Thursday, January 03, 2008

Retail sales tax versus value-added tax

Bruce Bartlett argues against the Fair Tax here: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/files/bartlett_fair_tax.pdf

I generally don't bother discussing the Fair Tax, as it appears to be a dead horse both intellectually and politically. Even assuming one wants a flat rate consumption tax with no zero bracket, why use the retail sales tax model instead of a value-added tax (VAT)? The latter can lead to the same overall result but with better enforcement capabilities since the revenue authorities can cross-check rebates against taxes remitted on inter-business transactions, and since it can be embarrassing for a business to claim rebates on purchases without admitting to any sales on items that are no longer observable in inventory.

That said, I have learned more recently from people in VAT nations that the tradeoff is not quite as clearcut as I had thought. E.g., Europe has had fun lately with "carousel fraud," in which one side to an inter-business transaction claims a rebate, while the other side disappears before paying tax on the offsetting receipt. Also, U of Sydney law prof Graeme Cooper won, to my mind, the 2007 tax article title-of-the-year contest with his SSRN-posted piece, "The Discrete Charm of the VAT," available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1027512, in which he argues that the administrative tradeoffs are closer than various of us had been inclined to believe.

4 comments:

Ian said...

Apparently, this type of misinformation is a long-standing tradition by Mr. Bartlett.

Witness:

(Paraphrased) Reply by Dan R Mastromarco (LL.M., Taxation, Georgetown, principal in the Argus Group, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, International Management Program, and research consultant to Americans for Fair Taxation - FairTax.org) to:

"A National Sales Tax Doesn’t Add Up" by Bruce Bartlett, December 29, 1999

Many engaged in true tax reform find Bartlett-type attacks exasperating, if not embarrassing. I'd like to convey perspective of both flat taxers and sales taxers who believe that such attacks are counterproductive, but first provide some political history by which to frame said perspectives.

For years Conservatives have posited that a VAT is bad policy (when liberals were discussing it), fearing it would become additional to an income tax (it was called a "money machine"). Circa 1980, conservative intellectuals touted Hall-Rabushka "subtraction method"[ H-R ] VAT which taxed business value added at the business side and labor value added at the labor side. Unlike European VATs (identical in scope), H-R became favorite of Dick Armey and Steve Forbes. It eliminated steeply progressive tax rates and tax on savings. Because of the prior VAT criticisms, H-R was packaged as the "flat tax" and is sold as an income tax to this day, rather than the VAT that its DNA characterizes it as being.

Some conservative commentators have called for the repeal of the 16th Amendment and for the adoption of the flat tax, (despite the fact that it is styled as a direct tax and could not be adopted with such repeal). Mr. Bartlett has called the national sales tax [ie, the FairTax] a VAT (which it isn't), castigated VATs as evil, and has said that sales taxes have become VATs in Europe (which they didn't). In the next breath, he "throws his arms around" the flat tax (which is a VAT). He quotes Bill Gale that the [FairTax] would have to be imposed at 60 percent, but glaringly fails to recognize that if the two bases are the same, he would have to impose that rate for the flat tax to be revenue neutral. In truth, all economists know that the two plans differ NOT in economic effect or base, but in administration.

An income tax taxes savings and investment multiple times. Both flat tax and FairTax are neutral as to savings and investment, tax income only once, and are both consumption taxes. Both are single rate taxes, have nearly the same base, and would improve the U.S. standard of living. Neither redistributes wealth.

While some have even suggested that hey are the same plans under different names, the flat tax taxes value added at each stage in the production process, but the FairTax prefers to tax it when it is added up at the end and eliminate the need to make everyone a taxpayer and collector.

Substantive commonalities between the flat tax and FairTax doesn't mean that there are NO key political and policy distinctions that could be exploited in pitting one against the other. If FairTax supporters wanted to retaliate in response to the Bartlett-type critique, they would have much material with which to honestly do so:

• The flat tax will make small firms and farmers pay the tax even if they have no profit
• The flat tax is opposed by many small business groups
• The flat taxers implicitly support big government by disguising even more of the overall tax burden as the current law
• The flat tax has been kicking around for nearly 20 years
• The flat tax makes everyone a taxpayer and collector, while the FairTax exempts 115 million filers [2000 figure] from ever having to deal with the IRS
• The flat tax is regressive, but the FairTax would enable everyone to keep his full paycheck.
• The flat tax has not only stalled, it has lost public and Congressional support.
• The FairTax is instantly understood, while even some proponents of the flat tax don’t understand it
• There are no transition rules developed for the flat tax and they would be very difficult to craft
• The flat tax taxes exports and relieves imports from tax
• The flat tax confuses tax reform with temporary tax reduction and makes both twice as hard
• The flat tax retains the entire income tax apparatus which erodes as quickly as you can say, “tax bill”


FairTaxers could advance these truthful points without resorting to bigotry associated with a cultic religious organization. However, for the most part, FairTax supporters have chosen not to attack the flat tax, but rather accentuate the commonalities between the plans - despite the above-noted differences. The reason is that, in the battle for tax reform, the real enemy is our current system.

Income tax advocates look down upon the articles of Bruce Bartlett with smug chortling, as Bruce is doing their work for them. The IRS and the liberals who want an income tax to ensure (1) taxes can be raised without the American people knowing it, and (2) wealth can be redistributed from the middle class to the poor, do not even need to fight us - we're killing ourselves!

Perhaps Mr. Bartlett believes that the flat tax will help elect Republicans, effect tax reform, and provide tax cuts; however, the real effect of his criticism is to divide conservatives, to delay serious national consideration of tax reform, and to fertilize the roots of the income tax.

( Source - Addit'l at FairTax.org Whitepaper - May republish in whole or part. - Ian)

Anonymous said...

A retail sales tax coupled with a progressive income tax (along 1913 lines) seems to make more sense. Sort of like a Batson challenge, paying transparent sales taxes enfranchises the poor and lower middle class, many of whom pay no taxes or receive refundable credits. Think of the late 19th century progressive movement in the modern information age.

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