Domenici-Rivlin Ditch DRST (VAT), testimony before Senate Finance Committee, 06/19/12

Sen. Pete Domenici and Dr. Alice Rivlin appeared before the Senate Finance Committee in open session to discuss their plan for sweeping tax reform.  They emphasized the overarching point that additional revenue is needed to reduce the deficit.  After all prudent cuts are made to Medicare, and after means-testing Social Security, there will still be a need for additional revenue to meet the obligations of a growing retired population.

Senator Hatch asked for confirmation that the revised D-R plan as now presented would replace their original element of a Deficit Reduction Sales Tax, a VAT, with an increased Corporate Income Tax (CIT).  Dr. Rivlin confirmed in response, but added that they “both still like” the idea of the DRST, however there was “no appetite” in Congress for a VAT.

The fact that no one in the Senate has the courage to back a Value Added Tax is at once understandable and regrettable.  Introducing a VAT…even dedicated to deficit reduction…would create yet another new tax in addition to the CIT.  Senators would have a hard time convincing their constituents that this medicine would be in their best interest.  It just would not be politically viable.

The way to sell a VAT rests with outright replacement of the CIT, which is a broken cog in our tax system.

In the process of avoiding taxation, corporations employ accountants, tax attorneys, and lobbyists to find and create loopholes that will minimize their costs.  These specialists are hugely successful, particularly for the large multi-national corporations.  As a result, the CIT is riddled with many exceptions —for agricultural subsidies, off-shore profits, American cruise lines, literally hundreds upon hundreds.

The result is a complicated maze that only a team of specialists can navigate. And, who knows what’s right? Neither individuals nor corporations know for sure whether their taxes paid are more or less than they could or should be.  As Will Rogers said, “The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.” Ultimately, this crazy quilt of code has undermined trust in government.

The CIT has long been criticized for being too high and uncompetitive.  This is why our multi-nationals tend to park profits in countries with lower tax rates. Some multi-national corporations push the limits by incorporating overseas profit centers that are no more than a mailbox in a foreign land. Such legal non-compliance may be an ethical and moral question, but it makes for good after-tax profits.

The fundamental purpose of our tax system should be to efficiently collect revenue in a way that is equitable and minimally inhibits economic growth and domestic employment.  William Simon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said disparaging of our tax code: “The nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

Look at how unsuccessful the CIT really is.  Collections peaked as a percentage of federal tax receipts in 1952 at 32.1%.  Receipts averaged 21.3% of total revenues in the 1960’s, 16.1% in the 1970’s, 9.6% in the 1980’s, 10.5% in the 1990’s, 10.4% in the 2000’s.  In 2010, the CIT contributed 8.9% and in 2011 only 7.9%.

A 2011 study by Citizens for Tax Justice revealed that the 280 most profitable corporations sheltered nearly half their profits from federal income taxes in the prior three years; their average effective tax rate was 18.5% over the three years, about half the statutory 35% rate; 78 of these companies paid zero federal income tax in one or more of those years.

Corporations are so successful at gaming the CIT, that taxes paid have fallen to the point where their compliance expenses including accountants, lawyers and lobbyists cost these corporations $740 for every $1000 the government collects.

If federal receipts from corporations have declined from one-third of federal revenues and now amount to less than 10%, why continue a tax system that is so easily thwarted and inefficient?

Why not replace the CIT with a smarter tax, a VAT to better compete in world trade and to assure compliance?

VAT is already accepted and proven.  This tax system was specifically created for world trade and is employed by all our trading partners and over 150 countries.  It is a consumption tax levied at each stage of production and in total is equivalent to a retail sales tax.

What makes the VAT important for trade is its border adjustability, meaning it is subtracted from exports and added to imports.  This feature removes the variable of the burden of government from the cost comparison of goods in international trade.

For example, when a car is shipped from Germany to China, the 19% German VAT is deducted from the price of the vehicle, and the 17% VAT in China is added to the price of the car when it is imported there. But, when a U.S. car ships overseas, there is no such deduction for the cost government (the CIT), and a VAT tax is added to the price by the importing country.  Here in the U.S., there is no VAT added to imports.  Without our own VAT, there is a large price wedge against U.S. products at home and abroad.

Our largest trading partners add the following VAT cost to goods they import from us.  The range is from 5% VAT in Canada and Japan to over 17% on average from the others: Canada 5%, China 17%, France 19.6%, Germany 19%, Italy 20%, Japan 5%, Korea 10%, Mexico 16%, Spain 16%, United Kingdom 17.5%.

These countries have a CIT in addition to a VAT.  But, that does not make sense for the U.S.  Why just add another tax onto the CIT, which we already know is a broken system?  How would replacing the CIT by a VAT affect us?

  • We would very likely see a strong economic growth spurt and more jobs.
  • U.S. goods would be more competitive with imports here, since imports would be equally taxed by the VAT.
  • U.S. exports would be more competitive, as the VAT, unlike the CIT, would be subtracted from exports.
  • There would be no double-taxation of dividends.  Because corporate profits would not be taxed, only dividends would be taxed to individuals when they receive them.
  • U.S. multi-nationals…which now park profits in lower-taxed countries…would bring their capital back to the U.S. for investment. The U.S. with NO corporate income tax would be the best country for recognizing your profits.  Foreign corporations would likewise shift profits to the U.S. for investment.

 If VAT is so good, why don’t we have it?  Again, VAT would be a new tax, and politicians fear proposing taxes, even if it is good medicine.  Tax is a four-letter word to politicians.  But, we don’t have to follow other countries and make our VAT an “add-on” tax.  Our VAT can be a dollar-for-dollar replacement for other taxes.  We can replace all corporate tax revenues by an 8% VAT, including rebates to protect individual tax filers with low income.  Companies would save substantially on their compliance expenses, and that savings could go to stockholders or consumers in the form of lower prices. Companies would no longer have the CIT to dodge, so they would no longer need a bevy of expensive lobbyists to push for loopholes (unless we made the mistake of permitting exceptions to the VAT, which would be like letting the camel’s nose under the tent).

Want to see the idea considered of replacing the CIT by a VAT?  Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. Tell them you would like the U.S. to get a fair shake in international trade.  Tell them replacing the Corporate Income Tax by a Value Added Tax will make the U.S. more competitive and create jobs.  Tell them you will not vote against them for proposing a revenue-neutral VAT to replace the Corporate Income Tax.

Chances are, some of our representatives really get the concept and would support a VAT, but they need to know you will support them.

NRF Distorts Domenici-Rivlin Sales Tax, 11/18/10

The National Retail Federation has it in for consumption taxes and wrongly opposes the Domenici-Rivlin plan, “Restoring America’s Future” from the Bipartisan Policy Center. NRF fears the short-term losses that might occur from an increase in prices. Fair enough. But, the Ernst & Young study they funded looks only to the effect of an ADD-ON value added tax, and that is not what the Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction package is all about. (E&Y cannot be faulted; they were given the assignment to look only at an add-on VAT and not a VAT substitute for other taxes.)

First and foremost, D-R is intended to get the economy on a firm footing for growth, and they do this with an initial stimulus for jobs that puts money in the hands of consumers. NRF should really like that. The Deficit Reduction Sales Tax proposed in D-R is 3% in the first year, and rises to 6.5% thereafter, but it is offset in the first year by a payroll tax holiday for both employers and employees (combined 12.4%). Employers will have a reduced burden for employment, and that should help stimulate jobs. Employees will have extra cash in their pockets which when spent will be an off-budget stimulus to the economy. will be a boost to the economy and retail sales.

NRF is simply wrong-headed on this. The payroll tax cut and increase in consumer income in the Domenici-Rivlin plan will be good for retail business, jobs, and the economy.

Bowles-Simpson & Tax Reform, 11/11/10

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have released their “trial balloon” knock-down draft proposition for deficit reduction and it includes some tinkering with tax reform, and calls on “Finance and Ways & Means Committees and Treasury to develop and enact comprehensive tax reform by end of 2012.”

The Co-chairs of the Deficit Commission did not suggest a VAT.  That was expected, since PERAB (President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board) had already taken value added tax off the table.  But, they did suggest flattening the tax code, by lowering income tax rates and at the same time broadening the base by removing the tax expenditures for mortgage interest deductions and employer provided healthcare.  They also suggested eliminating the AMT.  Overall, in addition to the significant cuts in expenditures, they have raised revenues as well.

No matter what is ultimately decided, or not, by the necessary 14 of 18 Commission members, any notion of sweeping tax reform including a VAT will have to wait for the 2012 presidential campaign and the possibility of a champion and meaningful debate on the issue.

Unfortunate as it may be for the competitive positioning of the U.S. economy in this era of globalization, analytical consideration of VAT will again have to wait for another day.

Gale, William G. & Benjamin H. Harris, “A Value-Added Tax for the United States: Part of the Solution,” Brookings Institution and Tax Policy Center, 07/2010

“The IMF (2010) estimates that, in advanced economies, an increase of 10 percentage points in the initial debt/GDP ratio reduces future GDP growth rates by 0.15 percentage points. Hence, the projected increase in the debt/GDP ratio from about 40 percent earlier in the decade to 90 percent by 2020 (Auerbach and Gale 2010) would be expected to reduce the growth rate by a whopping 0.75 percentage points. By cutting deficits, the VAT would help spur economic growth.”      (Pg. 5)

“Concerns about the regressivity of the VAT are complex, but they should not obstruct the creation of a VAT for two reasons.  First, while we accept the validity of distributional considerations, what matters is the progressivity of the overall tax and transfer system, not the distribution of any individual component of that system. Clearly, the VAT can be one component of a progressive system.

Second, it is straightforward to introduce policies that can offset the impact of the VAT on low-income households. The most efficient way to do this is simply to provide households either refundable income tax credits or outright payments. For example, if the VAT rate were 10 percent, a $3,000 demogrant would equal VAT paid on the first $30,000 of a household’s consumption. Households that spent exactly $30,000 on consumption would pay no net tax. Those that spent less on consumption would receive a net subsidy. Those that spent more on consumption would, on net, pay a 10 percent VAT only on their purchases above $30,000. Toder and Rosenberg (2010) estimate that a VAT coupled with a fixed payment to families is generally progressive, even with respect to current income.
In contrast, many OECD governments and state government offer preferential or zero rates on certain items like health care or food to increase progressivity. This approach is largely ineffective because the products in question are consumed in greater quantities by middle-income and wealthy taxpayers than by low-income households. Furthermore, this approach creates complexity and invites tax avoidance as consumers try to substitute between tax-preferred and fully-taxable goods and policymakers struggle to characterize goods (for example, if clothing were exempt from the VAT, Halloween costumes classified as clothing would be exempt while costumes classified as toys would not).”   (Pg. 7)

“The Canadian VAT.  In 1991, Canada implemented a 7 percent VAT at the national level to replace a tax on sales by manufacturers. Many of the concerns associated with the VAT in the United States can be assuaged by observing the Canadian experience.

Canada addressed distributional concerns by applying a zero rate to certain necessities and adding a refundable tax credit in the income tax. As noted above, we prefer the latter method. The Canadian VAT is completely transparent: it is listed separately on receipts just like sales taxes in the U.S. Perhaps because of the transparency, the VAT has not led to significant growth of government spending. Federal spending in Canada has in fact gradually declined from 22.6 percent of GDP in 1991—when the VAT was implemented—to 14.9 percent in 2009. The standard VAT rate has declined over time to 6 percent in 2006 and 5 percent in 2008. Federal tax revenue in Canada has fallen from 17.6 percent of GDP in 1991 to 16.3 percent of GDP in 2007 (and fell further to 14.6 percent during the 2009 recession). In terms of both revenues and expenditures, the size of the Canadian federal government has shrunk significantly since the introduction of the VAT. Since 1991, Canadian inflation and economic growth rates have been similar to those in the United States.”  (Pg. 11)

“An American VAT.  The structure of an American VAT should include:
- a very broad base;
- rebates or income tax credits (rather than product exemptions) to achieve progressivity;
- efforts to raise transparency (for example, having VAT listed separately on receipts); and
- explicit links to spending discipline.

While we are not wedded to a particular rate, we do note that a 10 percent VAT with a broad base could raise about 2 percent of GDP in revenues, even after netting out the offsetting adjustments in other taxes and the costs of compensating households for VAT payments on a reasonable level of consumption.

Other than the resources used to provide the rebate, VAT revenues should be used largely, if not completely, for deficit reduction. While tax and spending reform require continued attention from policymakers, closing the fiscal gap is a top priority. To the extent that VAT revenues are used for other purposes, there will be fewer options left for balancing the federal budget.
We believe the states would benefit from dropping their sales taxes and rapidly harmonizing with a federal VAT, but that is an issue they can decide for themselves. If all states did harmonize and if the federal VAT rate were 10 percent, the resulting combined VAT rate—including the state and federal rate—would be on the order of 15 to 17 percent. This would still be below the OECD average, but would be sufficient to significantly close the long-term gap and replace and improve upon state-level sales taxes. It would also send a strong signal to consumer that public policymakers are aiming to reduce consumption and raise saving.
Given current economic challenges, the timing of a VAT is important. Instituting a significant tax on consumption during a recession would be counterproductive. The optimal time to implement a VAT is after the economy has returned to full employment.
The VAT is not the only tax or spending policy that can constructively help solve the fiscal problem, nor will it solve the problem by itself. Nevertheless, to oppose the VAT is to argue either (a) there is no fiscal gap, (b) ignoring the fiscal gap is better than imposing a VAT, or (c) there are better ways than the VAT to make policy sustainable. No one disputes the existence of a fiscal gap, though, and the economic costs of fiscal unsustainability are enormous. As to the notion that there are better ways to put fiscal policy on a sustainable path, we would be excited to learn about them. In the meantime, policy makers should not let the hypothetical—and to date undiscovered—ideal policy get in the way of the time-tested, more-than-adequate VAT.”   (Pg. 11-12)