“Free” Trade & Tax Reform | Carrier’s Move to Mexico

Here’s the good news for employees at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis — the next Carrier air conditioner they buy will be cheaper.  The bad news is Carrier’s jobs are moving to Mexico, and the employees’ next jobs will likely pay them less.  (See: “Carrier Workers See Costs, Not Benefits, of Global Trade,” The New York Times, March 20, 2016)

“This is strictly a business decision!,” CEO Robert McDonough told an assemblage of Carrier’s workers about the outsourcing plans that will cost them their jobs. This explanation was met with boos and curses. To help discarded employees, the company promised to pay for four years of additional education, but many older workers feel it is too late for them.  Carrier wages averaged $20 or more per hour, and jobs at the adjacent Amazon warehouse average just over $15 per hour.

We can presume that Mr. McDonough, as most public company CEO’s, is under pressure from parent United Technologies management and stockholders to increase profits any way they can.  And, with global competition, “You can blink and see your market position erode,” he said.  In a subsequent address to a gathering of financial analysts Mr. McDonough went further: “We’ve shifted an abundant part of our manufacturing footprint to relatively lower cost countries, about two-thirds.  Still, there’s some opportunity there.”

We can’t blame UT management for the outsourcing decision, which is a consequence of government policies and free trade agreements.  But it is also important to note that corporations have pushed Congress for these trade agreements, which enable outsourcing in the search for higher profits.  Then, too, there is no faster way for top management to increase the value of their stock options than to dramatically lower the cost of labor through outsourcing.  The result is a deck stacked against the American worker, now in competition with cheaper wages in other countries.

It is little wonder that middle-class workers are flocking to the speeches of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  Twenty-five years of “free” trade agreements have eroded the hope of millions of Americans for higher-wage manufacturing jobs, which have fallen by nearly one-third since 1990 accompanied by stagnant wages.

What policies might help to stop the bleeding?  Mr. Trump sees tariffs, which could threaten world trade and cause economies to implode.  Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sen. Sanders envision higher education as a ladder to higher paying employment, but that is a longer-term solution based upon speculation that those jobs can and will be created in sufficient numbers.

Most effective in the short-term would be a shift in the way we tax corporations to match our global competition.  Changing to a Value Added Tax as a replacement for the Corporate Income Tax would go a long way towards making American workers more competitive.  How?  Because VATs are border-adjustable, i.e., subtracted from exports and added to imports to eliminate the cost of government from the price/value relationship of goods crossing borders.  For example, China has a 17% VAT that is added to their imports, and 17% is subtracted from the price of their exports.  That is a big difference, coming and going.  Likewise, Germany has a 19% VAT that has enabled their higher-wage country to still be very competitive with higher wages.

Among the presidential candidates, the only remaining contender proposing this shift in how we tax ourselves is Sen. Cruz.  Whether you like his other positions or not, this tax reform deserves your support.  Sen. Paul has proposed a similar plan.  This should not be a partisan issue.  Gov. Jerry Brown ran for president in 1992 based upon the same tax reform.  President Bill Clinton has endorsed the concept, and so have many labor leaders.  Will Hillary?  Will Donald?

It’s time we got smart about how we tax ourselves, if we want to compete in the world economy.  It’s time for VAT.

TPP – Competitive Disadvantage(s)

You might think Congress would look back at our prior “free” trade deals – pitting U.S. workers against lower wage countries – and have a more jaundiced view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The most outspoken MOC critic of our trade deals is retired Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina.  Hollings saw the industries in his state decimated and warned about the threat to higher paid manufacturing jobs by the trend to globalization.  Free Trade policy, he said, was just American corporations seeking a lower-cost labor supply.  (See, for example, Hollings on “Economists and Free Trade.”)  Sen. Hollings’ Op/Ed’s repeatedly cited the additional competitive disadvantage for the U.S. without a Value Added Tax, a handicap which compounds our labor cost disadvantage.  Let’s look at what the VAT tax disadvantage means for TPP.

According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2012 total U.S. exports to TPP countries amounted to $650 billion.  Total imports from TPP countries amounted to $800 billion.  Of that import total, 40% was from Canada, which operates with an average 13% GST (value added tax).  The VAT - being border adjustable - is subtracted from exports, which means the $316.5 billion in goods imported from Canada would cost $41 billion dollars more within Canada.

This is not a Canadian subsidy.  Rather, GATT rules (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of the World Trade Commission) respect the subtraction of VAT from exports to eliminate the burden of the cost of government from the price/value relationship of goods shipping to another country.  The importing country would add its own VAT (cost of government).  Therefore, the imported goods would be on an equal footing with goods produced in the importing country since the VAT is charged on domestic production.

All even, except in the case of the U.S., which does not employ its own VAT.  Imports to the U.S. from TPP countries arrive with a competitive price advantage to the exporting country…13% in the case of Canada.

The second largest TPP exporter to the U.S. is Mexico, which accounts for one-third of U.S. imports from TPP countries.  Mexico’s VAT is 16%, so these goods arrive 16% cheaper than they would be in Mexico itself.  The third largest TPP exporter to the U.S. is Japan, accounting for 16% of U.S. TPP imports; Japan’s VAT is 8%.  The VAT in the other TPP countries: Australia, 10%; Chile, 19%; Malaysia, 6%; New Zealand, 15%; Peru, 18%; Singapore, 7%; Vietnam, 10%.  Only Brunei and the U.S. do not use a VAT.

Because the U.S. does not employ a VAT, government costs are not subtracted from exports.  (GATT rules do not permit the subtraction of corporate income taxes.)  When U.S. exports arrive at a TPP country, that country’s VAT is levied on the total price of U.S. goods..including the implicit CIT.  That is a competitive disadvantage for U.S. exports.  All our trading partners utilize a VAT, as do over 150 countries today.  China’s VAT is 17% and Germany’s is 19%, just under the European average.  Were the U.S. to turn to a revenue-neutral VAT to replace the Corporate Income Tax and Social Security Insurance, the VAT would be in the range of 10%.

The U.S. Congress – in deference to our multi-national corporations – has expressed knee-jerk opposition to VAT.  There has been no outspoken support for VAT even with our presumed goal to retain and increase high-paying domestic manufacturing jobs.  The VAT itself is not a tool to deliver more expensive social programs, an expressed fear of many in Congress.  VAT should be seen for what it is…an efficient mechanism for raising revenue and partially leveling the playing field in trade.  How we use the funds raised and how much revenue we should raise are separate issues, and should be debated separately.

The debate over TPP should beg the question whether the U.S. should employ a VAT to replace other taxes and remove a competitive disadvantage in trade.

Would a VAT replacement of the CIT add a greater burden to consumers?  Taking the view that the consumer pays the CIT, a revenue neutral replacement of the CIT by a VAT should make no difference on balance.  However, there would be a shift of burden from smaller companies to multi-national corporations that are more dependent upon imports.

It is notable that economists are split on where the burden of the CIT falls.  Some argue that it is workers who suffer the burden because the amount of taxes paid could otherwise be used for increased wages.  Likewise some argue that the burden falls on the shareholders.  Others posit that..when a company prices its goods..a margin is added and an implicit tax obligation will inure; since the margin exists within the price of goods, it is the consumer that absorbs the burden of the CIT.

As to the argument that a VAT consumption tax would be regressive..this could readily be nullified via adjustments to the threshold and progressivity of the income tax and via the Earned Income Tax Credit for those at the bottom.

We are entering into the height of the presidential primary season, ripe for conceptual debates about tax policy.  But, so far, among the Republican candidates we see only talk of lowering taxes, and little to none on the impact of tax policy on trade.  Only one presidential candidate has offered a VAT (Rand Paul), and, while he perhaps wisely named it a BAT (business activity tax), no debate question covered Paul’s concept of replacing the CIT with his BAT consumption tax.  To date, no Democrat has raised the issue of a consumption tax.  Hillary Clinton will probably not mention VAT, even though President Clinton has previously endorsed the concept of VAT replacing other taxes.

VAT remains a hot potato.  Even though its clear advantage for trade should mean economic growth and domestic jobs.  There is tacit support among union leaders (Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO; Andy Stern, SEIU).  The elimination of double-taxation of dividends would be good for stock valuations (and Wall Street).  But, until there is a national political leader who champions this sweeping tax reform and rallies the public behind it, VAT is destined to remain unmentionable.

Sen. Rand Paul’s Plan…A Good Start for Tax Reform

Tax policy is a hot potato and controversial.  It can propel a presidential candidate into the headlines, but it can also make the candidate an easy target for opponents and pundits alike. Sen. Paul’s bold proposal is a fine beginning and merits productive discussion.  Hopefully it will not be dismissed by knee-jerk opposition.

The way we tax ourselves should be separated from the purposes to which we apply the revenue we need.  Ideally, on the personal income tax side this plan would have eliminated - purely - all deductions.  Sen. Paul, in sensible practicality..to head off congressional opposition..has incorporated deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions.  The mortgage deduction will placate the real estate lobby, but it will also create the precedent for other industries to lobby for their gain.  The proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

Critics are circling over the potential shortfall in total revenues.  Once revenue needs are clearly defined, if more revenue is needed the plan can be fixed by increasing the 14.5% rate in the Business Activity Tax, a value-added tax, and by adding one or two tax brackets on the personal income tax side.  The addition of another personal tax bracket or two will change the definition from a “flat” tax with a single percentage for both business and personal taxes, but would provide the necessary flexibility to ensure progressive distribution of the tax burden.  The tax base will be clean.

Importantly, Paul’s Business Activity Tax will finally harmonize the U.S. tax system with all of our trading partners; over 165 countries now use the border-adjustable VAT to our current competitive disadvantage in world trade.  With Paul’s BAT, the cost of government paid by the BAT will be subtracted from U.S. exports and added to imports, neutralizing that government burden in the price/value comparison of goods and services crossing borders. 

Bottom Line: Sen. Paul’s plan is an excellent beginning.  Let’s not let the pundits and political opponents kill it this time.  Let’s fix it.