Fixing America, Part IV

All right folks, as promised, here's part IV. I'm going to try to keep this one short, because I'm also writing a paper on organized begging and human trafficking in Vienna, which you'll soon be able to view online by clicking the link to "grad school papers" on the sidebar.

This section is supposed to cover a lot: budget and current account deficits, debt, and America's labyrinthine tax system. Luckily, all of these issues are related (isn't it funny how they all ended up on my part IV?). Once again, I will suggest some unpopular changes that probably would not be implemented, but hey, my job's to point out realistic solutions (in the sense that they are completely doable) to problems, it's the politicians' job to get it done.

So here we go: introduce a federal value-added tax system (VAT) like the ones seen in almost every other developed country in the world. Much of deficit-reduction will be tackled by measures mentioned in previous installments (individual private health accounts, later retirement age, paying social security benefits only to those who actually need them, etc.). A VAT is a tax that is applied to goods and services every step of the way. Sounds like it would accumulate, but it doesn't. Look at it like a chain: Producer A sells raw materials to producer B. Producer B pays a 10% VAT to producer A, who is obligated to deliver that amount to the IRS. HOWEVER, it will probably end up getting to keep much or most of the money. Everything producer A spends money on, from machinery, to contractors, to services, requires producer A to pay a VAT. Producer A simply writes down all that it has paid in VAT for business purposes and gets to keep that amount from the  VAT it has collected from sales. It sounds complicated, but it's actually much easier to manage than a system of tax-exemptions, which all have to be approved, revised, etc. What a headache!

Producer B then sells its finished goods to the retailer. The retailer pays VAT to producer B, who gets to keep whatever VAT from those sales that it has also spent doing business. The same applies to goods sold by the retailer. In this way, only additional value added at any given stage is taxed, so the effect is not cumulative.

OK, fine, by why is this good? It's good for two reasons. The main one is that studies show that taxes on consumption slow growth less than taxes on income because taxes on income reduce your incentive to work and earn more. The second reason is that a company has to pay VAT to keep VAT, it has an incentive to pay VAT and report this, which makes fraud a bit more difficult.

There are always a few problems, and the main one here is this: consumption taxes are regressive, meaning they tax the poor at a higher rate (as a percentage of their total incomes) than the rich. This, by the way, is another way America is more "liberal" than much of Europe: America's tax system is actually more progressive! In any case, addressing this problem is fairly simple: exempt certain necessities from the VAT, like necessary food items (not potato chips, soft drinks, and TV dinners), clothing items under $50 apiece, prescription medications, etc.

This would allow America's income tax rate to be cut and/or exceptions to it to be removed, making the system simpler (it's one of the most complex and frustrating in the world at the moment, costing individuals and businesses a lot in tax consulting services and wasted time). At the same time, this would help encourage growth and wouldn't be overly regressive.

The other issue to be addressed is also addressed with this tax: America's current account deficit. A current account is made up largely of a country's trade balance. America imports quite a bit more than it exports. This could be due partly to the fact that America taxes income too much and consumption too little when compared to other countries. True, America is likely on the road to rebalancing as we speak, since consumers have no scope to boost consumption in the near future, but this might be a pleasant side-effect of a tax that would otherwise be beneficial anyway.

Nancy Pelosi had indicated last year that a VAT was "on the table." Since then, the discussion has been dropped. It's unpopular because it contains the word "tax," particularly hated by conservatives, and because it's regressive, which makes it unpopular with the left. If combined with income tax cuts, tax simplification, and exceptions to protect those who would be most adversely affected, I think the tax could appeal to a broad base of legislators... if they could explain it to the public. Maybe we can give it some ridiculously long name that excludes the word tax? Those plans are usually stupid, but Congress seems to like them anyway...


  1. Paper on begging and human trafficking in Vienna now (and has been) online!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts