Mankiw, N. Gregory, “One Way to Fix the Corporate Tax: Repeal It,” The New York Times, 08/23/14

“Perhaps the boldest and best response to corporate inversions is to completely rethink the basis of corporate taxation. The first step is to acknowledge that corporations are more like tax collectors than taxpayers. The burden of the corporate tax is ultimately borne by people — some combination of the companies’ employees, customers and shareholders. After recognizing that corporations are mere conduits, we can focus more directly on the people.

A long tradition in political philosophy and economics, dating back about four centuries to Thomas Hobbes, suggests that the amount that a person consumes is the right basis for taxation. A broad-based consumption tax asks a person to contribute to support the government according to how much of the economy’s output of goods and services he or she enjoys. It doesn’t matter whether the resources for that consumption come from wages, interest, rent, dividends, capital gains or inheritance.

So here’s a proposal: Let’s repeal the corporate income tax entirely, and scale back the personal income tax as well. We can replace them with a broad-based tax on consumption. The consumption tax could take the form of a value-added tax, which in other countries has proved to be a remarkably efficient way to raise government revenue.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/upshot/one-way-to-fix-the-corporate-tax-repeal-it.html?emc=eta1&_r=0&abt=0002&abg=1

Improve Obamacare: Single-Payer (VAT) & Multiple Providers

In 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine published an article titled “Healthcare Vouchers, A Proposal for Universal Coverage” by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD and Victor Fuchs, PhD.  At the time, Dr. Emanuel was Chief of the Department of Bioethics at National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Fuchs was Professor of Economics and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University.

(This proposal was updated and presented in detail in 2008 in a book: “Universal Healthcare, Guaranteed, A Simple Secure Solution for America,” Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Public Affairs, Jackson, TN.)

The Universal Healthcare, Guaranteed plan called for eliminating – for corporations – the direct burden of healthcare insurance, and providing healthcare vouchers to be used in a health insurance exchange that could also include Medicare.  The vouchers were to be funded by a dedicated Value Added Tax.  This method of funding the vouchers would have broad economic benefits.

The Value Added Tax is monetarily equivalent to a sales tax.  It differs in that VAT is added at each stage of production and distribution rather than only at the retail level.  Credits are taken for taxes paid at each stage, so the tax does not cascade (no taxes on taxes).  Unlike a retail sales tax, however, VAT is recognized under GATT rules (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) as a border-adjustable tax, i.e., subtracted from exports and added to imports.  This feature eliminates the burden of government expenditures from the price/value competition of goods and services crossing international borders.  Both domestically produced goods and imports are taxed the same.

The U.S. does not employ a VAT, which results in a competitive disadvantage in trade.  All our trading partners have a significant portion of taxes paid by VAT’s, so goods exported from those countries are coming in cheaper by the percentage VAT.  How much cheaper?  Cars from Germany, 17% cheaper.  Goods from China, 19% cheaper.  The Emanuel/Fuchs plan for healthcare vouchers would require a VAT of around 12% to cover everyone under 65 (with Medicare still covering those older). At 12%, the healthcare VAT percentage would be about the average percent of our trading partners’ VAT’s.  Imports would be equally burdened by the cost of U.S. healthcare, and our exports would no longer carry the cost of healthcare in their prices.  We could expect domestic production to be more competitive at home and abroad, fueling economic and job growth.  

The VAT would replace healthcare insurance provided by companies and individual insurance premiums.  Many corporations currently pay around 15% of wages for healthcare insurance premiums.  Ford Motor Company, for example, spends more for healthcare premiums than it does for the steel in its cars.  Again, companies would be freed of this direct insurance cost. 

But would the burden of the VAT be fairly distributed?  Some companies would increase wages to assist employees, and competition suggests those who did not would not attract the best workers.  Health insurance by companies became a method of competition in the marketplace for employees when wages were frozen during World War II, and companies added to this benefit to remain competitive.  Government, too, could assist with VAT payments through the EITC (subsidy to the poor and lower wage earners).

Emanuel and Fuchs addressed that question: “Some people reflexively reject a value-added tax as regressive. However, the distributional impact of the voucher proposal requires looking at the benefits as well as the tax burden. All things considered, the program is progressive, since it implicitly subsidizes the poor. It is not an accident that countries such as Norway and Sweden, which provide universal health coverage, make substantial use of value added taxes to fund social programs.” 

There is resentment in some quarters about the expensive cost of free services in hospital emergency rooms and obstetrics units.  But, with a VAT paying for healthcare benefits, everyone would be contributing towards these benefits.  And, since wealthier consumers purchase more goods and services, they would be paying for a greater proportion of the VAT receipts, adding to progressivity.  Furthermore, because the VAT would be dedicated to healthcare vouchers, the public would have a visual check on the cost of demanding more medical services, and, perhaps, be somewhat self-limiting.

So, why didn’t Congress embrace the Emanuel/Fuchs plan?  Republicans have been wary of introducing another tax base that would be used as a money machine for bigger government. Some Democrats fear VAT would be too regressive.  Larry Summers put it this way: “The reason the U.S. doesn’t have a VAT is because liberals think it’s regressive and conservatives think it’s a money machine. We’ll get a VAT when they reverse their positions.” 

The Affordable Care Act will educate the public on the use of healthcare exchanges.  A smart Congress would do well to explore a dedicated Value Added Tax to fund healthcare vouchers used in the insurance exchanges.

(See the 9-minute video to learn how VAT would grow the economy and jobs – including a clear explanation by Bill Clinton)

Sullivan, Martin A., “U.S. Tax Exceptionalism,” TaxAnalysts.com, 09/16/13

“The United States is the only nation of any significant size without a VAT. The United States also has the world’s highest corporate tax rate. Those two facts are not unrelated. Despite ever-tightening budgets, governments around the world over the last two decades have steadily reduced their corporate tax rates. How were they able to do this? They made up lost corporate tax revenues by relying more heavily on their VATs…

…For economists this is a no-brainer. The corporate tax–with its arbitrary and excessive burden on the profits of certain businesses–is our most damaging tax. A broad-based consumption tax, like a VAT — which unlike the income tax is not inherently biased against saving and investment — causes the least harm to the economy. Replacing corporate tax revenues with consumption tax revenues is the most straightforward way to improve America’s tax competitiveness. Everything else is just nibbling around the edges.

Of course, that move would make a tax system less progressive. To address this, economists suggest providing rebates to low-income households to make up for their disproportionate burden. Another idea that does not get enough discussion is to simply accept that a more competitive tax system will become more regressive and to use additional VAT funds to expand social programs to help America’s struggling poor and middle class.

It is not the political left, however, that is the main obstacle to the U.S. adopting a VAT. Conservatives are dead set against the idea even though they hate the income tax and at every opportunity seek to reduce taxes on saving. That is because they fear the VAT is a money machine that, once in place, will make it too easy for government to expand to European levels. In contrast, conservatives and business groups outside the United States loudly endorse the expansion of VATs as good replacements for corporate taxes. Whether or not those fears are well founded, we must recognize that as long as we adopt the approach of relying primarily on income and corporate taxes to fund our government–whatever size it is–we are stifling U.S. competitiveness while the rest of the world moves ahead.”

http://www.taxanalysts.com/taxcom/taxblog.nsf/Permalink/MSUN-9BLEG5?OpenDocument

Brooks, David, “Let’s Talk About X,” The New York Times, 11/30/12

“…Even the 1986 reform, which closed loopholes and lowered rates, didn’t do much to increase growth. Even after the reform was passed, people were paying the same amount in taxes, so they faced the same basic incentives.

If you closed loopholes and raised rates, as we’d have to do this time around, then you would make the incentives worse. Raising top tax rates may not be as cataclysmic for the economy as some have argued, but this is still one of the most growth-killing ways to raise revenue.

In other words, if we’re going to simultaneously address our two most pressing needs — raising revenue and boosting growth — we’re going to have to break free from the 1986 paradigm.

That means asking the basic question: What is the single biggest problem with the tax code? It’s not the complexity, bad as that is. The biggest problem is that it rewards consumption and punishes savings and investment.

You can’t fundamentally address that problem within the 1986 paradigm. You can address it only through a consumption tax. This idea is off the table right now, but reality will inevitably drive us toward it. We have to have a consumption tax if we want to both grow the economy and reduce debt.

But isn’t a consumption tax regressive since poor people spend a bigger share of their incomes than rich people? The late David F. Bradford of Princeton University effectively solved that problem with his so-called X Tax, which has recently been championed by Alan D. Viard of the American Enterprise Institute and others. Under the X Tax, you wouldn’t pay the consumption tax at the cash register. Businesses would be taxed on their cash flow, taking an immediate deduction for investments rather than depreciating them over time. Households would pay tax at progressive rates on their wages but would not pay tax on income from savings.

The X Tax effectively taxes the money you spend right now and rewards savings and investment. The government could raise a chunk of revenue this way and significantly boost growth with little or no change in how tax burdens are distributed between rich and poor. Most economists vastly prefer consumption taxes to income taxes.

The other complaint is that a consumption tax is politically impossible to get passed. There are, indeed, political difficulties. But there would be huge political difficulties if we try to do another 1986-style act next year. Every special interest will fight every loophole closing. And after all that, the country would get very little benefit in return. The political barriers to an X Tax are no greater, and we would actually address our problems…”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/opinion/Brooks-lets-talk-about-x.html

 

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.” “

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/28/business/combatting-inequality-may-require-broader-tax.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

 

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.

Lind, Michael, “A Radical Tax Solution,” Salon.com, 04/24/12

“Michael Graetz of Columbia Law School points out that “the United States is a relatively low-tax country, but not with respect to income taxes … We typically collect about 12 percent of GDP in corporate and individual income taxes, while the OECD nations average about 13 percent. The biggest difference is that most other nations rely much more heavily on consumption taxes than we do: 11 percent of GDP in the OECD compared to about 5 percent in the United States. Indeed, we are the only OECD nation that does not impose a national level tax on sales of goods and services.”

This raises the possibility of a fourth option for American tax reform, distinct from the phony centrism of Simpson-Bowles (closing loopholes while lowering rates for the rich and cutting entitlements for the majority), radical conservatism (the single flat tax) and conventional progressivism (relying for more revenue chiefly on higher personal income taxes combined with bigger tax credits). The fourth option would reject the goal of revenue neutrality and acknowledge that, in a nation with an aging population, federal taxes can and should be permanently increased to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (These, like the rest of the American healthcare sector,  need to be made solvent by price reduction and price regulation, not rationing). Much or most of the needed additional revenue should come from the adoption by the federal government of a VAT.  A federal VAT’s revenues could be shared with state and local governments, partly replacing existing sales taxes.

 http://www.salon.com/2012/04/24/a_radical_tax_solution/singleton/

 

Porter, Eduardo, “A Tax Code of Politics, Not Practicality,” NYTimes.com, 04/10/2012

“Our byzantine tax code is built upon a longstanding political deal: Democrats wanted a tax scale with higher rates for richer Americans to finance social programs aimed at the poor and the middle class. Republicans countered by pushing for tax exceptions, exclusions and deductions that shielded the incomes of the rich from the taxman and reduced government revenue.

This compromise has left us with a loophole-riddled code that isn’t very good at raising money. The richest 1 percent of Americans, who make $1.5 million on average, pay 28 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That’s way below the top rate of 35 percent. The rest of us also pay little. The bottom 85 percent of taxpayers have an average federal tax rate of 12 percent. The poorest 25 percent pay less than 1 percent of their income — $77 a family, on average.

Compared to other developed countries, the United States doesn’t collect much tax at all. Tax revenue at all levels of government adds up to less than 25 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, putting us behind every other rich country and even some poor ones. Among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Mexico and Chile collect less in taxes. The average across the O.E.C.D. is 9 percentage points higher.”…

“…(F)ederal tax revenue has not surpassed 21 percent of the nation’s output. Last year it was under 15 percent. Not only is our tax code bad at raising money, it is also plagued with perverse incentives that, added up across the population, can push us to distort the economy and slow it down”….

“ …What would a better tax system look like? Most other rich countries have one. While each country has a different version, they share a core feature: they raise a lot of money taxing people’s consumption, at the point of sale.

Consumption taxes create fewer perverse incentives because taxing what people buy doesn’t affect their choices about work and investment. If anything, such a system might promote savings, generally good for growth. These taxes are also easy to collect and hard to evade. They don’t add complexity to your tax return. Because they produce few perverse incentives, they can be used to raise a lot of money.

Consumption taxes are supported by a vast majority of economists. They underpin Western Europe’s welfare systems, which are based on the proposition that all citizens are entitled to similar income support and services to guarantee a minimum standard of living, and that everybody should pay proportionately for them. Denmark and Sweden collect about 10 percent of their gross domestic product with a value-added tax, a modern tax on consumption.

In the United States, by contrast, states raise only 2.2 percent of G.D.P. through various sales taxes.  There is no federal consumption tax at all.

A federal consumption tax has been proposed more than once. A report last year by the Congressional Research Service found that for every 1 percent levied in a value-added tax, the federal government would raise up to $55 billion a year. This new source of money could help change the political deal underpinning our tax system and pave the way to cull loopholes and reduce our top tax rates.”

 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/business/economy/a-tax-code-of-politics-not-practicality.html

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.”

 http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/412501-Implications-of-Different-Bases-for-a-VAT.pdf

Clinton (Again) Endorses VAT

In his new book, “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Ecconomy,” Knopf, 11/08/11, President Bill Clinton again calls for (see TV interviews under “Audio/Video”) a shift away from income taxation to a consumption tax:

“Among wealthy nations, we now have the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world, and because of recent changes in other countries we’re now the only wealthy nation that taxes income earned overseas when it’s brought back home.  We’ve also fallen to seventeenth in the level of our research and development tax incentives.  We have to become more competitive.  Big corporations don’t get hurt by the current system.  They just put plants in other places, create good jobs there, and leave their earnings there.

In the future, we’ll have to design a progressive revenue system that relies more on personal income and consumption taxes, like the value-added tax, which also would help to increase our exports…making our products more affordable in other markets.”