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Archive for the ‘Flat Tax’ Category

In my fiscal policy speeches, I sometimes try to get a laugh out of audiences by including a Powerpoint slide with this image. Leading up to this slide, I talk about the Armey/Forbes flat tax and explain that it would eliminate the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple 10-line postcard. But I then warn that simplicity is not the same as low taxes and show the Obama slide.

But maybe jokes about Obama tax reform were a bit premature. According to the New York Times, the White House is giving serious consideration to a sweeping plan to streamline the tax system.

While administration officials cautioned on Thursday that no decisions have been made and that any debate in Congress could take years, Mr. Obama has directed his economic team and Treasury Department analysts to review options for closing loopholes and simplifying income taxes for corporations and individuals, though the study of the corporate tax system is farther along, officials said. The objective is to rid the code of its complex buildup of deductions, credits and exemptions, thereby broadening the base of taxes collected and allowing for lower rates — much like a bipartisan majority on Mr. Obama’s debt-reduction commission recommended last week in its final blueprint for reducing the debt through 2020. Doing so would offer not only an opportunity to begin confronting the growth in the national debt but also a way to address warnings by American business that corporate tax rates and the costs of complying with the tax code are cutting into their global competitiveness.

There’s actually much to like in the Administration’s potential plan. Lower tax rates will help the economy by improving incentives for productive behavior. And getting rid of distortions will further enhance growth since people no longer would have an incentive to make inefficient decisions just for tax purposes. And simplification could have a profound impact on cleaning up the horrible mess at the IRS. Moreover, a plan that trades lower tax rates for fewer tax distortions would be a welcome change from the poisonous soak-the-rich tax policy the White House has been pursuing.

This sounds like good news, but there’s a catch. The White House is looking at this exercise as a way to not only clean up the tax code, but also as a way of getting more money for politicians. This blog post explains why this is the wrong approach from an economic perspective, but politics will be an even bigger obstacle.

The American people want tax reform, but they don’t want more of their money going to Washington. And most Republican politicians have wisely pledged not to support legislation that increases the overall tax burden.

So the ball is in Obama’s court. If he genuinely wants to make America more prosperous and competitive, he should move forward with plans to lower tax rates and eliminate tax distortions, but he needs to tell his staff that tax reform should not a Trojan Horse for a tax increase.

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In the past 15 years, I’ve debated in favor of a national sales tax, testified before Congress on the merits of a national sales tax, gone on TV to advocate for the national sales tax, and spoken with dozens of reporters to explain why the national sales tax is a good idea. Even though I prefer the flat tax, I’ve been an ardent defender of sales tax proposals such as the FAIR tax because it would be a great idea to replace the current system with any low-rate system that gets rid of the tax bias against saving and investment. I even narrated this video explaining that a national sales tax and flat tax are different sides of the same coin – and therefore either tax reform proposal would significantly improve prosperity and competitiveness.

I will continue to defend the FAIR tax and other national sales tax proposals that replace the income tax, but I wonder whether this is a losing battle. Every election cycle, candidates that endorse (or even say nice things about) the FAIR tax wind up getting attacked and put on the defensive. Their opponents are being dishonest, and their TV ads are grossly misleading, but they are using this approach because the anti-FAIR tax message is politically effective. Many pro-tax reform candidates have lost elections in favorable states and districts, largely because their opponents were able to successfully demagogue against a national sales tax.

The Wall Street Journal reaches the same conclusion, opining this morning about the false – but effective – campaign against candidates who support a national sales tax.

In 16 House and three Senate races so far, Democrats have blasted GOP candidates for at one point or another voicing an interest in the FAIR tax. …FAIR tax proponents are right to say these Democratic attacks are unfair and don’t mention the tax-cutting side of the proposal, but the attacks do seem to work. Mr. Paul’s lead in Kentucky fell after the assault, and the issue has hurt GOP candidate Ken Buck in a close Colorado Senate race. In a special House election earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz used the FAIR tax cudgel on Republican opponent Tim Burns. In a district that John McCain carried in 2008, Mr. Critz beat the Republican by eight points and is using the issue again in their rematch. This is a political reality that FAIR taxers need to face. …in theory a consumption tax like the FAIR tax is preferable to an income tax because it doesn’t punish the savings and investment that drive economic growth. If we were designing a tax code from scratch, the FAIR tax would be one consumption tax option worth debating. But…voters rightly suspect that any new sales tax scheme will merely be piled on the current code.

We won’t know until next Tuesday what is going to happen in Kentucky and Colorado, and we won’t know until then what will happen in the other campaigns where the FAIR tax is an issue. But if there are two tax reform plans that achieve the same objective, why pick the approach that faces greater political obstacles?

FAIR tax proponents presumably could defuse some of the attacks by refocusing their efforts so that repealing the income tax is the top priority. This would not require any heavy lifting since all honest proponents of a national sales tax want to get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something that unambiguously prohibits any direct tax on income. So why not lead with that initiative, and have the national sales tax as a secondary proposal? This is what I propose in the video, and I think it would be much harder for demagogues to imply that a FAIR tax would mean a new tax on top of the corrupt system that already exists.

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There’s a wise old saying about “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But perhaps we need a new saying along the lines of “don’t subsidize the foot that kicks you.” Here’s a good example: American taxpayers finance the biggest share of the budget for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is an international bureaucracy based in Paris. The OECD is not as costly as the United Nations, but it still soaks up about $100 million of American tax dollars each year. And what do we get in exchange for all this money? Sadly, the answer is lots of bad policy. The bureaucrats (who, by the way, get tax-free salaries) just released their “Economic Survey of the United States, 2010” and it contains a wide range of statist analysis and big-government recommendations.

The Survey endorses Obama’s failed Keynesian spending bill and the Fed’s easy-money policy, stating, “The substantial fiscal and monetary stimulus successfully turned the economy around.” If 9.6 percent unemployment and economic stagnation is the OECD’s idea of success, I’d hate to see what they consider a failure. Then again, the OECD is based in Paris, so even America’s anemic economy may seem vibrant from that perspective.

The Survey also targets some very prominent tax loopholes, asserting that, “The mortgage interest deduction should be reduced or eliminated” and “the government should reduce further this [health care exclusion] tax expenditure.” If the entire tax code was being ripped up and replaced with a simple and fair flat tax, these would be good policies. Unfortunately (but predictably), the OECD supports these policies as a means of increasing the overall tax burden and giving politicians more money to spend.

Speaking of tax increases, the OECD is in love with higher taxes. The Paris-based bureaucrats endorse Obama’s soak-the-rich tax agenda, including higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, more double taxation of dividends, and a reinstated death tax. Perhaps because they don’t pay tax and are clueless about how the real world operates, the bureaucrats state that “…the Administration’s fiscal plan is ambitious…and should therefore be implemented in full.”

But even that’s not enough. The OECD then puts together a menu of additional taxes and even gives political advice on how to get away with foisting these harsh burdens on innocent American taxpayers. According to the Survey, “A variety of options is available to raise tax revenue, some of which are discussed below. Combined, they have the potential to raise considerably more revenue… The advantage of relying on a package of measures is that the increase in taxation faced by individual groups is more limited than otherwise, reducing incentives to mobilise to oppose the tax increase.

The biggest kick in the teeth, though, is the OECD’s support for a value-added tax. The bureaucrats wrote that, “Raising consumption taxes, notably by introducing a federal value-added tax (VAT), could therefore be another approach… A national VAT would be easier to enforce than other taxes, as each firm in the production chain pays only a fraction of the tax and must report the sales of other firms.”

But just in case you think the OECD is myopically focused on tax increases, you’ll be happy to know it is a full-service generator of bad ideas. The Paris-based bureaucracy also is a rabid supporter of the global-warming/climate-change/whatever-they’re-calling-it-now agenda. There’s an entire chapter in the survey on the issue, but the key passages is, “The current Administration is endeavouring to establish a comprehensive climate-change policy, the main planks of which are pricing GHG emissions and supporting the development of innovative technologies to reduce GHG emissions. As discussed above and emphasized in the OECD (2009), this is the right approach… Congress should pass comprehensive climate-change legislation.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD’s reflexive support for higher taxes appears even in this section. The bureaucrats urge that “such regulation should be complemented by increases in gasoline and other fossil-fuel taxes.”

If you’re still not convinced the OECD is a giant waste of money for American taxpayers, I suggest you watch this video released by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity about two months ago. It’s a damning indictment of the OECD’s statist agenda (and this was before the bureaucrats released the horrid new “Economic Survey of the United States”).

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Redistributionists hate the flat tax, and this sentiment is widely shared by other statists. These proponents of big government want the tax system to to punish success and generate loot that can be used to buy votes (though they don’t seem to understand that if they punish success too much, they won’t actually get any additional money to spend, but that’s a separate issue). This is why it’s been amusing to watch nations in Eastern Europe adopt flat tax systems and compete with each other to have the lowest tax rate. The people who actually lived under communism are the ones most anxious to jettison the notion that a tax system should be based on “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

But this doesn’t mean the flat tax is a permanent feature of the fiscal landscape in Eastern Europe. The high-tax nations of Western Europe don’t like the flat tax. The bureaucrats at the OECD and European Commission don’t like the flat tax. The IMF and World Bank don’t like the flat tax. And, of course, there are always redistributionists in every nation who resent success and politicians who want more power. So it is remarkable that flat tax systems have been so durable. But I’ve seen several stories in recent weeks that the flat tax in Romania might be repealed and replaced with a class-warfare system. This would be bad news, and could be even worse news if it was the beginning of a trend. The good news, though, is that the Prime Minister just announced that there are no plans to change the system (notwithstanding the misguided views of the nation’s Financed Minister). Tax-news.com reports.

During a recent gathering of small- and medium-sized enterprises in Bucharest, Romania’s Prime Minister Emil Boc announced government plans to maintain the flat tax of 16% imposed on income and profits, while also confirming plans to abolish the minimum tax from the autumn. Emphasizing that maintaining the flat tax was a fundamental objective of the government, Prime Minister Boc confirmed that the existing system would not be replaced by a progressive system of taxation, as it would not serve to generate additional income for the state budget. The government therefore has no reason to abolish the flat tax, Boc reasoned, which is also a symbol of stability and coherence of economic activity. Romanian Finance Minister Sebastian Vladescu had urged the government to move from the flat tax system of income tax, representing a bygone era, to a system of progressive rates, vital to supporting the state.

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Dan Mitchell recently appeared on MSNBC to explain why we should not be surprised to learn that more than $9 million dollars in home buyer tax credits were given to prison inmates who were clearly not new home owners.  This kind of waste is to be expected when Congress writes a 70,000+ page tax code that no one can understand, full of loopholes, credits or other goodies, and then expects a bunch of government bureaucrats to carry it out competently.

A simple flat tax, without all the complicated credits and other carve-outs that politicians slip into the current code, would largely eliminate this kind of waste.

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As if the residents of the Gulf Coast haven’t had it hard enough, the IRS is moving in to make sure they get their cut of any payouts from BP.  These government bureaucrats even have the chutzpah to pretend that their actions are benevolent and beneficial on the grounds that they are helping taxpayers understand the regulations they must comply with.  Of course, it’s Congress and the bureaucratic tax collection industry that have conspired to create such a tangled mess of regulations in the first place.

The Internal Revenue Service wants its cut from oil spill victims who receive BP payments for lost wages.

Under current law, BP payments for lost wages are taxable — just like the wages would have been, the IRS said in tax guidance issued Friday. Payments for physical injuries or property loss, however, are generally tax free. Payments for emotional distress? Taxable, though medical expenses related to the emotional distress are deductible.

…The IRS issued the guidance Friday to help spill victims sort through the law’s complexities. The agency has posted tax information for oil spill victims on its website and plans to hold forums in seven Gulf Coast cities on July 17 to help victims with tax troubles or questions.

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/06/25/insult-injury-irs-wants-taxes-bp-payments-oil-spill-victims-lost-wages/

If we had a simple flat tax, these residents would be able to spend less time trying to understand and comply with a 70,000+ page tax code, and more time doing important things like figuring out how they’re going to make a living now that their beaches are covered in oil.

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I gave a speech in Hungary about two weeks ago and now the government has announced a big step in the direction of better fiscal policy. According to Reuters, “Hungary’s new government plans to introduce a flat personal income tax of 16 percent from 2011, as well as a 15 percent cut in public sector wages.” Those are the headline initiatives, but the fiscal reform package includes other good policies. Here’s a blurb from the economist. 

After a three-day emergency cabinet meeting over the weekend, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, announced the government’s new economic programme this afternoon. The battered forint quickly jumped almost 2% in response. …The introduction of a 16% flat personal income tax is a daring move, and could have important repercussions beyond balancing the state’s books. Unemployment, or at least that element of it which is declared, is nudging 12%, and one reason is Hungary’s cumbersome bureacracy and heavy tax burden. Now Mr Orban has announced that corporation tax for companies with annual profits of less than 500m forints will be reduced from 19% to 10%. Ten more small and bothersome taxes are set to be abolished altogether.
http://www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2010/06/hungarys_cuts_0 

A few years ago, when several nations each year were adopting the flat tax, I arbitrarily decided that this rock classic would be the theme song of the tax reform movement. Any better suggestions?

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