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Posts Tagged ‘Flat Tax’

According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

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Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden – sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

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General Electric has received a lot of unwelcome attention for paying zero federal income tax in 2010, even though it reported $5.1 billion in U.S. profits. This is a good news-bad news situation.

The good news is that GE’s clever tax planning deprived the government of revenue. And I’m in favor of just about anything that reduces the amount of money that winds up in the hands of the most corrupt and least competent people in America (a.k.a., the political class in Washington).

The bad news, though, is that politicians can engage in borrow-and-spend vote-buying behavior, so depriving them of revenue doesn’t seem to have much impact on the overall burden of government spending.

Moreover, there are good ways to cut taxes and not-so-good ways to cut taxes. Special loopholes for politically powerful companies and well-connected insiders are unfair, corrupt, and inefficient.And I’ve already written about GE’s distasteful track record of getting in bed with politicians in exchange for grubby favors.

Ideally, we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code (and the corporate side of the tax code makes the personal tax code seem simple by comparison) and replace it with a simple and transparent system such as the flat tax.

That way, all income would be taxed since loopholes would be abolished, but there would be a very low tax rate and no double taxation.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the best economic and policy journalists on the scene today, and this excerpt from his column explains what is right and wrong about GE’s tax bill.

GE allocates hundreds of talented minds to attempts at lowering taxes. I don’t blame GE for that. It’s probably worth it — which is exactly the problem. In a world with a simpler tax code — or better yet, with no corporate income tax — GE would spend those resources creating something of value. Again, this is a case where government creates a chasm between what’s profitable (gaming tax law) and what’s valuable for society. Also, this story demonstrates once again how Big Government hurts small business much more than it affects Big Business, which can afford to figure out a way around taxes.

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One of my many frustrations of working in Washington is dealing with perpetual-motion-machine assertions. The classic example is Keynesian economics, which is based on the notion that you magically create additional economic activity by having the government spend money instead of allowing the private sector to decide how it gets spent (in an especially bizarre display of this thinking, Nancy Pelosi actually said that subsidizing unemployment was the best way to create jobs).

Another example of this backwards analysis can be found in the debate over the IRS budget. The President is resisting a GOP proposal to modestly trim the IRS’s gargantuan $12.5 billion budget and his argument is that we should actually boost funding for the tax collection bureaucracy since that will mean more IRS agents squeezing more money out of more taxpayers.

Here are some excerpts from an Associated Press report about the controversy.

Every dollar the Internal Revenue Service spends for audits, liens and seizing property from tax cheats brings in more than $10, a rate of return so good the Obama administration wants to boost the agency’s budget.House Republicans, seeing the heavy hand of a too-big government, beg to differ. They’ve already voted to cut the IRS budget by $600 million this year and want bigger cuts in 2012. …IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told the committee Tuesday that the $600 million cut in this year’s budget would result in the IRS collecting $4 billion less through tax enforcement programs. The Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass a budget cut that big. But given the political climate on Capitol Hill, Obama’s plan to increase IRS spending is unlikely to pass, either. Obama has already increased the IRS budget by 10 percent since he took office, to nearly $12.5 billion. The president’s budget proposal for 2012 would increase IRS spending by an additional 9 percent — adding 5,100 employees. …Obama’s 2012 budget proposal for the IRS includes $473 million and 1,269 new positions to start implementing the health care law.

Unlike Keynesian economics, there actually is some truth to Obama’s position. The fantasy estimate of $10 of new revenue for every $1 spent on additional bureaucrats is clearly ludicrous, but it is equally obvious that many Americans would send less money to Washington if they didn’t have to worry about a coercive and powerful tax-collection bureaucracy that had the power to throw them in jail.

This is an empirical question, at least with regards to the narrow issue of whether more IRS agents “pay for themselves” by shaking down sufficient numbers of taxpayers. Reducing the number of IRS bureaucrats by 90 percent, from about 100,000 to 10,000, for instance, surely would be a net loss to the government since the money saved on IRS compensation would be trivial compared to the loss of tax revenue.

But that doesn’t mean that a reduction of 10,000 or 20,000 also would lead to a net loss. And it certainly does not mean that adding 10,000 or 20,000 more IRS agents will result in enough new revenue to compensate for the salaries and benefits of a bigger bureaucracy. Even left-wing economists presumably understand the concept of diminishing returns.

But let’s assume that the White House is correct and that more IRS agents would be a net plus from the government’s perspective. The Administration would like us to reflexively endorse a bigger and more aggressive IRS, but public policy should not be based on what is a “net plus” for the government.

There are two ways to promote better tax compliance. The Obama approach, as we’ve read above, is to expand the size and power of the IRS. Up to a point, this policy can be “successful” in extracting additional money from the productive sector of the economy.

The alternative approach, by contrast, seeks better compliance by lowering tax rates and reforming/simplifying tax systems. This course of action boosts compliance by making evasion and avoidance less attractive. People are much less likely to cheat if the government isn’t being too greedy, and they’re also more likely to comply if they think there is less waste, fraud, corruption, and favoritism in the tax code.

Let’s now put this discussion in context. Obama wants more IRS agents in large part to enforce his new scheme for government-run healthcare. Yet that’s a perfect example of what I modestly call Mitchell’s Law – politicians doing one bad thing (expanding the IRS) only because they did another bad thing (enacting a health care bill that made the tax code even more convoluted and punitive).

So instead of making the IRS bigger in response to a bad healthcare law, why not repeal that bad law and shrink the size of the IRS? Even better, why not junk the entire tax code so we can replace the IRS with a system that is honest and fair?

And if these big steps are not immediately feasible, at least cut the IRS budget so that awful laws are enforced in a less destructive manner.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video has additional details about the national nightmare we call the IRS.

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I spoke at the Tea Party Patriots convention earlier today. Great people, great crowd.

My job was to debate on the side of the flat tax over the fair tax. Several people asked for more information, and I promised to put this video on the blog. Long-time readers probably will have seen it before, but it’s always good to be reminded why we need tax reform – and also reminded why we can’t trust politicians with a new source of revenue.

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Here’s a video arguing for the abolition of the corporate income tax. The visuals are good and it touches on key issues such as competitiveness.

I do have one complaint about the video, though it is merely a sin of omission. There is not enough attention paid to the issue of double taxation. Yes, America’s corporate tax rate is very high, but that is just one of the layers of taxation imposed by the internal revenue code. Both the capital gains tax and the tax on dividends result in corporate income being taxed at least two times.

These are points I made in my very first video, which is a good companion to the other video.

There is a good argument, by the way, for keeping the corporate tax and instead getting rid of the extra layers of tax on dividends and capital gains. Either approach would get rid of double taxation, so the economic benefits would be identical. But the compliance costs of taxing income at the corporate level (requiring a relatively small number of tax returns) are much lower than the compliance costs of taxing income at the individual level (requiring the IRS to track down the tens of millions of shareholders).

Indeed, this desire for administrative simplicity is why the flat tax adopts the latter approach (this choice does not exist with a national sales tax since the government collects money when income is spent rather than when it is earned).

But that’s a secondary issue. If there’s a chance to get rid of the corporate income tax, lawmakers should jump at the opportunity.

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The Wall Street Journal uses the clash between the Steelers and Packers as an opportunity to make a much-need point about taxes. Because of Pennsylvania’s flat tax, Ben Roethlisberger keeps a greater percentage of his salary than Aaron Rodgers, who gets raped by Wisconsin’s “progressive” tax system. Packers fans shouldn’t worry about this, though, since even I’m not willing to claim that the negative impact of high tax rates on incentives will have any effect on the outcome of the game.

We won’t predict the winner of this Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. But we can report this much: The Steelers will get to keep a lot more of their season earnings, though both team’s players would be a lot richer if they played all of their home games in Dallas. Take the Packers’ fleet-footed quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He made $8.6 million in 2009, according to USA Today’s database of player salaries. Of that, we calculate he paid roughly $680,000 in state and $3.1 million in federal income and payroll taxes. Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t earn as much, but he got to keep a relatively larger chunk of his haul—$4.6 million of his $7.7 million salary. (This excludes taxes paid to states that tax players visiting on away games.) Unlike Wisconsin, which has a graduated income tax that charges top earners 7.75% on earnings over $220,000, Pennsylvania has a 3% flat rate. Even football players can behold the merit of a flat tax. Of course, both players would keep a lot more of their earnings if like quarterback Tony Romo (salary: $625,000) they played for the Cowboys since Texas levies no state income tax. On the other hand, Packer and Steeler fans will pay if they travel to Texas for the game since Texas’s beer tax is more than twice as high as their home state’s.

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