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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Goldberg, THE DEATH OF THE INCOME TAX

Mark Graber


My colleague Daniel Goldberg has just published a fascinating book, The Death of the Income Tax: A Progressive Consumption Tax and the Path to Fiscal Reform (Oxford, 2013).  As the title suggests, Professor Goldberg (i.e., Dan) maintains that an income tax devised in 1913 is both outdated and counter-productive.  He argues with great vigor that what we need is a progressive tax on consumption that can be administered electronically.  The result, in his view, will be more revenue and greater equity.  In short, something for both liberals and conservatives alike.

One central theme of the book is that progressive income taxation in practice is a lot less attractive than progressive income taxation in theory.  Dan details at least three major problems with income tax policy in the United States that ought to be of great concern to all citizens.  First, the income tax is very expensive to collect.  The best things in life are free, which may explain why the Internal Revenue System is so costly.  Second, cheating is endemic.  A very high proportion of Americans successfully manage to pay far less taxes than the law demands.  Third, the tax system is riddled with loopholes.  Few people pay what a glance at basic tax rates suggest they should pay.  The last two points are particularly important when thinking about the progressivity of the income tax.  To the extent that cheating and taking advantage of loopholes are largely elite phenomenon, the income tax burdens less fortunate Americans far more than advertized.  Dan maintains that Americans could easily design a progressive consumption tax that would be much cheaper to implement, much less prone to cheating, and far simpler than the present income tax.   The second part of the book details exactly how that might occur.

Whether the electronically progressive consumption tax will function as smoothly and as progressively as Dan believes is a matter on which I am not competent to say (I kept turning pages hoping for a reference to slavery in the territories or early nineteenth century land law).  Nevertheless, The Death of the Income Tax has much to offer liberals and conservatives whether they are experts on tax policy or not.  To begin with, Dan is a wonderfully engaging writer.  Numerous bot mots leap at the reader, all of which facilitate rather than retard the basic themes of the book.  In short, the book is an easy read.  The Death of the Income Tax is also a terrific guide for the novice interested in learning about the way taxes function in the United States and alternative means for taxation.  If you want to learn about tax policy and wish to avoid a standard text, Dan’s book would be a great choice.  The book has much to offer all citizens, whether they are tax experts, veterans of an 18 year course on tax entitled "Dinner Table," or know nothing about the subject.

Dan’s study of the income tax also raises some questions about American political and constitutional development that have implications far beyond tax policy.  As Sandy Levinson reminds us from time to time, Americans have difficulty imagining alternatives to the ways in which politics functions in the United States.  If we should think seriously about whether a Constitution designed for an eighteenth century polity can function well in the twenty-first century, then surely there is serious room for contemporary Americans to consider whether the best means for raising revenue people could devise at the beginning of the twentieth century remains the best means for raising revenue one-hundred years later.  Relying on the income tax in 2013 may be as out-of date as relying primarily on tariffs for revenue in 1913.

The Death of the Income Tax also highlights what I believe is the most liberal strand in libertarian thinking.  Limited government tends to have three types of justifications.  The first is that government intervention violates individual rights, most notably property rights.  The second is that government intervention is inefficient, that free markets create more wealth than regulation.  The third is that government intervention in practice is highly skewed to the interest of the most fortunate.  This defense of libertarianism was quite prominent in the works of such nineteenth century Jacksonians as William Leggett and, later, William Graham Sumner.  Andrew Jackson also defended limited government on the ground that government was far more likely to serve affluent interests than redistribute property.  Leggett, Sumner, and Jackson would no doubt have said “I told you so” had they read Goldberg's chapters meticulously detailing the way in which a redistributive tax policy in theory more often promotes elite causes in practice.  Whether an electronically administered progressive consumption tax will alleviate these problems is a fair question, but Dan’s book reminds all progressives that tax and other policies that redistribute downward in theory often redistribute upwards in practice.

Comments:

The progressive income tax works this way: Warren Buffet's secretary pays some 16% of her wage in income tax and another 16% in FICA.

Warren need not earn a wage and need not participate in FICA. He also need not have unearned income, since he can borrow enough funds for the rest of his life that are secured by his investments, which he never sells for realized gain and so may never see any tax, even on great wealth passed on to dozens of heirs.

What if we had no income tax and only a VAT? In that case, Warren Buffet wouldn't even spend his money in the USSA. Neither would I.
 

Yeah, after foisting VAT everywhere else on earth it's time to foist it on ourselves.

In seriousness, there's nothing liberal about VAT, consumption taxes, or sales taxes. All of them cause significant deadweight losses and reward unearned incomes elsewhere, i.e. untaxed land rents.

The real read is Mason Gaffney's, "Europe's Fatal Affair With VAT," which I think overreaches in arguing that the VAT-less U.S. tax system is the reason for heavy buying in T-Bills. But it is an excellent history of VAT and its stupidity.
 

One of the only good things about getting old is that as long as I can remember back far enough, not much seems new.

Lester Thurow, a prominent liberal oriented economist from MIT, had proposed the same thing back in the 1980s. I remain skeptical of it as much now as then.

Simplifying the income tax (meaning lose the deductions, exemptions, credits and the like) and making it apply to capital gains equal to wages would work best.
 

Let me toss this into the discussion without getting into the merits (for now) of the book's proposal. What would be the impact of the book's proposed "reform" upon the legal profession, including the many legal academia graduate tax programs (not to mention the CPAs)? Legal academia has quite a bit of turmoil without adding thie "reform" to it; and so does "Big Law."

I took a federal tax course in my second year of law school (1952-53) that dealt with the tax code of 1930. Following graduation in 1954, there came the tax code of 1954. After a couple of years of practice, I discovered the need to know more tax law to service my clients. NYU had a graduate tax program that was sort of pioneering. Its annual review of tax law was quite helpful, but not enough. Fortunately here in the Boston area a similar graduate tax program developed. I attended on a part-time basis, getting my LLM in 1970. I joined the adjunct faculty in 1975, departing in the early 1980s. All this time I had a busy law practice that was enhanced by tax law.

The point I want to make is that at the beginning of the first class each year I would mention my first tax course, the 1954 code and then list the many tax laws since, emphasizing those that included the word "reform."

And after retiring from teaching, there were more tax laws enacted that included the word "reform."

So I'm generally with Mr. Freedman.


 

In considering this type of rather drastic "reform" many taxpayers will focus on the personal impact of such "reform." Here's what I have been paying by way of taxes. What will I pay with the "reform"?

Also to be considered is the impact of such "reform" on state income taxes that gear to federal income taxation. Might taxation by states become more significant than "reform" at the federal level.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: "Reports of the death of the income tax have been greatly exaggerated."

And Rube Goldberg must be smiling down on his namesake's attempt at simplification.
 

I have a hunch that were the income tax replaced with a value added tax, there would be great enthusiasm in some quarters for repealing the VAT and replacing it with something else.
 

I'd love to live on the border between a pure-VAT and a pure-income-tax country. I would work in the VAT country and do my purchasing in the other!


 

I'd love to live on the border between a pure-VAT and a pure-income-tax country. I would work in the VAT country and do my purchasing in the other!

Live and work in Vancouver Washington, with no state income tax, and no sales tax on the other side of the Columbia River, in Portland Oregon.
 

We libertarians have been arguing for replacing the income tax with the FAIR sales tax for quite some time.

http://www.fairtax.org/site/PageServer

The FAIR tax is somewhat progressive, but not punitively so, because it everyone gets a credit for living expenses.

Does Professor Goldberg offer an similarly detailed plan for his consumption tax? I'm sorry, but I am not paying $39 bucks to read the book.
 

Live and work in Vancouver Washington, with no state income tax, and no sales tax on the other side of the Columbia River, in Portland Oregon.

Well, you could live and work in NH, which has neither VAT nor state income tax. But of course, one needs to avoid Federal Income Tax and FICA, unemployment and workers' compensation taxes, for starters, like Warren Buffet does.
 

FAIR TAX is a poorly disguised version of the FLAT TAX. That the FAIR TAX is supported by randy libertarians makes it suspect. Let's hear from anarcho-libertarians.
 

Shag:

Sales and VAT taxes are always flat because progressives and socialists have not figured out a way to instantly identify the wealth or income of the consumer.
 

So libertarians, randy and otherwise, prefer the FLAT(ulence) tax or its variations, blaming it on the dog? The FAIR tax proposal is 23%. That's probably more than our TYRANNYSAURUS REX pays. Of course he can mellow out with second hand Ganja fumes in jis Mile Hight State (of mind).

So until progressives and socialists figure out " ... a way to instantly identify the wealth or income of the consumer" I repeat:

To paraphrase Mark Twain: "Reports of the death of the income tax have been greatly exaggerated."
 

Shag: "Reports of the death of the income tax have been greatly exaggerated."

Agreed.

Unless the left is completely tossed from power, they will always block any attempt to eliminate the progressive income tax. It is their primary way of redistributing wealth.
 

Our TYRANNYSAURUS REX's view on progressives:

"It is their primary way of redistributing wealth."

fails to look at federal tax policy changes starting in the 1980s leading to redistributing wealth to the wealthy as demonstrated by inequality in income/assets that coincided with the changes leading to the situation today. Our TR ignores growth that took place and gave rise to the middle class with progressive income tax brackets in the low 90% range. Reagan's "trickle down" translates into "piss on you" by conservatives and their randy libertarian ilk.
 

Shag:

You are welcome to offer any government tax or spending program which takes income from the everyone else and gives it to the wealthy.

Before the Obama tax increases...

The top 1% of earners earned 19% of total income, but paid 28% of all taxes under an effective total federal tax rate of 31%.

The top quintile of earners earned 56% of total income, but paid 69% of all taxes under an effective total federal tax rate of 26%.

http://thecitizenpamphleteer.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/taxation-in-excess-of-representation/

It is even more skewed now.

Indeed, no other country in the OECD places as much of the tax burden on so few.
 

Of course our TYRANNYSAURUS REX has not personally benefitted from this income/asset inequality as he had the principled goal in law school to become the top DUI legal beagle in a mountain top community that he would eventually locate in CO, focusing on "public service" for the high and mighty in the Mile High State (of mind). [NOTE: With the legalization of recreational pot in CO, presumably DUI under its influence may move our TR into a higher tax bracket, getting higher on poor souls who get high on pot and drive.]

As a randy libertarian, our TR wallows in "Atlas Shrugged" hoping to become an Atlas. Alas, our TR is only half-Atlas. But our TR's screed against progressivism takes him back to the glory days of the "Gilded Age," which took place during the "long depression of the late 19th century.

Once again, our TR ignores tax policy that helped America grow and help the world recover from WW II, focusing only on our TR's patron saint Reagan who contributed to the current mess in the Middle East with Iran Contra.

But our TR is not selfish as he seems not to mind contributing to the 1% from his spartan but high mountain top, readily criticizing those who do vote their pocket books. Half-Atlas indeed.
 

Shag: Once again, our TR ignores tax policy that helped America grow and help the world recover from WW II…

I presume this change of topic means that you cannot offer a single example of a government tax or spending program redistributing income from everyone else to the wealthy.

Your current claim is similarly unsubstantiated.

The nation immediately slid into recession after WWII until Truman cut spending in half and reduced tariffs, then the new GOP Congress slashed effective tax rates through increases in various credits and deductions and leashed the unions with Taft Hartley.

At that point, the private sector finally recovered from the Great Depression. However, those reforms were not sufficient to keep the country from entering several major recessions ending with the 70s stagflation.

It was not until the Reagan reforms that the US enjoyed its longest period without a major recession - 1983-2007.
 

With respect to when the Great Depression ended, our TYRANNYSAURUS REX displays his ignorance on economics although to his credit he minored in economics. Armed with that our TR continues to mine trash economics (aka Forbes).

And there was no change of subject on the growth of the middle class post WW II and America's efforts to help rebuild the world. What our TR continues to ignore is the inequality (income/assets) post 1980 to date.

As to the 70s stagflation, recall the contributions of Nixon/Watergate.

As to our TR's claims for 1983-2007, much of that credit goes to the Clinton Administration despite conservatives' efforts. And by our TR setting 2007 as the close, he attempts to cover up what Bush/Cheney did with the Clinton surplus and their two unpaid tax cuts, two unpaid wars, etc, that gave us the Great Recession of 2007-8.

Our TR sticks his head where the sun don't shine in ignoring the state of income/asset inequality today, much of which can be traced to the two Bush/Cheney unpaid tax cuts.

As to the Reagan reforms, note that our TR ignores the several tax increases that followed his original reduction in rates before his two terms closed with the Iran Contra scandal that contributed to the current situation in the middle east.
 

I have actually read Goldberg’s book and it answers the questions raised so far in the comments relating to taxation, although lays off of questions relating to society’s ills in general.

It starts with the premises at the very beginning of the book (chapter 1, available on Amazon for free) that the current income tax (1)is hugely expensive, costing $320 billion per year to just administer, comply with or plan around; (2) is inefficient, failing to collect $385 billion per year that is rightfully owed under the tax law; and (3) is antiquated by current technology principally because it fails to take advantage of a system of taxation that taxes transactions as they occur electronically (through credit cards and other electronic funds transfer mechanisms), which the overwhelming volume of transactions do (think electronically cleared checks and on-line banking bill payments) and instead relies on a by-hand compilation of tax information and computer assisted income and tax computations (not very 21st century).

It advocates a consumption tax, which excuses savings from tax because it is the portion of income or wealth that is not spent on personal consumption. It may surprise the blog commenters to note that the current income tax is largely a hybrid and eclectic consumption tax/income tax, which for many, particularly the wealthy, leans heavily toward a consumption tax (See Chapter 12 of the book and the examples discussed in that chapter, e.g., retirement plans, unrealized and therefore untaxed appreciation of properties like stocks, tax-deferred like-kind exchanges, etc.)). This conclusion is developed by describing the various forms of consumption tax available in chapters 10, 11 and 12. Thus the actual change in the tax base proposed in the book (Chapters 13, 14 and 15) is not nearly as radical as it would seem, but the mechanics of collection and the means of achieving progressivity are novel and quite different than under the Fair Tax.

OK. By now my cover is blown. I have not only read the book, I also wrote it. As for those who might point out that transition to the new tax would be insurmountable, see chapter 16 of the book.

 

Shag: As to the 70s stagflation, recall the contributions of Nixon/Watergate.

The third rate Watergate burglary caused stagflation? You really want to go with that?

As to our TR's claims for 1983-2007, much of that credit goes to the Clinton Administration despite conservatives' efforts.

I agree, The 1995-2000 Clinton administration was the most conservative after Reagan of my 52 year old lifetime. Slick Willy was always first and foremost concerned with going with the flow to stay in power and the flow was conservative.

And by our TR setting 2007 as the close, he attempts to cover up what Bush/Cheney did with the Clinton surplus and their two unpaid tax cuts, two unpaid wars, etc, that gave us the Great Recession of 2007-8.

Actually, I chose 2007 as the end point because there was a major recession in 2008.

With the exception of his 2003 tax reforms, Bush 43 actually started the return of progressive government, expanding government as a percentage of GDP back up to 21% and signing off on additional regulations in 2007. Clinton ran a far more conservative government after being chastised by the voters in 1994.

Our TR sticks his head where the sun don't shine in ignoring the state of income/asset inequality today, much of which can be traced to the two Bush/Cheney unpaid tax cuts.

Sorry, the budget almost returned to balance in 2007 largely because of all the new revenues that flowed in after the 2003 tax reforms.

As to the Reagan reforms, note that our TR ignores the several tax increases that followed his original reduction in rates…

Reagan both cut tax rates and eliminated or reduced the size of tax loopholes (your so called tax increases).
 

Bart

Perhaps some supporters of a progressive income tax want to punish the wealthy or redistribute their wealth, but the most common reason I have run across is the idea that the burden of taxation falls less heavily on one who has a great deal than it does one who has less. To take 10% of the income of a man living off 10,000 a year could mean the difference between having a place to stay or not, to take 20% of of the income of a man making 10,000,000 could mean the difference between having a place at the beach, mountains and city or two of the three ;)
 

Mr. W:

A flat income tax with personal and dependent deductions for basic living expenses accomplishes the goal of taxing people in proportion to their ability to pay.

The progressive income tax was designed to and in fact does redistribute wealth.
 

At the low-wealth, low-income end, one can justify a low rate of tax or none at all by reference to allowing a minimum living standard for all working people, but at the middle to high end, it is much more difficult to justify progressivity by resort to "fairness" and inter-personal utility comparisons among people. One might find progressivity comports with ones view of how one would like society to be arranged and another may not because he/she has another view of society and free markets, but fairness is unlikely to be the guiding princpal because fairness lies in the eye of the beholder. Chapter 4 of the book is devoted to progressivety and discusses notions of fairness.
Taxman
 

At the low-wealth, low-income end, one can justify a low rate of tax or none at all by reference to allowing a minimum living standard for all working people, but at the middle to high end, it is much more difficult to justify progressivity by resort to "fairness" and inter-personal utility comparisons among people. One might find progressivity comports with ones view of how one would like society to be arranged and another may not because he/she has another view of society and free markets, but fairness is unlikely to be the guiding princpal because fairness lies in the eye of the beholder. Chapter 4 of the book is devoted to progressivety and discusses notions of fairness.
Taxman
 

Does the book address income/asset inequality and how it has grown particularly post 1980? Is inequality, like fairness, beauty, ugliness etc, also in the eye of the beholder? In life should we not address certain matters that some would characterize as being in the eye of the beholder? I'd suggest that fairness can be legislated, like with respect to poverty, and beyond. Much legislation can be unfair to some as beholders but that's no reason not to address inequality including by means of tax policy that may benefit many. Taxman should read Joseph Stiglitz.
 

Our TYRANNYSAURUS REX's:

"Reagan both cut tax rates and eliminated or reduced the size of tax loopholes (your so called tax increases)."

perhaps demonstrates our TR wasn't aware of the 1986 Tax Reform Act's effect on increasing taxes of previously favored groups based on tax policy pushed by Democrats.
 

And let's add "liberty" to the eye of the beholder list, like the liberty not to be forced to eat broccoli or to die if one cannot live free. And then there's "pursuit of happiness."
 

35 52332528Shag,
To address your question to me regarding my book, the book is not an anti-tax book or a pro-tax book. It assumes that there will be Federal taxation. It is not a political book.
Rather, it is written like an engineer would, recommending the way to redesign a tax system by first examining the failings of the current income tax system and then describing how a replacement system could be built that would accomplish the tax assessment and collection task by (1) making use of modern tools that were not available 100 or even 30 years ago, and (2) taking account of the failings of the old system (and explaining them to the reader) in order to avoid those failings in the replacement system. Even if the reader does not ultimately agree with the prescription I recommend, the reader will learn a whole lot about the underpinnings and shortcomings of the current system and hopefully be entertained at the same time.
 

Professor Goldberg:

Would you care to discuss your proposal?
 

Since my semi-retirement from practice in 1998, I have continues with my interest in US tax law. It cannot realistically be denied that the US system of taxation needs to be changed. Out of curiosity I "Googled":

Books and articles on replacing the income tax

that got a lot of hits. One has to look to the sponsors behind these books and articles, as many of them are political.

One that I do not consider to be political, although I could be wrong, was Yale law Prof. Michael J. Graetz's "100 Million Unnecessary Returns: A Fresh Start for the U.S.Tax System," a 5-page excerpt from his 2002 Yale Law Journal article - 112 Yale LJ 261. It's a quick read. I don't yet know if he has updated the subject as it retains the income and certain other taxes as well as recommending a VAT approach.

I do not attribute political motives to TAXMAN, but I wonder if the engineering approach to the subject may be appropriate. I recall the series of late 1990s books on reengineering corporations, etc. with ideas that did not really make it. The Senate/House tax committees staffers are quite savvy with the need to change the system and may have good ideas. But the political climate may not permit real reform for some time to come. Tax reform must address fairness and justice, including income/asset inequality. While these may be in the eye of the beholder, they must be included in the debate.

Query: Is "TAXMAN" also your auto plate? If so, I'm reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer got by mistake the plate of a proctologist. Maybe your book tour might include Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert where you could, which could be entertaining.

Good luck with the book.


 

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If the progressive tax becomes a reality, it would prove to be a better option for Americans. Like what he already stated, income tax is prone to cheating. Also, if you are in a foreign land, you get to know how much you should be paying to the government by manual computation or through expatriate tax services
 

I took a federal tax course in my second year of law school (1952-53) that dealt with the tax code of 1930. Following graduation in 1954, there came the tax code of 1954. After a couple of years of practice, I discovered the need to know more tax law to service my clients. Fifa 14 Ultimate Team Coins
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