FEDERAL TAX DEBATE: REFORM SHOULD FOCUS ON SIMPLIFICATION, EFFICIENCY, & BUDGET NEUTRALITY WITHOUT A NEW "BORDER ADJUSTMENT"
Here are my thoughts on the border adjustment and federal tax reform in general as they could influence the U.S. economy, especially Texas.
I disagree with some of the analysis and findings by Kotlikoff (see full article below), whom is a highly respected economist regarding life cycle economic modeling and analysis, but he tends to be Keynesian in his approach, as you can see throughout his piece. Much of what he states about the border adjustment, also known as the border adjustment tax (BAT) though it is not technically a tax, is reflected in the Tax Foundation’s (TF) talking points.
TF claims that the border adjustment will be more efficient than our current corporate income tax system by leveling the playing field for goods that are consumed in the U.S. Moreover, TF argues that it is not a tax but rather a “border adjustment” of the current corporate income tax such that corporations report consumption of their imported goods as income since it is consumed here instead of exports that are consumed elsewhere. TF and Kotlikoff also put a lot of emphasis on the far-reaching assumption that the dollar value will adjust accordingly to not make the border adjustment cause increases in consumer and producer prices.
While theoretically TF is correct on several points, the BAT argument fails on at least the following levels:
Tax revenue neutrality is a failed argument that has been tried multiple times (e.g., Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts, Reagan tax cuts, Bush tax cuts); tax reform should focus on budget neutrality such that the economic drain of a rising $20 trillion in federal debt is plugged as soon as possible.
The vision, like in Texas, should be to not tax businesses that simply submit taxes to the government while people pay the actual cost through the form of higher prices, lower wages, and fewer jobs available. In economic terms, the tax incidence is ultimately on people. Ending the corporate income tax would eliminate whether we are taxing income based on imports or exports, removing the concern over the border adjustment.
Considering we are unlikely to eliminate federal taxes on businesses today, reducing the corporate tax rate to as low as possible while not changing the tax base, thereby distorting the marketplace more than it should, balancing the budget should be based on economic growth and slowing and cutting government spending so budget neutrality is achieved. There’s no need to add a “new tax,” though it’s not technically a new tax, in the form of the border adjustment.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) recently commissioned a study with the R Street Institute that highlights the cost increase of $3.4 billion in Texas' property-casualty insurance premiums over the next decade from the border adjustment, which is just a small portion of the potential costs to Texas and other states. TPPF's research also shows that taxes on income and higher taxes in general are detrimental to economic activity among states; therefore, shrinking the size and scope of government by cutting government spending is the best path toward prosperity, not providing revenue neutrality with a new border adjustment.
Fortunately, President Trump’s announced tax plan does not include the BAT. While I have concerns about the contribution of Trump’s tax plan to the already estimated increases in the national debt from current policy, economic growth will reduce some of the static analysis revenue losses. Considering that neither President Trump's nor the GOP tax plan will pay for itself, as some economists suggest, the focus must be on budget neutrality as Congress cuts and restrains government spending.
At this point, I prefer the Trump tax plan and think it would best reduce tax burdens to allow more incentives by entrepreneurs to produce—the driver of economic activity. However, this is an opportunity to highlight that there shouldn’t be taxes on businesses, like TPPF argues to eliminate Texas' business franchise tax, and that the federal government should continue to simplify the tax code to provide more efficiency in the code by moving to a flat tax, which I prefer a flat consumption tax, and subsequent increased economic activity. This is also an opportunity for the U.S. to increase its economic competitiveness through tax reform to counter the unfortunate protectionist arguments in D.C. that could lead to potentially worse negotiated trade deals and fewer beneficial trade agreements, which is very disconcerting.
Below are two recent WSJ articles that provides different views on this issue. I hope the debate will continue so that the appropriate institutional framework for fiscal policy will prevail. In general, this framework should be based on the core principles of taxation, which includes simplicity, efficiency, and competitiveness. By following these principles and focusing on budget neutrality without shifting to a new tax base, the U.S. can be more prosperous and Texans will benefit in the process.
On Tax Reform, Ryan Knows Better
The House proposal beats Trump’s plan, which is more regressive and would induce huge tax avoidance.
May 11, 2017 6:58 p.m. ET
As Republicans push toward a major rewrite of the U.S. tax code, they must evaluate two competing proposals: the House GOP’s “Better Way” plan and President Trump’s framework, introduced last month. Either would greatly simplify personal and business taxation, but pro-growth reformers should hope that the final package looks more like the House’s proposal.
Let’s begin the analysis with personal taxes. Both plans eliminate the alternative minimum tax, deductions for state and local taxes, and the estate tax. The House plan eliminates exemptions, while Mr. Trump’s outline is unclear. Both raise the standard deduction, reduce the number of income-tax brackets, lower the top marginal tax rate, and provide a big break to those with pass-through business income. On this last point the Trump plan is particularly generous. It taxes pass-through income at 15%—far below its proposed top rate of 35% for regular income. The large gap between these rates would induce massive tax avoidance by the rich. The Better Way’s proposed rates are much closer: 25% and 33%, respectively.
Another criterion to judge tax reform is its effect on the budget. Absent any economic response, the Better Way proposal would lower federal tax revenue by $212 billion a year, according to a recent study I conducted with Alan Auerbach, an economist at Berkeley. But some economic response is likely. The House plan would cut the U.S. corporate tax rate from one of the highest among developed countries to one of the lowest. Computer simulations—which will be included in a forthcoming journal article I am writing with Seth Benzell and Guillermo Lagarda —suggest that increased dynamism could raise U.S. wages and output by up to 8%. Under this optimistic scenario, federal tax revenue would rise by $38 billion a year.
We are in the process of simulating the Trump plan, and it is too early to say whether it produces less revenue. The plan’s potential for tax avoidance, however, is a major red flag.
Which plan is more regressive? Both personal tax reforms appear to help the rich. But the Better Way’s business tax reform actually appears highly progressive. Despite the popular perception that the corporate income tax is paid by the rich, my research suggests it represents a hidden levy on workers. This causes American companies and capital to flee the country, reducing demand for U.S. workers, whose wages consequently shrink.
The Better Way plan transforms the corporate income tax into something different: a business cash-flow tax with a border adjustment. Notwithstanding innumerable mischaracterizations by the press, politicians and business leaders, the cash-flow tax implements a standard value-added tax, plus a subsidy to wages. Every developed country has a VAT, which is an indirect way to tax consumption. All of these levies have border adjustments, which ensure that domestic consumption by domestic residents is taxed whether the goods in question are produced at home or imported. Unlike the Better Way, Mr. Trump’s plan does not include a border adjustment, which means it effectively taxes exports and subsidizes imports. This undermines his goal of reducing the U.S. trade deficit.
Where is the progressive element to the cash-flow tax? It’s in the subsidy to wages, which insulates workers from the brunt of the VAT. They will pay VAT consumption taxes when they spend their paychecks, but they also will have higher wages thanks to the subsidy. The folks who truly pay the cash-flow tax are the rich, because they pay the VAT when they spend wealth that was earned years or decades ago.
As my study with Mr. Auerbach shows, this quiet but large wealth tax makes the overall House plan almost as “fair” as the current system. Our analysis—in contrast with studies done by congressional agencies and D.C. think tanks—assesses progressivity based on what people of given ages and economic means get to spend over the rest of their lives.
Consider the present value of remaining lifetime spending for 40-year-olds. The richest quintile of this cohort accounts for 51% of the group’s spending, and the poorest quintile for 6.3%. Under the House tax plan, those figures move only modestly, to 51.6% and 6.2%. And the Trump plan? Hard to say, given how easily the rich could transform otherwise high-tax wage income into low-taxed pass-through business income.
The Trump tax plan strikes out on all counts. Whoever knew tax reform could be this complicated? We specialists in public finance did. The bottom line is that the U.S. needs more revenue and less spending to close the long-term fiscal gap. The nation’s true debt—the present value of all projected spending, including the cost of servicing the $20 trillion in official debt, minus the present value of all current taxes—has been estimated by Alan Auerbach and Brookings’s William Gale to be as high as $206 trillion.
The Better Way plan moves in the right direction, but if the economy doesn’t respond as hoped, there’s a risk of larger deficits. One way to prevent that would be to eliminate the ceiling on earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax. That could add $300 billion to the Treasury each year, according to our calculations. But even without that adjustment, the House plan seems far superior to both the current system and the Trump plan. The press, politicians, and business leaders should get things straight, including this key point: The Better Way tax plan is indeed a better way.
Mr. Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University, is director of the Fiscal Analysis Center.
Economists Say President Donald Trump’s Agenda Would Boost Growth — a Little
The WSJ’s monthly survey of economists gauges the impact of a fully implemented Trump plan
Updated May 11, 2017 10:34 a.m. ET
One of the most-watched economic forecasts in Washington will come later this month when the White House releases its budget.
Here is what it would look like if done by economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.
Over the course of the next decade, the estimated cost of many items on President Donald Trump’s wish list will depend critically on his own team’s projections for economic growth, unemployment and interest rates.
Per the longstanding custom, however, the White House budget differs from most economic forecasts in one crucial way. Most forecasters estimate the path for the economy they believe is most likely, taking into account that many political promises will never come to fruition. But White House forecasts are an estimate of what the economy would be like if the president’s full agenda were implemented.
To establish a baseline of what a reasonable forecast might look like under Mr. Trump, respondents to The Wall Street Journal’s monthly survey of forecasters provided their own estimates of the economy if all of Mr. Trump’s initiatives were enacted.
If the president’s agenda were enacted, forecasters on average think long-run gross domestic product growth could rise to 2.3%, an 0.3 percentage point increase from their 2% baseline. Unemployment would average 4.4% under this scenario, instead of 4.5%. Interest rates set by the Federal Reserve would be about a quarter-point higher. Short-term rates would be about 3.1%.
So an improvement, but a modest one.
Early on, White House officials have reportedly considered penciling in growth rates as high as 3.2% a year. But the respondents to the Journal’s survey—a mix of academic, financial and business economists who regularly produce professional forecasts—say numbers so high will be hard to attain, because the policies under consideration just might not pack that punch.
Key Trump initiatives, which face a challenging road through Congress, include overhauling the health-care system, simplifying the corporate tax code, cutting income taxes, rewriting regulation and investing in the nation’s infrastructure.
“If you were to assume that such initiatives get passed later this year, there should be positive economic benefits, especially for 2018,” said Chad Moutray, chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Over the course of a decade, 3.2% growth would leave the economy nearly $2 trillion larger than 2.3% growth. So the lower estimates of economists are significant.
“Fewer regulations may raise long-term growth 0.1% to 0.2% by stimulating productivity growth,” said Nariman Behravesh of IHS Markit Economics. “It should have hardly any effect on the long-term unemployment rate and inflation rates.”
It is “hard to quantify, but measures would not boost long-term productivity,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics. “But they probably would push up both short and long-term interest rates.”
The White House always has some incentive to put forth overly optimistic numbers. For one thing, the White House staff generally believe in the wisdom and benefits of the president’s agenda. And if growth rates are boosted and unemployment comes down, it does wonders for budget projections.
Tax revenue climbs and spending on programs such as unemployment or Medicaid may dwindle.
In recent months, economists’ forecasts for the coming year haven’t changed much. They expect growth for this year of 2.2%, down from 2.4% in the March survey. They place the odds of recession in the next year at just 15%, compared with 20% at this time a year ago.
For now, many are waiting to see more detail in Mr. Trump’s agenda and retain doubts about how much he will be able to accomplish.
“Infrastructure spending is great, but it has to be paid for and that creates drag at some point,” said Amy Crews Cutts, the chief economist of Equifax. “The proposed tax breaks won’t stimulate the economy nearly enough to pay for themselves let alone fund other new initiatives, which leads to deep cuts in the long run."
The survey of 59 economists was conducted from May 5 to May 9. Not every economist answered every question.
Ph.D. Economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Blog posts are publications by the author.