included in the tax base. Overall, about 75 percent of personal consumption expenditures will be subject to tax.

Using a broad base to tax consumption follows the practice of countries that have recently adopted national sales taxes (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), compared with those that enacted such a tax earlier (the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries), whose tax bases are typically riddled with exemptions. A broad base allows lower rates to raise the same revenue as a narrow-base tax with higher rates. The broad base also creates many fewer compliance problems, because it avoids many issues that exemptions raise in determining which items are taxable and which are not. Exemptions for items that are considered necessities (food and clothing) – intended to make the tax less regressive – have little effect on the distribution of the tax burden because higher-income people generally consume the same broad classes of products and services, just higher-quality and more-expensive versions. Thus, exemptions are typically ineffective. A better way to make a sales tax less regressive is to give taxpayers a broad-based rebate, either as a lump-sum grant or an earnings subsidy – as the Task Force plan does.

The main objections raised to a national sales tax of this type are that it is regressive; it interferes with a revenue source that has historically been used exclusively by the states; and it would be a hidden tax that would facilitate excessive growth in government spending. However, these problems are either overstated or surmountable:

• Regressive Burden of the Tax: Merely substituting a sales tax for our current income tax would make the tax system less progressive, raising tax burdens on low- and middle-income families and lowering tax burdens on high-income families. But a more-modest sales tax can be one component of a tax system that is, on balance, even more progressive than today’s, just as the regressive payroll tax is part of our currently progressive federal tax system. The Task Force plan offsets the burden of the DRST on lower-income families through enhanced tax benefits in the form of new refundable credits for children and for the first $20,300 of each worker’s earnings.

• Competition with the States: States may object to a new multi-stage federal sales tax on the ground that it interferes with a tax base that has to date been reserved for them. But state retail sales tax bases have been eroding over time, as untaxed services account for a growing share of economic activity, and more and more products sold on the Internet have escaped state sales tax collections. States will benefit from piggy-backing their taxes on top of a broad-based federal sales tax. State tax authorities will benefit from access to IRS data from sales tax returns, just as they now rely on the IRS to help them enforce state income taxes. The recent experience with Canada’s goods and services tax suggests that sales taxes of sub-national governments can co-exist with a national multi-stage sales tax within a federal system.

• A Sales Tax as a “Money Machine”: A sales tax need not be hidden; the law can require that the amount of tax be itemized on sales receipts, as is now the practice in Canadian provinces and in many U.S. states. It would be no easier for Congress to raise the DRST than to raise income tax rates. Moreover, the 6.5 percent level of the DRST will be sufficient to keep the public debt stabilized below 60 percent of GDP for the foreseeable future.”