James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The conservative case for a VAT

Dec 16, 2010 16:26 UTC

Over at NRO, Duncan Currie gives it his best shot:

Despite being more efficient than an ordinary sales tax, a VAT carries significant administrative costs, and piling it on top of the present U.S. tax structure would be a mistake. But using the VAT to eliminate a sizable amount of distortionary U.S. income taxes would yield a far more growth-friendly system than the one we have today. Over the long run, America must reorient its economy away from consumption and toward investment while boosting its dangerously low savings rate. A VAT is certainly not the only way to promote those objectives, but it should at least be part of the conversation.

In the piece,  Currie more or less outlines a proposal similar to what Gov. Mitch Daniels suggest a month or so ago: Lower existing taxes rates and add a VAT.  I don’t believe he means for this to be a tax increase. Higher government revenue would come from higher economic growth.  Of course, many liberals see a VAT as an efficient way to dramatically raise taxes. Roger Altman, perhaps the replacement for Larry Summers in the White House, has recommended a $500 billion VAT.

In theory, I don’t have a problem with the Currie-Daniels approach, though I would prefer to have the income tax repealed. I also don’t think it would automatically lead to higher and VAT taxes and higher and higher spending — especially not after reading this piece. As Currie notes:

Moreover, while the VAT can lead to higher spending, it does not inevitably have that effect. Consider what happened in Canada, where the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney implemented a federal VAT in 1991. Since then, as economists William Gale and Benjamin Harris of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center point out, “the size of the Canadian federal government has shrunk significantly.” The VAT rate started at 7 percent, but it has fallen to 5 percent under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which has also slashed corporate taxes.

In New Zealand, it was a neoliberal Labour government that embraced the controversial consumption tax. During the mid-1980s, Prime Minister David Lange and his finance chief, Roger Douglas, spearheaded a radical program of fiscal consolidation that included massive income-tax reductions, deep spending cuts, ambitious deregulation, and a 10 percent VAT.

COMMENT

Gale + Harris also mention that there is a sub-national level of VAT in many of the Canadian provinces which is added on to the federal rate, resulting in total VAT rates as high as 13%. Other provinces (the “hold-outs”) who have not harmonized their provincial sales taxes with the federal GST to form the Harmonized Sales Tax “HST”, continue to impose single stage sales taxes, which, unlike the VAT / HST, are not recoverable by way of deduction or input tax credit. This is with the exception of the natural resource rich province of Alberta which has no provincial sales tax. From 2013 Canada intends to impose a Corporate Tax rate of 15%. Certainly a decent model for any US VAT architects to look at.

Posted by CanuckinKL | Report as abusive

How a VAT would affect growth

Oct 14, 2010 19:00 UTC

Just how would tacking a 10 percent value-added tax onto the current tax system affect the economy? Well, an Ernst & Young study commissioned by the National Retail Federation came up with this result:

1. An add-on VAT would reduce retail spending by $2.5 trillion over the next decade. Retail spending would decline by almost $260 billion or 5.0 percent in the first year after enactment of the VAT.

2. An add-on VAT would cause GDP to fall for several years. The economy would lose 850,000 jobs in the first year, and there would be 700,000 fewer jobs ten years later. By comparison, a comparable reduction in the deficit through reduced government spending would have less adverse effects on the economy, and could have positive effects for economic growth.

3. Although lower deficits and debt would have positive long-run effects for the economy, most Americans over 21 years of age when the VAT is enacted would be worse off due to enactment of an add-on VAT. A VAT would have significant redistributional effects across generations, reducing real incomes and employment for current workers.

Me: Even though this is sponsored by a retailing trade group, the results are hardly shocking since an add-on VAT is a massive tax increase.  Replacing the current tax system with a consumption tax is one thing, but this would  take the US tax burden to record levels. And those levels would likely rise with time given the international experience with the VAT:

vat

COMMENT

I don’t think the combined HST rates in Canada run as high as 20%, even in the “hold-out” provinces, there is no provincial retail sales tax rates higher than 10.5%. The highest combined rate is actually in two harmonized provinces of Nova Scotia + P.E.I where the rate is 15 + 15.5% respectively. Compared to other GST / VAT countries this seems on the low side (NZ – 15%, Ireland 21(+1+1), UK 20…And don’t forget Canada will soon have a corporate tax rate of 15%, one of the lowest in the OECD.

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VAT Attack! Will business go for it?

Jul 12, 2010 15:22 UTC

This WSJ story implies Big Business would accept a value-added tax for several reasons:

First, the VAT raises a lot of money, and Congress and the White House need a lot to avoid politically difficult spending cuts. According to one recent estimate, a VAT of 5% would raise $161 billion a year in 2012, even assuming that lawmakers build in protections for lower-income people (such as exempting necessities from the tax).

Second, many U.S. multinationals increasingly suspect they might have little choice but to accept a VAT, or some similar tax, if they hope to avoid further increases in U.S. corporate income taxes, or even win cuts in current rates.  … Some companies are hoping a VAT would encourage Congress to streamline and lower the corporate tax, something they regard as critical given international trends.

Third, even a few domestic businesses are beginning to eye the VAT as a possibility, despite the considerable administrative burden it creates. That’s largely because value-added taxes are imposed on imports at the border, and refunded to domestic businesses on their exports, making a VAT an effective subsidy for U.S. producers, according to the advocates. (Some experts disagree.)

Me: Why the rush to raise taxes? Here is the formula: a) cut spending; b) create a more pro-growth tax system; c) see what sort of budgetary gap remains.  As the Japanese election shows, voters are dubious of the need for dramatically higher taxes.

COMMENT

A super-sales tax is the last thing we need for our consumer-demand driven economy.

As for the end of the Bush tax cuts, that’s due to the Republicans trying to use Enron accounting for the budget. They assumed they’d be able to extend them permanently even though that would have been 10 years in the future. Just like Enron saying the receive leg of their swaps would always turn around in enough time to make their earnings goals.

And if we move to a VAT, keep in mind two points. First, Europe uses the VAT to supplement the individual and corporate income taxes. Second, we’d see a wave of VAT tax shelters, just like Europe. There are such things, I’ve seen them pitched by accounting firms.

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One VAT to rule them all!

Jul 1, 2010 17:31 UTC

Just how big a value-added tax would it take to solve America’s budget woes through tax increases alone?  Monstrously big, according to the Tax Foundation:

taxfoundation

How Greek debt crisis could save America

May 24, 2010 22:21 UTC

It’s absurd. Uncle Sam is likely to run up an additional $11 trillion in debt over the next decade. But Washington only replies with minor budgetary tweaks. First, the Obama administration says it wants to freeze some domestic spending for three years. Then it creates a new healthcare entitlement program “paid for” through tax increases and unlikely spending cuts. Next up, the Obama administration creates a deficit reduction panel that not even its members think will work. And now the Obama administration wants new “rescission” authority to cut billions from congressional spending bills — excepts it’s “trillions” that are the problem. None of these measures favorably alters the budget’s perilous trajectory.

Little wonder that many observers think Washington will do nothing substantial about the exploding debt problem without some sort of financial market crisis. It is the bond market vigilantes that will come to the rescue and enforce fiscal discipline. Here is one scenario devised by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

Under this scenario, at some point financial markets or foreign lenders decide we are no longer a good credit risk, possibly due to debt affordability concerns. They conclude the United States cannot escape basic economic and financial “laws of gravity” forever. They stop buying our debt securities or demand dramatically higher interest rates due to increased perceived risk. With the sudden shift and large rise in interest rates, the economy goes into a severe recession. … Unlike the past two years, we cannot, however, borrow to stimulate the economy because the crisis was caused by excessive debt and lost confidence. … Creditors concerned with hyperinflation or even default will not buy U.S. debt.

Presumably, that would be the moment when Democrats unveil their “emergency fiscal plan” to calm markets through a massive value-added tax. It would be TARP all over again. But the costs would be many magnitudes higher. But I think the conventional political wisdom is deeply flawed. First, Americans intuitively understand that there is something deeply wrong about running trillion-dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see. Maybe deficits didn’t politically matter in the 1980s, but debt as a share of GDP was only 50 percent. Now it is 60 percent only its way to 100 percent in a decade.

This is why we didn’t see a second trillion-dollar stimulus. Although plenty of liberal economists though it was needed, even congressional Democrats understood that Stimulus 2.0 would not fly with voters freaked  by all the red ink.

Second, America doesn’t need a domestic debt crisis. Voters can easily track the one happening with Greece and the EU. Runaway spending. Overpaid civil servants. A loss of confidence. Trillion-dollar bailouts. Falling standards of living. National decline.

That all adds up to a pretty compelling case for action in America. And Republicans (along with fiscally responsible Democrats) who want to see true spending reform — of the sort outlined in Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America — would do well to frequently mention Greece on the campaign trail. Kind of a “don’t let this happen to us” sort of thing. They should also note that lower spending plus smart tax cuts to boost growth are the best recipe for restoring fiscal order — not massive tax increases which politicians will only divert to more spending.

COMMENT

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Mankiw on the VAT

May 3, 2010 17:02 UTC

A nice primer on the issues surrounding a value-added tax from Greg Mankiw. This is the key part for me:

Moreover, a VAT is the twin of the flat tax that conservatives sometimes advocate. To see why, imagine that we started with a VAT. Then we add a wrinkle: We allow businesses to deduct wages, in addition to the cost of goods and services. We also require households to pay a tax on their wage income.

Other than shifting the responsibility for the tax on wages from the business to the household, it might seem that we haven’t done anything significant. Indeed, we haven’t. But the new tax system would no longer be a VAT. It would be the flat tax that Robert E. Hall and Alvin Rabushka first proposed back in 1981.

Me: Wouldn’t the D-R compromise here be a Hall-Rabushka VAT as a revenue-neutral replacement for the income tax? See how to what extent it works its pro-growth magic before boosting it. But those would need to significant given the disruption converting a brand-new tax system would cause. Just eliminating investment taxes is a quick and easy way to a consumption tax.

Wealth taxes, Washington’s next bad idea

May 3, 2010 16:04 UTC

Some Democrats seem to have no problem raising the cost of capital.  Dividend taxes rates are scheduled to triple, while capital gains rates will only increase by a mere 60 percent. But as a I poke around the liberal idea factories here in Washington, I am hearing more and more about wealth taxes on the wealthy, just like they have in Europe.

This goes far beyond estate and property taxes.  In theory, even portfolios would be taxed on paper gains, from 1 percent to 3 percent. If applied to just the top 1 percent of taxpayers, such a tax could theoretically raise $300 billion in new revenue. Assuming, of course, all those rich folks didn’t hightail it to tax havens abroad. (Just ask Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey about capital flight in the fact of high taxes.) No wonder so many nations want to crack down on these pockets of economic freedom.

I would dismiss the idea as nonsense if it were not for the fact that Democrats a) constantly complain about U.S. income inequality, b) seem so cavalier about cranking up taxes on wealthier Americans and c) think boosting taxes is the only way to deal with the budget deficit.

COMMENT

If this were to pass for only the top 1 percent, and half of them left the US, what would be the net tax revenue afterward?

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Becker vs. Posner on the VAT

Apr 26, 2010 14:35 UTC

The online conversation between Gary Becker and Richard Posner is one of my favorite things on the web. Currently they are taking on the the idea of the US implementing a value-added tax. First a bit from Becker, as excerpted by me:

1) A flat VAT tax would be more efficient for two reasons than a progressive income tax that raises the same revenue: it does not discourage savings relative to consumption, and it induces fewer distortions on other behavior because it has flat rather than rising tax rates. A flat income tax eliminates the effects of rising tax rates, but still distorts savings behavior.

2) The downside of a value added tax to anyone concerned about growing government spending and taxing is very much related to its upside; namely, that a VAT is a more efficient and relatively painless tax. … For example, the VAT rate in Europe started low but now ranges from 15 to 25%, and averages about 20%. In Denmark, for example, the VAT rate was 9% in 1962, but quickly rose to 25% by 1992, and has remained at that level.

3) However, the problems is that a VAT would be introduced not as a partial or full substitute for personal and corporate income taxes, but rather as an additional tax. This would make it much easier to close the fiscal gap by maintaining or increasing government spending and overall tax levels.

4) Since high taxes and high levels of government spending would discourage economic growth and raise rather than lower the overall distortions in an economy, I am highly dubious about introducing a VAT into the federal tax system unless accompanied by a major overall of this system. One big improvement that does not involve a VAT would be to flatten the present income tax rates and greatly reduce the various exemptions, so that the tax basis is widened. Even then it is necessary to be vigilant about combating the incentives government officials have to increase flat taxes over time, whether they are flat income taxes or flat value added taxes.

Now Posner:

1) Because (assuming no exemptions) the tax base for a VAT is so broad—all goods and services—a VAT can generate enormous tax revenues at a low tax rate, which reduces the distortionary effect of the tax. … The VAT also avoids the double taxation of savings under a corporate plus individual income tax system, further encourages savings by making consumption more costly, and reduces the disincentive effects of heavy income taxation. … Of course the benefits of the VAT are greatest if it is substituted for income taxes and other inefficient taxes rather than being added to the existing tax system to generate additional tax revenues.

2) Becker’s main objection to the adoption of the VAT by the federal government, which is similar to the objection to taxes on Internet sales and indeed any new taxes that do not merely replace existing taxes, is that by increasing government revenues it will increase the size of government relative to the private economy, and if (as is doubtless true) government is less efficient, the result will be a reduction in economic welfare. … I agree but on the other side of the issue is our awful fiscal situation.

3) In light of the nation’s fiscal bind, the imposition of a federal VAT becomes a more attractive prospect. One immediate beneficial effect, provided that the VAT was not entirely additive to existing taxes but was coupled with some reduction in corporate and payroll taxes, would be a reduction in export prices and therefore an increase in exports and hence a reduction in our trade deficit, which is a contributor to our public debt. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade permits VAT to be rebated on exports, thus lowering the cost to the foreign buyers.

4) More important, the VAT would increase federal tax revenues with minimal distortion because it is an efficient tax. To the extent (even if modest) that it replaced less efficient taxes, it would increase economic efficiency and thus increase the rate of economic growth. Most important, by discouraging consumption in favor of savings, a VAT would reduce the interest rate on our public debt and the Treasury’s dependence on foreign lenders.

The reality behind the VAT

Apr 22, 2010 14:27 UTC

Over at the very fine TaxVox blog, Howard Gleckman writes a good explanatory piece on the current VAT debate. But this one  part really struck me:

Our current revenue system has reached its breaking point. To fix our terrible budget problem, we are going to have to cut spending. But we are also going to have to raise more revenue. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do so in the most efficient way possible. And that may lead us to a consumption tax in one form or another, Senate resolutions notwithstanding.

Me:  That was directed at conservative critics of the VAT.  Now from what I can tell, plenty of conservatives would have no problem with a VAT if it a) replaced the income tax and b) was designed to boost tax revenue by boosting economic growth.  And as far as a way of increasing the tax burden, the budget cuts are going to have to come first. Optimize government, try to quick the pace of GDP growth and then raise taxes if necessary.

COMMENT

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The latest on Obama and the VAT

Apr 22, 2010 13:51 UTC

OK, here is what President Obama said on CNBC to reporter John Harwood about a value-added tax:

HARWOOD: If reducing consumption is a good idea, could you see the potential for a value-added tax in this country?

OBAMA: You know, I know that there has been a lot of talk around town lately about the value-added tax. That is something that has worked for some countries. It’s something that would be novel for the United States. And before I start saying that this makes sense or that makes sense, I want a better picture of what our options are. And my first priority is to figure out how can we reduce wasteful spending so that, you know, we have a baseline of the core services that we need and the government should provide, and then we decide how do we pay for that. As opposed to figuring out how much money can we raise and then not have to make some tough choices on the spending side.

Me: Well,  I certainly agree with the general principle that we should optimize government and then see how much money we need.  But the important thing here is that a) despite Ways & Means Chair Sander Levin badmouthing the idea and b) 85 Senate votes against the idea, c) the White House won’t rule the idea out. Not all.   I also noticed that  the NYTimes has yet to run a correction on Hardwood’s piece that the WH has run the numbers on how much they think a 5 percent VAT would raise (nearly $300 billion a year). That, despite the WH saying they have not done so. It should also be noted that Obama seems to be qualifying his pledge to not raise middle-class taxes as applying only to income taxes.

COMMENT

“Obama seems to be qualifying his pledge to not raise middle-class taxes as applying only to income taxes.”

He has to, because other wise he’s already broken it for all the smokers who are happily uninsured and like to go tanning.

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