This is a very strange political season. Some of the Senators running for the Republican presidential nomination are among the most principled advocates of smaller government in Washington.
Yet all of them have proposed tax plans that, while theoretically far better than the current system, have features that I find troublesome. Marco Rubio, for instance, leaves the top tax rate at 35 percent, seven-percentage points higher than when Ronald Reagan left town.
This has caused a kerfuffle in Washington, particularly among folks who normally are allies. To find common ground, the Heritage Foundation set up a panel to discuss this VAT controversy.
You can watch the entire hour-long program here, or you can just watch my portion below and learn why I want Senator Cruz to fix that part of his plan.
Allow me to elaborate on a couple of the points from my speech.
First, a good tax system is impossible in a nation with a big welfare state. If the public sector consumes 50 percent of economic output, that necessarily means very high marginal tax rates.
Second, all pro-growth tax reform plans tax income only one time, either when earned or when spent, which means those plans all are consumption-based taxes in the jargon of public finance economists. Which is also just another way of saying that these tax plans get rid of double taxation.
On this basis, a VAT is fine in theory. Moreover, it could even be good in reality (or, to be technical, far less destructive than the current system in reality) if all income taxes were totally abolished.
Third, since Cruz’s plan leave other taxes in place, I’m worried that future politicians would do exactly what happened in Europe — use the new revenue source to finance an expansion of the welfare state.
Proponents of the Cruz VAT correctly point out that the plan simultaneously will abolish both the corporate income and the payroll tax, which sort of addresses my concern.
But keep in mind this is only an acceptable swap if you think
- the plan will survive intact as it move through the legislative process;
- the VAT won’t raise more money than the taxes that are abolished.
I’m not sure either assumption is valid.
Last but not least, proponents of the Cruz VAT plan keep denying that the plan includes a VAT. If you recall from my remarks, I think this is silly. It is a VAT.
To bolster my argument, here’s what Alan Viard wrote for the American Enterprise Institute.
Cruz’s proposed VAT would have a 16 percent tax-inclusive rate, and Paul’s proposed VAT would have a 14.5 percent tax-inclusive rate. Both VATs would be administered through the subtraction method rather than the credit invoice method used by most countries with VATs.
The use of the subtraction method would not alter the fundamental economic properties of the VAT. A VAT is equivalent to an employer payroll tax plus a business cash flow tax.
Let’s close by citing some very wise words from Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!). Here are the key parts of his column forForbes:
Conservatives are worried about national consumption taxes for several reasons, principally: these taxes’ ability to raise large sums of revenue and the ease with which politicians can raise the rates. Because national consumption taxes are efficient and can be applied to a larger base than is typical of state and local sales taxes they can raise large sums of money.
While liberals think this is a plus, conservatives are rightly wary of taxes that could supply government with more money. More importantly, conservatives are suspicious of the semi-hidden nature of consumption taxes and the ability to raise them incrementally.
The bottom line is that even if we decide to call the VAT by another name, it won’t alter the fact that some of us think it’s too risky to give politicians an additional revenue source.
Daniel J. Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.