Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Follow-up on Cain's 9-9-9 plan and fiscal self-delusion

The more I think about the level of confusion that appears to underlie the 9-9-9 proposal, and to be shared by proponents and skeptics alike, the more extraordinary I find it. This is really Exhibit 1 for teaching some basic economics ideas in high school.

A key part of 9-9-9's intuitive appeal is the idea that, not only is 9 a low number, but the plans three 9's appear to be spread out. 9 percent on the worker, 9 percent on the business, 9 percent on retail sales.

But as I noted in my prior post, the latter two 9's are effectively THE SAME TAX (a few details aside). Only ignorance and naive folk notions of incidence could make them look like two different taxes that are pointed at different players.

Again, the "business tax" is a VAT, which is basically just another way of collecting sales tax. Most experts would say that you can have either a VAT or an RST (retail sales tax), and that the choice should depend on enforceability and administrability issues, but that it's nuts to have both. And if for some crazy reason you do have both, you still shouldn't fool yourself into thinking that you have two distinct taxes in any meaningful economic sense.

OK, time for a simple illustration to make the point. Say I own some land where I grow timber. I cut down a tree, turn the salvageable parts into a nice log, and sell it for $40 to Rawlings Sporting Goods. They turn it into a baseball bat and sell it for $100 to the parents of little Johny and Janey Smith, who will use the bat in their Little League games. Suppose we have a 9% business tax, Cain-style, and a 9 percent sales tax. How does each treat it?

The sales tax ignores the inter-business sale from me to Rawlings. It hits up the sale from Rawlings to the Smiths for $9.

The business tax generates a net tax of zero on the sale from me to Rawlings. More specifically, I owe tax of $3.60 and Rawlings gets a refund / tax reduction of $3.60. In a fuller account I'd build this in as changing the pre-tax price, but let's ignore that complication here. Net result: no tax on the inter-business sale, and once again a tax of $9 on the sale from Rawlings to the Smiths.

In short, these two taxes are the same, except that in the VAT (i.e., the "business tax") there is a paper trail. I might get in trouble if I don't remit the $3.60, since the tax authorities could cross-check the paperwork and note that Rawlings is claiming a $3.60 credit or refund. And if Rawlings claims the refund, but then pretends that the sale to the Smiths didn't happen so it doesn't have to remit $9 to the government, the tax authorities will say: If you bought timber and claimed a refund and you don't have a bat in your showroom, what exactly happened? Why don't you have inventory on hand from the goods you bought and claim not to have sold?

The underlying problem, again, is naive or folk notions of incidence. We think of the retail sales tax as paid by the Smiths, in part because, under common U.S. practice with sales taxes, it's separately stated. Rawlings could have sold the bat for $109 without ever mentioning the tax. It is going to owe the proper RST to the authorities no matter what. But we think of the tax as paid by the Smiths, in part because Rawlings is likely to flag it as a distinct item.

The business tax only looks different for trivial reasons that have nothing to do with economic incidence. Everyone would understand that this, too, was a tax on the Smiths if it was similarly separately stated, e.g., by having a pre-all-taxes price of $91.74. But presumably Rawlings wouldn't do this. In addition, perhaps everyone would understand that it was really on the Smiths, even without such separate statement if, as is the case with VATs around the world, its character as a consumption tax (and effectively an RST substitute) were better understood. The existence of cross-border VAT rebates may help with this as well. But because the tax part isn't separately stated AND people apparently don't realize that it's a VAT, it ends up getting vulgarly conceptualized as a tax on the business.

So two of the 9's in the Cain plan are simply redundant versions of almost the same thing. But what about the 9 that ostensibly falls on wages? That, as per my prior post, is a tax on being among the poor slobs who can't avoid using an explicit wage payment in order to get the compensation they have earned. So it's a tax on not being self-employed and, among the self-employed, on not having enough cash on hand for personal consumption expenses to simply leave all net cash proceeds in the business.

With all due respect to the late Steve Jobs, recall his famous $1 per year salary. Given his wealth-financed personal consumption, he would be paying 18 percent per year. No need to face the 27 percent rate given that he earned it through his Apple stock, on which 9-9-9 would permit him to earn tax-free capital gain whenever he liked.

But isn't it also true under present law that Jobs was untaxed on salary that effectively was earned but not paid? Yes, but that's not the whole story. By not paying the salary, Apple lost a deduction. So, if both Jobs and Apple faced a 35 percent marginal rate on the next dollar included or deducted, there was no net federal income tax benefit from the under-payment. Thus, current law does not favor the wealthy self-employed to anything approaching the same degree as 9-9-9.

In sum, one could think of 9-9-9 as having 3 tax rate brackets. Poor people without a job are taxed at 18 percent, including on the necessities that they can barely afford. The employed poor and middle class people, along with the non-self-employed rich, pay tax at 27 percent. But the wealthy self-employed get their tax rate back down to 18 percent again.


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Daniel C. said...

By this analysis, wouldn't any corporate income tax that excludes manufacturing costs be considered an effective VAT?

Daniel Shaviro said...

To turn a VAT into an income tax, what you mainly have to do is (a) deduct wages (which would also be includable by the workers), (b) deduct and include financial flows such as interest, and (c) of critical importance, use income tax accounting (capitalization of outlays with long-term benefits) instead of expensing everything. This last aspect results in burdening savers/investors, the key feature distinguishing an income tax from a consumption tax.

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