Thursday, April 15, 2010

What a VAT could mean

There are more and more murmurings about how the U.S. will need a VAT tax to deal with the soaring budget deficits we're facing because of such expanded federal spending. It is not too early to start marshaling arguments against the VAT and the WSJ performs that service today. We're not talking about having a VAT instead of an income tax, but in addition to our income tax. And Europe's examples demonstrate that the strong trend is for a VAT to increase a lot beyond the level at which it was first implemented.
In the U.S., VAT proponents aren't calling for a repeal of the 16th Amendment that allowed the income tax—and, in fact, they want income tax rates to rise. The White House has promised to let the top individual rate increase in January to 39.6% from 35% as the Bush tax cuts expire, while the dividend rate will go to 39.6% from 15% and the capital gains rate to 20% next year and 23.8% in 2013 under the health bill, from 15% today. Even with these higher rates, or because of them, revenues won't come close to paying for the Obama Administration's new spending—which is why it is also eyeing a VAT.

One trait of European VATs is that while their rates often start low, they rarely stay that way. Of the 10 major OECD nations with VATs or national sales taxes, only Canada has lowered its rate. Denmark has gone to 25% from 9%, Germany to 19% from 10%, and Italy to 20% from 12%. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently calculated that to balance the U.S. federal budget with a VAT would require a rate of at least 18%.

Proponents also argue that a VAT would result in less federal government borrowing. But that, too, has rarely been true in Europe. From the 1980s through 2005, deficits were by and large higher in Europe than in the U.S. By 2005, debt averaged 50% of GDP in Europe, according to OECD data, compared to under 40% in the U.S.
The purpose of a VAT wouldn't be to balance our budget, but to facilitate even more spending. And there is a big price that a country would pay to institute such a smothering blanket on economic growth.
And one more point: In Europe, this heavier spending and tax burden has also meant lower levels of income growth and job creation. From 1982 to 2007, the U.S. created 45 million new jobs, compared to fewer than 10 million in Europe, and U.S. economic growth was more than one-third faster over the last two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2008, the average resident of West Virginia, one of the poorest American states, had an income $2,000 a year higher than the average resident of the European Union, according to economist Mark Perry of the University of Michigan, Flint. The price of a much higher tax burden to finance a cradle-to-grave entitlement state in Europe has been a lower standard of living. VAT supporters should explain why the same won't be true in America.
Of course it would be true. The Democrats are trying everything they can to make the U.S. more like a European country. Is this really a goal we should be seeking?