A first step to progressive consumption taxes - Barokong - Teknoiot

10 Aug 2020

A first step to progressive consumption taxes - Barokong

What's an easy way to get going on progressive income taxes? Simply remove all limits on contributions to and withdrawals from IRAs. (I thank my Hoover colleague Michael Bernstam for this clever idea, and the Hoover coffee room for bumping us into each other.)

Background: Once people see that a consumption tax, in place of income tax, corporate tax, estate tax, etc. is much simpler and more economically efficient, the natural question is "what about progressivity?" The answer is that there are lots of ways to make a consumption tax progressive.

My favorite (today) is a flat consumption tax, with the same rate on everything, collected as a VAT.

Then, realize that progressive taxation is the same thing as flat taxation plus redistribution. If I pay 40% tax and you pay 20% tax, that's the same thing as both of us paying 40% tax and you receiving a check from the government. So, I think, separate taxation (raising revenue for the government at minimum cost), subsidy, and redistribution. Make redistribution coherent, integrate it with other programs, and implement it by sending people checks, on budget.

Most countries try to make it progressive by charging different rates for things that rich people buy vs. poor people. But that is a mistake as it distorts the economy. Even rich people can buy more tacos and less yachts, and maybe a poor person wanted to buy a yacht and start a rental business.

An alternative implementation is to turn the current income tax system into a progressive consumption tax. If you can fully deduct savings from income, the "income" tax becomes a consumption tax. Alternatively, pay taxes on all "earned" income, but no tax on  dividends, interest, or capital gains. That works out to the same thing -- no tax distortion on whether you consume the day you get the income, or later after returns compound.

That approach leads to all sorts of definitional problems, which is why I haven't been a huge fan. (Though I'm not strongly opinionated, recognizing that people who advocate it know a lot more about the tax code than I do.)

So, along comes Michael. Why not just remove all limits on IRAs? Contribute as many pre-tax dollars as you want. Interest, dividends, and capital gains accumulate tax free. No minimum distributions, estate taxes, etc. But when you take money out of the IRA, to consume it (otherwise you'd leave it in!) you pay income tax.

Yes, it's imperfect. It doesn't solve the Trump issue that what is "income" is an elastic concept in the hands of lawyers and lobbyists. But it's a quick and easy step that gets us a long way there.

Our tax code sort of recognizes that taxing rates of return is a bad idea. We tax "unearned" income -- but then there is a huge list of complex exemptions. 401(k), 526(b), IRA, Roth IRA, health savings accounts, college savings accounts, step up of capital gains at death, like-kind exchanges, and on and on, each with complex rules to follow. Just removing all limits on IRAs would be a big step towards a consumption tax, and then we wouldn't need all these other ones either.

Objections? I'm not great on tax law, so it will be fun to hear comments.

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