Wed, 27 May 2009 21:15:14 +0000 – By Phil KerpenPolicy Director, Americans for Prosperity
In today's Washington Post, the White House floats a really scary trial balloon--a new national Value-Added Tax (VAT) to pay for out-of-control spending and a Washington take over of health care. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad appears to be on board. So does Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel, who has been hired by the White House budget office to help design the health care plan and whose book on health care uses a VAT to fund the new government program. Obama economic adviser Paul Volcker is also on-board the VAT-train.
What is the VAT? It's a type of national sales tax that is collected in pieces throughout the production chain, instead of being collected all at once at the cash register like a retail sales tax. In theory, sales taxes like the VAT are pretty good taxes because they are broad-based, difficult to evade, and minimize economic distortions. In practice, they are the ATM machine for runaway government growth, because they are largely invisible to the public and they can raise huge amounts of money in very small chunks, thus minimizing the effective political opposition that generally keeps taxes in check.
A couple of years ago Dan Mitchell wrote a great summaryof the VAT experience in Europe that explains how the VAT was the key policy change that moved Europe to a much higher level of taxes and spending than the U.S. Because the tax is difficult for the public to see, it's very easy for politicians to raise, and VAT rates in Europe have steadily increased since the tax was first introduced. With the VAT tax weapon in hand, European governments have grown to more than 40 percent of GDP, a level unknown in the United States outside of world wars. Now that scary scenario could, unfortunately be in store for us if the White House pursues a VAT in the U.S.
The U.S. tax system is clearly a mess, and badly in need of meaningful tax reform. That reform, however, needs to in the direction of simplicity and lower rates. Many conservatives believe, with good reason, that we should abolish the IRS, end income taxation, and adopt a national sales tax of some kind--most would prefer a national retail sales tax, which is the heart of the Fair Tax proposal. Some, perhaps, would be happy with a VAT, which functions much like a sales tax. Such a proposal is not without its virtues, but the enormous risk associated with it is that we end up with a national sales tax on top of our existing income tax system.
Based on the European experience, accepting a VAT in exchange for reductions in taxes on income and capital would be a foolish bargain, because once politicians have all the taxes on the books they would steadily increase the rates over time, leading to a much higher overall level of taxes and spending than would otherwise have been possible. We need to draw a clear line in the sand that no new national taxes will be put in place without eliminating--not cutting, but permanently eliminating--our existing income tax.
Trillions of dollars of bailouts, stimulus, spending, unfunded entitlement obligations, and an appetite for a Washington takeover of health care have us on a collision course for a national bankruptcy unless we adopt a huge new tax (cap-and-trade is another one, by-the-way, although the VAT could be even more expensive) or finally start to get a handle on runaway spending. The current tax system simply will not bear enough revenue to pay for these trillions of dollars of obligations. If we don't want to accept a European-style nanny state and the lower standards of living that come with it, we need to cut all this spending and forget about a Washington takeover of health care. And we need to shoot this VAT trial balloon down, quickly.