A Fair Critique of the Fair Tax

Daniel J. Mitchell
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Posted: Aug 09, 2014 12:01 AM
A Fair Critique of the Fair Tax

I’m a long-time proponent of the flat tax for three simple reasons.

1. It replaces the discriminatory “progressive” tax with a single tax rate at the lowest possible level, Thus reducing the tax penalty on productive behavior.

2. It gets rid of all forms of double taxation, such as thedeath tax and capital gains tax, meaning economic activity is never taxed more than one time.

3. Other than a family-based allowance, it gets rid of all loopholes, deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions, and preferences, meaning economic activity is taxed equally.

Some people say that these are also three reasons to favor a national sales tax.

My response is that they’re correct. In simple terms, a national sales tax (such as the Fair Tax) is like a flat tax but with a different collection point.

If you want more details, I often explain the two plans are different sides of the same coin. The only difference is that the flat tax takes of slice of your income as you earn it and the sales tax takes a slice of your income as you spend it. But neither plan has any double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And neither plan has loopholes to lure people into making economically irrational decisions.

Instead of class warfare and/or social engineering, both plans are designed toraise money is the least-damaging fashion possible.

So even though I’m mostly known for being an advocate of the flat tax, I have no objection to speaking in favor of a national sales tax, testifying in favor of a national sales tax, or debating in favor of a national sales tax.

With this bit of background, you can understand why it caught my attention that an economics professor at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) wrote a column for Forbes with the provocative title of “I Will Support The Fair Tax When Its Backers Tell The Truth”.

Professor Dorfman writes that “such a consumption tax has much to recommend it from an economic point of view” but then warns that he “cannot support the Fair Tax as long as its backers continue to make implausible claims for their proposed reform.”

So what are the implausible claims? Let’s check them out and see if his friendly criticism is warranted.

He first expresses skepticism about the claim that take-home pay will rise to the level of gross pay under a Fair Tax, particularly given the assertion that prices won’t rise.

…the odds are that your gross pay will shrink over time under the Fair Tax. …employers can offer workers lower pay because of the lower cost of living (same prices, but higher take home pay). Because workers evaluate pay offers based on the purchasing power of that pay, the same competitive forces that will lower prices after the removal of business taxes, will lead to lower pay for employees in the long run as the labor market adjusts.

I suspect Professor Dorfman’s critique is correct, but I don’t think it matters. Workers understandably care first and foremost about the purchasing power of their paycheck, and that won’t be negatively impacted.

The Professor than looks at whether the Fair Tax gets taxes the underground economy.

…let’s tackle the claim that the Fair tax will do a better job of collecting taxes on criminals, the underground economy, and those who underreport their income. The idea is that people may hide some of their income or that drug dealers and others in the underground economy do not report their income, but that everyone spends money so the Fair Tax will tax everyone. Unfortunately, this claim is not true…Retailers are just as capable of underreporting revenue and not sending in the corresponding Fair Tax as people are of underreporting their income. …The incentive to avoid such consumption taxes will only increase when the rate is four or five times what it is now. If you don’t believe consumption taxes suffer from collection problems, go ask Greece.

And he looks specifically at taxing criminal activity.

Another reason that the Fair Tax will not capture extra revenue from illegal activities is that it only switches which side of the transaction is missed by the tax system. Currently, while drug dealers may not report their income, the people who buy drugs are paying with after-tax income. Under the Fair Tax, the drug dealers will pay tax when they spend their drug profits. However, unless the drug dealer sends in the Fair Tax on their sales, the drug buyers will now avoid tax on their purchases. Under either tax system, one side of the underground transactions will be paying taxes and one will not.

I think Professor Dorfman is correct, particularly in his explanation that drug dealers and other criminals will not collect sales tax when they peddle their illicit goods.

And he’s also correct when he says that the Fair Tax won’t collect all taxes on legal products.

But that doesn’t mean the Fair Tax is somehow flawed. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the underground economy will shrink under a national sales tax since the incentive to evade tax (on legal products) is a function of the tax rate. So if we replace the punitive high-rate internal revenue code with a low-rate Fair Tax, there will be a higher level of compliance.

But not zero evasion, so Fair Tax supporters exaggerate if they make that claim.

The next point of contention is whether the IRS can be repealed under a Fair Tax.

…some agency needs to collect all the sales taxes, ensure retailers are sending in the full amount, and handle all the mechanics of the prebate. The prebate requires this federal agency to know everyone’s family size and have a bank account or other method of sending out the prebate each month. So while individuals will have less interaction with the federal tax agency, there will still be some. For retail businesses, their interactions with federal tax officials will be at least as much as now, if not more.

The Professor is right, though this may be a matter of semantics. Fair Tax people acknowledge there will be a tax collector (the legislation creates an incentive for states to be in charge of collecting the tax), but they say that the tax authority under their system will be completely different than the abusive IRS we have today.

Last but not least is the controversy over whether everyone benefits under a Fair Tax.

…while Fair Tax proponents often act like nobody loses under the Fair Tax that is simply not possible. If the Fair Tax is implemented in a revenue neutral manner (collecting the same amount of total revenue as all the taxes it replaces), and some people win then other people must lose. Poor people pay roughly no tax either way, so the Fair tax would be neutral for them. The very rich will assumedly pay less since they spend a lower percentage of their income and spend more overseas. Thus, the suspicion is that the middle class will be paying more. One other group pretty sure to pay more is the elderly. The elderly have paid income tax while earning income, and under the Fair Tax would suddenly pay high consumption taxes right when their income drops and their spending increases. In the long run, this is not a problem, but early in a Fair Tax regime, the elderly definitely are losers.

Once again, Professor Dorfman is making a good point (and others have made the same point about the flat tax).

My response, for what it’s worth, is that supporters of both the flat tax and national sales tax should not be bound by revenue neutrality. Especially if the revenue-estimating system is rigged to produce bad numbers. Instead, they should set the rate sufficiently low that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers are net winners.

And in the long run, everyone can be a net winner if the economy grows faster.

And that, as Professor Dorfman agrees, is the main reason for tax reform.

The Fair Tax really has much to recommend it. It is simpler than the current system. It causes fewer distortions in the daily economic decisions that people make. The main distortion it does introduce is positive: to encourage saving and discourage consumption which would make the country wealthier in the long run.

Though I would quibble with the wording of this last excerpt. I don’t think the Fair Tax creates a pro-savings distortion. Instead, it removes an anti-savings bias. Just like the flat tax.

Now let me add a friendly criticism that Professor Dorfman didn’t address.

Advocates of the Fair Tax correctly say that their proposal shouldn’t be implemented until and unless the income tax is fully repealed. But as I explain inthis video, that may be an impossible undertaking.

To be blunt, I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they would gladly adopt some form of consumption tax while secretly scheming to keep the income tax.

P.S. Actually, what I really want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax. Our nation enjoyed strong growth before that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was imposed, so why concede that politicians today should have either a flat tax or Fair Tax? But that’s an issue for another day.