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…”

Graetz, Michael J., Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, Statement At a Hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee on Tax Reform and Consumption-Based Tax Systems, July 26, 2011

“…It is the central contention of my book, and the centerpiece of my proposal, that the fundamental reform required to create an internationally competitive, administratively efficient, and viable long-term solution to our funding requirements is to make a different choice.  We should eliminate the income tax for the overwhelming majority of Americans and replace it with a broad-based tax on sales of goods and services. We should return the income tax to its original, manageable purpose: the collection of a simpler tax on high-income earners who tend to have multiple income sources. And we should dramatically lower our corporate income tax rate. In order to do that, we need to tax consumption, sales of goods and services.”…

“…For those unfamiliar with my Competitive Tax plan, it has four key pieces:

• First, enact a value added tax – a broad based tax on sales of goods and services now used by more than 150 countries worldwide.  We are the only OECD country that does not have a VAT or, as it is sometimes called, a goods and services tax.

 • Second, use the revenues produced by that consumption tax to finance an income tax exemption of $100,000 of family income and to lower substantially the individual income tax rate on income above that amount.

 • Third, lower the corporate income tax rate to 15%, or at most 20%.

 • Fourth, replace the earned income tax credit and provide low and middle income families with tax relief from the VAT burden through payroll tax offsets and debit cards….”

 “…Opponents of value-added taxes often complain that they are regressive, and if such a sales tax were to fully replace our income tax, as proponents of the so-called Fairtax urge, tax burdens would indeed be shifted down the income scale.  So I designed my Competitive Tax Plan in a manner generally to change neither the progressivity of the tax system nor the amount of revenue produced under current law.  This allows my proposal to be evaluated by comparing it directly to the current system, and it follows the important precedent of both distributional and revenue neutrality that facilitated enactment of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, our last major tax reform…”

“…A great advantage of my Competitive Tax plan is that, by introducing a border-adjustable value added tax on sales of goods and services and thereby decreasing our nation’s need to rely so heavily on the income tax to finance our government’s spending, we can have a tax system that is fair and yet substantially more favorable to economic growth than our current system…”

Graetz, Michael J., “VAT as the Real Key to Tax Reform,” The TaxProf Blog, 02/28/11

“Combining a VAT with major reform of corporate and indi-
vidual income taxes would permit us to achieve whatever
revenue and distributional targets our political process deter-
mines to be appropriate. Reforming our income taxes does not
preclude Congress from dedicating an amount of VAT revenue to
funding specific expenditures, such as healthcare. And changes
like these can be phased in on a timetable appropriate to our
economic circumstances at the time of enactment. In contrast,
simply adding a VAT to our existing tax system to address the
need for more revenue would waste a once-in-a-lifetime oppor-
tunity for real and lasting income tax reform.”
This is an excerpt from one of 26 commentaries on VAT published by The TaxProf Blog.