Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The reverse Dorian Gray and the X-tax

These days I aim to minimize posts that directly concern current events, such as the presidential election, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the emotions that come over all of us about these things, in real time, can conflict with achieving the degree of reflective equilibrium in my posts that I prefer to aim for.  The second is that politics these days is so tribal - like we were all a bunch of 14 year olds, among whom the Mets fans just hate the Yankee fans, and vice versa, no matter what else they might have in common - that I think I would lose the ear of people on the "other side" who might otherwise have some interest in things that I say.  (This is not about page views, which one can probably increase through partisan screeching, but about engaging with people in, I hope, a more thoughtful way.)

All this is a throat-clearing wind-up to my saying something - or rather, preparing to say something later - about the tax plan issued by the candidate against whom, for broader reasons not worth fully reviewing here, I am currently rooting the most vehemently: Rubio.

OK, I'll indulge myself for just a moment.  This reverse Dorian Gray - you can see in his face how little thought, care, and character he has - it's too empty and unlived in, hence the opposite of the Oscar Wilde character (as revealed in the painting) who has erred in the other direction - has put out proposals that I believe are not on balance worth taking seriously on any ground other than that he might win (which does not currently appear to be likely).  For example, when you propose cutting federal tax revenues by almost $7 trillion over ten years while also proposing massive increases in military spending and probably several wars, and when you propose to make income inequality much worse, to gut regulation of the financial services industry, and to do nothing about climate change, then I think your program is really unworthy of being considered anything better than crank lunacy on the extremist fringe, notwithstanding the smiling face that he tries to shove in front of all this.

But the interesting thing is that he is actually proposing to replace the income tax with a variant of David Bradford's X-tax, which I have certainly said nice things about in the past that I still mostly believe.  (My thinking has changed in some ways, but I'd still endorse a great deal of what I previously wrote, and certainly the basic analytics would start from the same place.)

Leaving aside that Rubio takes the X-tax and plunks it into an overall platform that makes no sense, what with the calamitous budgetary crisis he'd create and his refusal to address any of the actual rising problems of the 21st century, might this be worth more reflection than it has gotten from most people so far, and certainly from me?  For example, how might we either reconcile or choose between arguments that I and others have made, to the effect that the X-tax can in principle match the progressivity of present law, and the distributional picture that serious arbiters (i.e., the Tax Policy Center) offer regarding this plan?  Obviously, no one ever said (or could reasonably say) that the Rubio X-tax must, as a logical matter, match the progressivity of 2016 present law, but consumption tax proponents argue for using a different time frame in thinking about distributional effects than is standard in prevailing models.  (E.g., if you are deferring current tax liability indefinitely, but without reducing its present value, so no tax is paid in the 5-year window, how should we think about that?)

I want to address these topics a bit further at some point, whether here or in actual academic writing, but (a) I just don't have the time right now, given other things that are higher on my current action list, and (b) I'd rather wait for Rubio to disappear from the race (which may conceivably happen after March 15, depending on the Florida results), since it's not his X-tax, within his overall program, that actually deserves to be taken seriously.

Anyway, more (perhaps) on this later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

«consumption tax proponents argue for using a different time frame»

That seems to be the argument that eventually income most be spent or else it does not make sense to save it without ever spending it.

But consider even just the enormous difference between investing for profit before-tax income versus after-tax income, for those who have plenty to invest, which is not the bottomost 50% of workers.

«in thinking about distributional effects than is standard in prevailing models.»

The obvious thing here is that tax policy is shaped also by opportunities for avoidance or evasion, something that sometimes tax professors seem to underrate.

For example having several smaller taxes on different things (income, consumption, capital gains, production, corporate profits, ...) instead of a single tax is designed to make avoidance or evasion less easy, given the same amount of overall tax take.

A system based mostly on a consumption tax is very easy indeed to game, by moving as much income as possible into a shell company or abroad, and then consuming via that shell company or quite simply buying big-cost stuff in a different country or residing there. That would be quite hard to counter.

That's of course an easy option for rich people, who are also currently mostly tax-exempt, but why make it even easier for them?