Why the U.S. needs a Value Added Tax

By Christopher Swann
September 8, 2009

Swelling deficits and an aging population leave few palatable options when it comes to taxes.

The best choice by far would be the creation of a new value added tax — a “money machine” that can bring in huge sums with relatively little effort. America is alone among rich nations in not charging a VAT, and its continued unwillingness to do so will make it harder to cope with the fiscal challenges ahead.

Giving birth to a new tax will certainly not be an easy sell. The stunning 1980 reelection defeat of Al Ullman, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who had advocated a VAT, is still a warning to American politicians.

The timing of a new tax on consumption may also seem suspect. Aren’t we supposed to be getting Americans back into the malls?

VAT, however, is worth the risk. It could yield enough money to pay for healthcare reform, as well as a meaty cut in income tax and a reduction in the deficit. It could also be done without destroying Obama or the Democrats.

Unlike taxing the rich — which has emerged as a favorite strategy of many Democrats — a VAT is extremely easy to collect. This is partly because it is gathered from each producer in a chain.

Take bread. The farmer, miller, baker and grocer all pay their share of the tax. If the grocer cheats, the government loses only a quarter of its tax. Furthermore, each producer has incentive to make sure its suppliers have paid VAT. The miller becomes liable for the farmer’s share of VAT unless he can prove the tax has already been paid. VAT collection polices itself to a large extent. The sums of money that could be raised are immense, making it easier to strike a political compromise. Exactly how lucrative VAT would be depends largely on which goods are exempt.

Canada, for example, gives up about a third of potential revenue by excusing food, drugs and transportation from the tax. Even if the United States did the same, a 10 percent tax rate could raise $500 billion a year, according to Eric Toder, an analyst at the Tax Policy Center.

Raise the rate to 15 percent and you get $725 billion. (In comparison, income taxes are expected to yield $968 billion this year.)

This might be hard to square with President Obama’s commitment not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year. VAT is a regressive tax — eating up a larger share of the income of lower wage groups.

This could be offset through the income tax system. In addition, there would be a natural counterbalance if the tax were used to fund an expansion of healthcare. With current health proposals expected to cost around $100 billion a year, there would be plenty of money to spare.

Obama could also borrow a trick from Margaret Thatcher, who used the proceeds from almost doubling VAT to slash British income taxes. A 15 percent VAT would give Obama tremendous leeway to simplify a Byzantine income tax system and to cut rates.

And introducing a VAT need not derail economic recovery. Indeed, if the tax were introduced with a six-month delay it could even provide Americans with an incentive to bring forward spending.

America cannot temporize forever. The aging population will demand both painful spending cuts and tax increases. If the burden is placed on income taxes alone then any increase in rates will be monumental.

When politicians finally confront the looming fiscal crisis, a VAT would be an invaluable tool.

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