February 19, 2012

Thoughts From the Frontline - John Mauldin

Below is an excerpt from John Mauldin's weekly newsletter, this issue is titled The Cancer of Debt and Deficits, (John Mauldin | February 18, 2012) 

John writes a long newsletter each week full of interesting thought and analysis.

His introduction to this week's piece:

"Taxing ConsumptionSo let's get down to details. I met with Marc Sumerlin for breakfast a few weeks ago, and he later sent me a book he coauthored back in 2007 with Larry Lindsey, called What a President Should Know … but most learn too late. Both men are serious economic thinkers, and Lindsey is a specialist in tax policies. They both worked as economic advisors in the White House, and Lindsey was on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. They do understand some of the mechanics of politics and economics. They now work together at The Lindsey Group, an economic advisory service based in DC. They do excellent work.
Marc outlined to me their thoughts on reforming the tax code. I read the chapter in the book on reforms, and like it better than anything else I have seen.
What they suggest is to tax consumption with a 20% Value Added Tax (VAT). There would be no taxes for incomes under $100,000. None. No Social Security. No Medicare. If you make less than $100,000 you pay nothing.
All income over $100,000 is taxed at 20%, no matter what the source. No capital gains rate or dividend break. I assume that also means no municipal bond exemptions. No exemptions for anything. Every last tax expenditure goes away. Corporate tax rates would be 20%, and again I assume no exemptions. If you make a profit, you pay taxes.
Although they did not say it in the book, they essentially agree with Hobbes that income measures what you contribute to society and spending measures what you take from it.
What society wants (and needs) is more income, as that grows tax revenues and general wealth. Consumption – what you get from society – is taxed. We don't just need to tax millionaires more, we need more millionaires that we can tax. And you get that by encouraging growth in the economy.
They also note that their proposal was revenue-neutral in 2007, and included a $2,000 per child tax credit. Every worker would get an approximate 7.5% pay raise from the removing of Social Security and Medicare taxes. While businesses would also get that same tax break, they would have to pay a VAT on salaries, which would be an increase in cost. Welfare, the social safety net, and health care would all be funded.
As the VAT would not be paid on exports, it would put us on a more even ground with those nations that have a VAT and certainly lower business taxes, both of which would make us more competitive and increase exports and thus employment.
While they did not suggest it, I would change the tax code over four years, although phasing out tax expenditures faster to help the current budget crisis. A sudden change might be disruptive, and it would take time to get the mechanism in place for collecting a VAT. States with individual income taxes would need to adjust the sources of their incomes. (It would also give my tax-accountant and tax-lawyer friends time to find a different career focus.) Businesses would need some time to adjust their costs and sales.
This is different from the so-called "Fair Tax," which is essentially a national sales tax. While I like the idea of taxing consumption, a 20% sales tax on top of state and local sales taxes of 8-10% would encourage much of our economy to move to either a barter system or a cash economy. A VAT might provoke similar reactions on a smaller level, but I think overall it is more readily collectible.
One can adjust the levels of both the VAT and income taxes to match the desired level of government spending. I might prefer less, but that is not the point here. Match these taxes (along with the normal excise taxes) with entitlement reform, a properly structured health-care system, and some cuts in other areas, and you are close to a balanced budget.
One caveat. It may surprise a few readers, but I met with David Krone yesterday for a long breakfast in Washington, DC. David is chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He is passionate, articulate, savvy, and an all-round nice guy. We found many areas of common ground and concerns. When I broached the idea of the tax proposal above, he seemed open to it, but came back with one thought.
"It has to have a trigger." I must admit, I had to ask what a trigger is.
"A trigger is a pre-agreed-upon outcome if the desired budget outcome does not happen. Either spending cuts, tax increases, or some combination, but it must be automatic." Quite a reasonable suggestion.
I readily admit there is something for everyone to hate in a VAT tax. It would raise my costs for employees substantially. I would lose several nice deductions. But given our current tax code, I think it would be the better of two evils for the economy.
Do you hate the idea? Then come up with an alternative that collects enough revenue and doesn't have the problems of the current structure, and can get the votes. As I noted above, I would vote for something like Simpson-Bowles if that was my choice. I think Reid and Boehner should introduce Simpson-Bowles for an up or down vote before the next election. Let's see what happens.
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