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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Big Mike's got it right

Our federal tax system is so messed up; it badly needs an overhaul. The former frat president, now our President, has a blue-ribbon panel working on tax reform. But they're all economists, which to me means they're detached from reality and likely to come up with something utterly unworkable.

In contrast, late last year I mentioned that I was intrigued by Yale Law Professor Michael Graetz's plan for fundamental federal tax reform. The Graetz plan is eminently do-able, if the political will were only there:

1. Repeal the regular federal income tax on individuals, leaving only what is now the alternative minimum tax (AMT) in its place. Fix it so that single people with incomes under $50,000 and married copuples with incomes under $100,000 don't pay income tax at all. For everyone else, impose a flat rate of 25 percent on the excess over $50,000 or $100,000, as the case may be. "Index" all the income figures in the system so that they rise every year with inflation. Replace the earned income credit (a tax benefit for the working poor) with an equivalent break on low-wage-earners' Social Security and Medicare taxes.

2. Institute a European-style value-added tax (essentially, a sales tax collected and paid by manufacturers and distributors) of 10 to 14 percent on all goods produced or sold in the United States.

3. Drop corporate tax rates to 25 percent, but require corporations to pay tax on the profits that they're showing investors and creditors on their books, not the much lower profits that are now showing up on their cooked tax returns.

Can you imagine a world in which most people would no longer be filing federal tax returns? And one in which corporations pay taxes based on the rosy picture that they're painting for their investors? Graetz can. And he's one smart dude.

Comments (22)

OK, not being either an economist or a tax lawyer, here's my question: Who wins and who loses? Or, put more elegantly - who pays more and who pays less?

Just imagine, members of the accounting and tax law professions will find themselves in the "no tax" bracket.

My reaction: smart-absolutely, fair - much more so, simple - duh. Politically viable - yeah right - you tell me?

The money machine is now feverishly devising a strategy to instill fear of simplicity in the masses. This to protect their position of inequity in tax liability born of creative accounting.

Serious money will prevail unfortunately to kill any meaningful equity adjustment. Am I too cynical??

"1. ...impose a flat rate of 25 percent on the excess over $50,000..."
So Jack's a commumist, good to know. Declaring a small segment of society as 'more able' is a bad idea. And drawing concrete lines for 'the rich' is a bad idea, because that 'rich' income-line always goes down.

Being devisive regarding 'the rich' - and valiantly giving 'poor' folks a break - is the fundamental problem with US taxes.

"2. Institute a [Sales Tax]"
If you suggested the Fair Tax Plan (Sales Tax only) you'd have something Jack.

"3. Drop corporate tax rates to 25 percent..."
And the book-cooking would go elsewhere. No gain with this part of the plan.

"Can you imagine a world in which most people would no longer be filing federal tax returns?"
Yeah, a crummy start that would divide the high achievers from the masses.

Jack, this plan has all the weaknesses you cited in regards to the Fair Tax Plan (namely, lowering taxes is something you say is bad). How is this plan better - besides being a minute amount more achievable?

What happens to FICA in this plan? Do self-employed people who make less than the new AMT threshold still need to file a tax return to pay their equivalent of the payroll tax?

Isn't tax law your specialty, Jack B? My father, who practiced civil litigation, claims that even tax lawyers who practice nothing else cannot possibly know or understand the behemoth, random, rider-bill comprised tax code -- ever.

Why tax the poor, Scott? Taxing the poor just makes them poorer, a good excuse for more government programs to "help" them. A negative income tax was once supported by that old leftie Milton Friedman. The most progressive libertarians I know (who are way more progressive than 99 percent of the "progressive" Democrats I know) call for something similar.

Speaking of FICA, Mr. Roberts, that's my favorite example of straight-up double-taxation (that and income taxes assessed on the very same gross wages). No doubt the self-employed (a relatively small percentage of FICA contributors?) would be required to file and pay it.

Cynical, Geno? I think you are spectacularly optimistic even to momentarily entertain someone's need to counter a move toward tax reform.

Sally - "Why tax the poor, Scott?"

You need to ask "Who is poor?" The answer is always different, and everyone here is considered both rich and poor.

What you're not understanding, Sally, is that taxing-some-but-not-others only breeds the intolerance that your well-meaning "spare the poor" idea hopes to work against.

Jack R, Graetz's plan leaves the Social Security and Medicare taxes alone, except for providing a rebate to low-income workers. So most self-employed people would still have to file.

Scott, please take your national sales tax and shove it. People who are barely scraping by and trying to raise a family should pay tax at a lower rate than high-income people. It's been that way in this country for nearly 100 years, and it's clearly the will of the majority of Americans. Even the conniving liars currently in power won't be able to sell what you're trying to peddle.

Once people realize that most Americans will lose tax benefits for their 401(k)s and mortgage interest, they will be skeptical of this plan. That being said, I think it is a very sensible one.

I think my only change would be to add progressivity to the remaining income tax -- adding a 30% (or so) marginal rate on income over $250k (or so).

I don't get the sales tax obsession -- how many times do economists have to point out that we would require a 40-50 percent rate to break even before people give this up?

I think the flat tax over $100K (or whatever number) is fair. Unfortunately, the "rich" are able to lower their effective tax rate by taking advantage of the myriad of deduction in what is now 3000-something(?) page tax code.

VAT/Sales Tax seems fair also, since if people save instead of buying, they don't get penalized for that. Also, having fewer people to collect from (vendors instead of individuals) make admin of this easier.

Unfortunately, based on the SS reform talk, is not based in any kind of financial analysis at all. No, I am not crazy about Bush's plan, however, I don;t see any brainchilds in the Demos coming up with anything besides fighting anything Bush proposes. Moreover, unless it has the Kosher stamp from Pelosi/Dean/Reid et al, it will never get addressed in a logical manner.

Ooooh, the VAT as savior! (That's sarcasm.)The "10 to 14 percent VAT" is a national sales tax that everyone would pay, as it would simply be passed onto consumers through higher prices. At least our current tax scheme is progressive. The VAT is (in effect) regressive, hitting low-income citizens the hardest (as it will account for a larger percentage of their incomes and there is no way to get away from it's effects except to stop buying things).

I'm in Graetz's court also. There are of course, significant political obstacles to that plan. First, it needs a transition element or everyone with post-tax savings (i.e. Seniors) will get hosed. Second, the business community prefers the devil it knows, to the devil it does not know. Unfortunately, Graetz will not write the legislation ... Thomas and Grassley will and the JOBS Act is not giving tax advisors much faith in their ability to craft sound and fair legislation. Finally, there are a lot of special interests who can be expected to fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

Go back to your Econ 1 class, Scott-in-Japan. Perhaps you had the Paul Samuelson textbook - or ist that out of fashion now?

Anyway, a sales tax is a REGRESSIVE tax. The poor pay a GREATER percentage of their disposable income than the rich. A person earning $20,000 pays, say $1,000 in sales taxes, or 5% of her income. A person earning $200,000 pays, say $4,000 in sales taxes (because they buy more), which is only 2% of his income. This is the definition of a regressive tax.

If you think a PROGRESSIVE income tax is unfair (and many do), then why would you espouse a tax system whcih was just as unfair, if not more so, by having the poor pay a greater percentage of their income as tax?

The fairness/unfairness of a VAT or national sales tax must be measured in terms of what goods or services that it applies to. If it only applied to yachts and Rolls Royces, many of you would probably think that it was fair, because it would then be progressive. But if it applied to food and other essentials, many of you would probably think it was unfair, because it would then be regressive.

How can you possibly scoff at the idea without knowing the particulars?

Erik, if a national VAT/Sales Tax were aimed only at yachts and Rolls Royces, then it wouldn't collect enough money to be worth the trouble.

The only thing most state sales taxes exempt is food. And not all food, all the time. And not food served in restaurants.

So the poor would take it in the shorts.

Note, too, that purchases of new shorts would also trigger sales tax.

Of course, a value-added tax (VAT) is essentially a sales tax, since businesses simply pass it on to their customers in the prices of goods. But at least it's well hidden...

What I like most about Graetz's plan is that it's a compromise -- a consumption tax (VAT) to please the right, a crackdown on corporate tax shenanigans to please the left, and elimination of the income tax on the middle class to please the middle.

Tax is politics, folks. It doesn't get any better than what Graetz is proposing, and he's offering serious, serious simplification. For most, it would mean goodbye, TurboTax and H&R Block!

Gordo, all I was pointing out was that you can't assess the fairness of the tax without knowing what is exempt (and then what is "fair" is subjective, of course). You assume that a national sales tax would be identical to a typical state sales tax in terms of what is taxed and what is not, and maybe it would be, but possibly it would be radically different. I think you and I would agree that the typical state sales tax is regressive in nature and possibly "unfair," but ANY realistic tax can be made as progressive or regressive as the government wishes.

Jack - "People who are barely scraping by and trying to raise a family should pay tax at a lower rate than high-income people."

What's the rate between the two? You can't answer that sincerely for the whole country because there is no single answer, like you propose with your college-professor ideas. Scrap the whole thing and put on a level-field.

It's not 'fair', but it's equitable...and that would be (in reality) better for the 'poor' than anything The Left has been able to cobble together to date.

I think it's fair to look at the range of sales tax proposals that have been introduced and make certain assumptions about what the base would look like.

The sales tax proposal that is most commonly promoted is quite broad, including first-time home sales, clothing, groceries and (I think) health care goods and services (e.g. prescription drugs).

When you talk about sales taxes only being applied to limos and yachts, that's mighty unrealistic. (In fact, we recently let a luxury tax on those items lapse, because the good folks in Congress were worried about blue collar jobs.)


My example of yachts and Rolls Royces was used for color, I figured people would get the drift that I meant items that would be more likely purchased by the "wealthy."

I am from Maine where a lot of the coastal folk are ship builders (friends included), and in fact the industry was hard hit by the boat tax.

I understand that your examples were for color. My point was that the only sales tax proposals cover either EVERYTHING or something pretty close to everything, so your colorful examples were kind of misleading because they suggested the sales tax would be applied selectively.

I bet the luxury tax hurt some ship builders and some employees probably lost their jobs, but I have a feeling that wasn't the reason the GOP let the tax expire. :)


The Graetz plan is prepackaged socialism.

Life is a race we all must run, with financial security being one of many finish lines. We all need to accept the fact that runners do not start the race (to that particular finish line) at the same place. A select few already have won the race before the gunshot, somewhat more start halfway down the track, most of us start at the blocks. Some will never leave the blocks, others will fall away down the track, and still others won't even have the shoes to run.

Tax policy is just one tool available to handicap the race. IMO, it's overused. Create the right incentives and government intervention will be largely unnecessary.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Big Mike's got it right:

» Time to comment on two posts by Jack Bog from
The first post is Big Mike's got it right. This post is about Yale Law Professor Michael Graetz's plan for fundamental federal tax reform. I like the plan. There's a comment or two in the comments section that indicates taxing the rich is sort ... [Read More]


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