Be Fair to FairTax -- Throw the Red Herrings Back in the Water
August 29, 2007; Page A13 of The Wall Street Journal
It is apparently getting so difficult to defend the current income tax system that its guardians must use smear tactics to slow down its best replacement. Bruce Bartlett ("FairTax, Flawed Tax," editorial page, Aug. 25) is the latest status quo defender to use fiction to slander the FairTax plan.
The FairTax was developed many years ago, totally independently of any other proposal, group or movement. It is a product of more than $20 million of advanced economic research, as well as detailed conversations with citizens as to their preferences defining the best possible national tax system. Many groups and individuals have agitated to replace the deeply flawed income tax system, including, apparently, the Church of Scientology. As a founder of Americans For Fair Taxation, I can state categorically, however, that Scientology played no role in the founding, research or crafting of the legislation giving expression to the FairTax.
Mr. Bartlett is equally wrong about many other aspects of the FairTax. We are disappointed but hardly surprised by such distortions about it coming from the very economist who once opined that the income tax system just needed a little "tweaking."
My guess is that few readers made it with an open mind past Mr. Bartlett attributing the FairTax's origins to the Church of Scientology. That organization may have a similar proposal or a proposal with a similar name, but I know for certain that the mainstream FairTax proposal found at www.fairtax.org has no connection to it.
I know this because the two principal founders of the FairTax movement, Leo Linbeck and Bob McNair of Houston, are friends of mine who served on my board at the Dallas Fed. I was there as they began to develop their proposal in the mid-1990s. I watched them pitch their fledgling idea to their friends and business associates, and I watched them urge prominent economists to do independent research on their proposal. I even accompanied them to San Francisco to pitch it to Milton and Rose Friedman. (I still remember Rose's homemade cookies.)
We should give the FairTax a fair chance. In fact, I posted a blog with that title a few weeks ago. See http://www.bob-mcteer-blog.com/. A fair chance means a thorough evaluation and discussion of its merits without the distraction of a red herring.
The FairTax would replace the federal corporate and individual income tax, payroll taxes and the estate and gift tax with a 23% national retail sales tax on all goods and services. Each household would be provided with a monthly prebate equal to the sales tax rate times the federal poverty level plus a small extra amount in the case of a married couple to prevent a marriage penalty.
The FairTax bill (H.R. 25) was developed by economists, business people and tax lawyers who understood that the current tax system is dysfunctional. Specifying the criteria by which successful reform should be evaluated, they engineered the tax around the notion that reform should minimize the adverse growth effects of the tax system, be neutral between debt and equity, consumption and savings, and among industries, should reduce compliance burdens that waste more than a quarter trillion dollars today, respect civil liberties instead of requiring Americans to reveal virtually every aspect of their lives to government, eliminate favoritism shown imports and remove the penalty on exports, enhance the competitiveness of the U.S. as an investment destination and a location for headquartering businesses, eliminate the bias against upward mobility, and increase transparency and comprehension of the tax system.
Mr. Bartlett questions economic claims that under the FairTax proposal the gross domestic product will rise 10.5%. In fact, Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics estimates GDP gains up to 24.4% greater than under the current system by the 10th year. Michael Boskin, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, estimates long-term gain to GDP from a consumption-based tax reform would be about 10%. Laurence Kotlikoff estimated a 7% to 14% increase in GDP. Many others find high single digit to low double digit gains. Lowering marginal rates and eliminating double and triple taxation of savings will increase the well-being of the American people by a trillion dollars per year and perhaps much more.
The FairTax would untax existing homes that represent three-quarters of all homes bought and sold. And by allowing mortgage interest payments to be paid with both pre-income and pre-payroll tax dollars, the tax is the equivalent of allowing mortgage interest to be deductible against payroll taxes today. Interest rates will drop by 25% for the same reason municipal bond rates are lower than taxable bond rates. Interest would not be taxable to the recipient. And of course there is the benefit of having the only developed economy in the world with a zero rate of tax on income.
Dan R. Mastromarco
(Messrs. Mastromarco and Burton are principals in the Argus Group, a law and government relations firm.)
In the interests of full disclosure, we reprint the original editorial here:
FairTax, Flawed Tax
The Wall Street Journal
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's unexpectedly strong second-place showing in the recent Iowa Republican straw poll is widely attributed to his support for the FairTax.
For those who never heard about it, the FairTax is a national retail sales tax that would replace the entire current federal tax system. It was originally devised by the Church of Scientology in the early 1990s as a way to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service, with which the church was then at war (at the time the IRS refused to recognize it as a legitimate religion). The Scientologists' idea was that since almost all states have sales taxes, replacing federal taxes with the same sort of tax would allow them to collect the federal government's revenue and thereby get rid of their hated enemy, the IRS.
Rep. John Linder (R., Ga.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) have introduced legislation (H.R. 25/S. 1025) to implement the FairTax. They assert that a rate of 23% would be sufficient to replace federal individual and corporate income taxes as well as payroll and estate taxes. Mr. Linder's Web site claims that U.S. gross domestic product will rise 10.5% the first year after enactment, exports will grow by 26%, and real investment spending will increase an astonishing 76%.
In reality, the FairTax rate is not 23%. Messrs. Linder and Chambliss get this figure by calculating the tax as if it were already incorporated into the price of goods and services. (This is known as the tax-inclusive rate.) Calculating it the conventional way that every other sales tax is calculated, with the tax on top of the price, yields a rate of 30%. (This is called the tax-exclusive rate.)
The distinction is confusing, but think of it this way. If a product costs $1 at retail, the FairTax adds 30%, for a total of $1.30. Since the 30-cent tax is 23% of $1.30, FairTax supporters say the rate is 23% rather than 30%.
This is only the beginning of the deceptions in the FairTax. Under the Linder-Chambliss bill, the federal government would have to pay taxes to itself on all of its purchases of goods and services. Thus if the Defense Department buys a tank that now costs $1 million, the manufacturer would have to add the FairTax and send it to the Treasury Department. The tank would then cost the federal government $300,000 more than it does today, but its tax collection will also be $300,000 higher.
This legerdemain is done solely to make revenues under the FairTax seem larger than they really are, so that its supporters can claim that it is revenue-neutral. But for the government to afford to purchase the same goods and services, it would have to raise spending by the amount of the tax it pays to itself. The FairTax rate, however, is not high enough to finance the higher spending it imposes. Therefore the proposal only works if federal purchases are cut by 30%, close to $300 billion -- the increased cost imposed by the FairTax.
Similarly, state and local governments would have to pay the FairTax on most of their purchases. This means that it is partly financed by higher state and local taxes. It's also worth remembering that state sales taxes now average 6%, which means that the total tax rate will be 36% on retail sales.
State sales taxes have long exempted all but a few services because of the enormous difficulty in taxing intangibles. But the FairTax would apply to 100% of services, including medical care, thus increasing their cost by 30%. No state comes close to taxing services so broadly.
Consumers would also find themselves taxed on newly constructed homes. Imagine paying 30% to the federal government on top of the purchase price of your next house.
Since sales taxes are regressive -- taking more in percentage terms from the incomes of the poor and middle class than the rich -- some provision is needed to prevent a vast increase in taxation on the nonwealthy. The FairTax does this by sending monthly checks to every household based on income.
Aside from the incredible complexity and intrusiveness of tracking every American's monthly income -- and creating a de facto national welfare program -- the FairTax does not include the cost of this rebate in the tax rate. As noted earlier, the FairTax is designed only to match current revenues and does not cover any increased spending that it may require. Since the rebate will cost at least $600 billion the first year, either federal discretionary spending would have to be cut by 60% or the rate would have to be five percentage points higher than advertised.
Rejecting all the tricks of FairTax supporters and calculating the tax rate honestly -- by including the higher spending that it mandates and by being realistic about what could actually be taxed -- professional revenue estimators have always concluded that a national retail sales tax would have to be much, much higher than 23%.
A 2000 estimate by Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation found the tax-inclusive rate would have to be 36% and the tax-exclusive rate would be 57%. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department calculated that a tax-exclusive rate of 34% would be needed just to replace the income tax, leaving the payroll tax in place. But if evasion were high then the rate might have to rise to 49%. If the FairTax were only able to cover the limited sales tax base of a typical state, then a rate of 64% would be required (89% with high evasion).
I've emphasized problems with the FairTax rate because public opinion polls have long shown that support for flat-rate tax reforms is extremely sensitive to the proposed rate, with support dropping off sharply at a rate higher than 23%. But there are also massive technical and administrative problems with collecting all federal taxes at the checkout counter and relying entirely on state governments to collect the federal government's revenue.
Among the problems: What possible incentive would the states have to be vigorous in their federal tax collections? What is to stop them from slacking off and giving their citizens a tax cut at federal expense? What about states with no sales taxes? What's to stop people from bypassing retail outlets and buying their goods from producers or at wholesale, tax-free?
Perhaps the biggest deception in the FairTax, however, is its promise to relieve individuals from having to file income tax returns, keep extensive financial records and potentially suffer audits. Judging by the emphasis FairTax supporters place on the idea of making April 15 just another day, this seems to be a major selling point for their proposal.
Yet all but six states now have state income taxes. So unless one lives in one of those states, this promise is an empty one indeed. In short, the FairTax is too good to be true, and voters should not take seriously any candidate who supports it.
Mr. Bartlett was deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy from 1988 to 1993.