Michael Graetz let me know he was offended by the tone of my admittedly snarky earlier post on his tax reform plan. Without meaning to make our little dispute any worse, since it’s probably better for both of us (not to mention our many mutual friends) to retain civil relations, here is a fuller critique, overlapping a bit with my earlier one but offering a different emphasis.
I feel that Michael’s plan, although presented as major tax reform, does too little to justify its worsening distribution in the zero to $100,000 range.
Michael’s replacement of an income tax by a consumption tax for people earning under $100,000 has only minor significance. People at those income levels don’t save much anyway. The really important change is his eliminating individual or household-level taxation for people in that range. He puts them purely in a business-level tax that fails to adjust for personal circumstances, other than through a sketchy proposal involving employer-administered payroll tax credits.
The income tax today has an effective zero bracket amount. And it taxes people earning $90,000 at significantly higher marginal and average rates than people earning $20,000. The opportunity to do this is why all prior tax reformers I am familiar with, other than the national sales tax proponents who don’t like progressivity to begin with, have considered retention of individual-level taxation to be essential. Are all of the other tax reform proponents, going back at least to Nicholas Kaldor in 1955, wrong? I really don’t think so.
Michael trumpets the claimed benefit of getting the IRS out of lower earners’ lives by eliminating their need to file. But just how important is this, weighed against the distributional benefits of retaining individual-level taxation?
Suppose the VAT rate is 14 percent, as Michael says it might be, but that we would like to have a zero bracket for up to $20,000 of earnings, which the flat tax but not Michael’s methodology makes possible. Consider a low-wage worker without children earning $20,000, for whom the zero bracket would eliminate $2,800 of tax liability. Michael would rather eliminate this individual’s filing requirement, even if we are just talking about W-2s that report earnings, than save him $2,800 of tax by having a zero bracket. I wonder how many people earning $20,000 would thank Michael for this. Note, by the way, that he proposes to offset the tax increase on poor people for those with children – but, not apparently, other poor people.
Unless Michael’s payroll tax credit can sufficiently do the job, he is effectively taking the position that there would be no case for tax progressivity if the top income in our society were $100,000. Given the huge economic difference between earning $100,000 and earning zero, this should rightly be questioned by anyone who believes in progressivity.
It seems to me that Michael cannot deal properly with the low-end distribution problem unless he brings back the very income measurement ideas, on an individual or household basis, that he claims to be throwing out. If he puts the measurement function in some other part of the fiscal system, then he has given up the simplification.
He suggests that employers could provide payments to low earners (as part of the regular paychecks) that are related to family size. I find this suggestion problematic. Outsourcing the distributional work of the tax system to private businesses that are not going to want to bother with it strikes me as a recipe for mischief. Are they supposed to check on the childen’s Social Security numbers? Will they be reluctant to hire workers with lots of children unless the child benefits are foregone, even if the IRS at some point would pay them back? By the way, I gather that relatively few eligible people seek monthly EITC benefits today, even though allowed under the law, in part because they don’t want to share personal information with their employers. Yet Michael seems to assume that periodic, employer-administered payments to low-wage workers will be feasible under his system.
Michael also makes a serious error to the extent that payroll tax credits do not depend on the worker’s overall circumstances apart from the claimed number of children. Once you have issues such as people with several part-time or successive jobs, or college kids working over the summer, you risk either having a badly misdirected subsidy or else being right back where you started, in terms of simplification. And if he proposes to have the government cross-check it all so that workers don’t have to file returns (although they might, depending on his plan, get letters in the mail saying that they have to pay something back), again one wonders about the feasibility. Is it really that important to eliminate filing based on simple W-2s, which would permit distributional adjustments to be made much more easily?
But let’s suppose Michael offers simplification at the low end, albeit potentially at a big equity cost in the portion of the income distribution where a dollar matters the most. Even so, I believe he has misdirected his simplification efforts, and missed 95 percent of the problem.
On the high-income and business end, he mainly limits himself to a bit of hand-waving about partial book-tax conformity, a nice idea in theory but one that is unlikely to work well in practice. I have said nice things about book-tax conformity myself recently, more or less offhand, but I do think it is hard to push this idea very far. For example, the marketplace pressure to state book income high might change if the tax system started relying on it more. And what about Congress monkeying with the tax rules so as to create ever greater divergence - or, for that matter, monkeying with the accounting rules?
So it looks as if Michael basically leaves us with the same old system, with all of the problems he decries, for everything and everyone above the $100,000 level.
Where are the dominant administrative, compliance, and tax planning burdens of the income tax? The answer is that they overwhelmingly relate to high-earners and businesses. Here people not only face complicated issues, but can throw enormous resources at them.
A properly directed tax simplification effort would focus on the billions of dollars that are being spent, but in a social sense wasted, by those groups both on lawful tax planning and on questionable tax shelters. Under Michael’s plan, you’d still have all the game-playing and line-drawing that we see today, drawing on such tax rules as the realization requirement, the myriad interest expense rules, the distinction between debt and equity, the treatment of contingent convertible bonds as opposed to debt plus a separate option, etcetera. So the billions of dollars that are being wasted today on tax planning, compliance, and administration, and the stories about outrageous scams, would continue. [To give Michael a bit of credit, he has in the past been associated with a “CBIT” proposal for corporate tax reform that would wash away the main implications of the debt-equity distinction. That doesn’t seem to be a part of his current plan.]
A progressive consumption tax, unlike Michael’s plan, would greatly simplify the taxation of business and high-earners, while also retaining equity at below $100,000 of income. It also could easily be more progressive at the high end, when we consider the tax planning opportunities that a realization income tax offers. The only virtue that Michael’s plan offers against all this is the greatly overstated benefit he ascribes to filing no tax return instead of simplified returns based on W-2s.
To suggest that progressive consumption taxes are politically unrealistic, Michael notes the failure of the Nunn-Domenici plan. But that example proves little. Although there were good progressive consumption tax prototypes out there, Nunn and Domenici, for some reason, decided to reinvent the wheel, and got it wrong. Their unfortunate detour from a sensibly designed progressive consumption tax does not establish his broader claim that such a tax is unrealistic.
Michael notes that no other country has a progressive consumption tax. That is true, and sobering for advocates of such a system. But he fails to note that no other modern, economically advanced country has his plan either. While nearly all such countries have an income tax/VAT mix, I do not know of any that comparably restricts the reach of individual or household-level taxation. Other countries, like other tax reform proponents, recognize the need to individualize tax burdens based on personal circumstances.
Michael closes his chapter by suggesting that perhaps his proposal is politically impossible. This leaves me wondering even more about his stated ground for rejecting progressive consumption taxation, since he’s now pleading guilty to the same problem.
So I don’t believe that Michael’s plan belongs on the roster of those that are seriously worth considering.