Free Markets, Free People
One of the interesting things about Twitter is that it can provoke some interesting policy debates, at least in my geeked out poli-sci time-line. The frustrating thing is that it’s impossible to debate these things on twitter, 140 characters at a time. So, after a brief discussion with Gabriel Malor concerning the Value-Added Tax, I’m going to have to transfer the debate to here and Ace’s place. Gabriel hates the VAT, apparently, and has, in the past, made three main objections to it:
Whatever its merits, they are outweighed by its key features: the VAT obscures for the taxpayer just how much money is being sucked up by the government; it is prone to Congressional abuse; and it is, in the words of economists, "efficient."
We’ll take these objections one at a time, but first, let’s review the liberty-damaging implications of the income tax itself.
First and foremost, it requires that you provide the government with intensely private details about your financial life—every corner of it. How much income you make, who pays you, how much you save and invest, how much interest you make from savings, etc., etc. This is information you wouldn’t willingly share with anyone, yet the government forces you to divulge it to unknown bureaucrats on pain of imprisonment. Once the government has that information, it can always be used against you in any sort of civil or criminal proceeding the government wishes to implement against you. And that’s the best-case scenario. Some worker at the IRS could illegally access your income tax records. If you come to the negative attention of a powerful politician they might decide to have you audited.
Nor is this an unreasonable fear, considering the intricacies of the 3.7 million word US Tax code. Anyone with a minimally complex tax return could probably be found to be in violation of the code. Especially since it’s almost impossible in some cases to even know what the tax code means. It’s so far from clear and concise that even the IRS doesn’t seem to know what it means . And yet, you are legally required to provide the government with the means to make your life unpleasant at the very least, and destroy it at the very worst, every time you submit a 1040, quite apart from the possibility of skullduggery by unscrupulous individuals. And if you ask the IRS for tax advice, there’s a 1 in 5 chance they’ll get it wrong. And you get a nice new lien on your house. Or a completely new house, with bars on the windows.
Next, in order to provide this information, you must spend an inordinate amount of time and/or money to ensure that the information is accurate.
The average cost for the preparation of an itemized Form 1040 and state return is $229 nationally. An “s-corp” is in the neighborhood of $665 whereas filing an Estates Form 706 could cost up to an average of $2,044…
The most recent estimates available purport to contend that individuals, businesses and nonprofits “spend an estimated 6 billion hours complying with the federal income tax code.”…
The high estimates then yield a total of tax cost to society (not including actual taxes paid) of approximately $1.165 trillion dollars 2010, relatively using 2008 GDP data.
Maybe it’s just me, but that seems…unreasonable. $1.165 trillion in compliance costs, on top of the actual tax cost is just…insane. I suspect that some portion of that money might be used to create, you know, wealth, if it wasn’t sucked up by regulatory compliance.
Whatever criticisms may be leveled at the VAT, one thing it doesn’t do is place your personal liberty at risk—at great cost to yourself—when you submit your annual tax return. Indeed, you don’t submit an individual tax return at all. Under a VAT, your income is your business, and your personal finances are completely removed from government concern. That seems like an increased measure of liberty, by which, I mean a removal of a portion of government interest in your personal life.
Gabriel Malor, alas, seems to disagree. Indeed, he seems offended by those of us who think replacing the income tax with a VAT might be a good idea.
It’s disappointing to see conservatives using the Obama-spawned budget crisis as an excuse to propose a tax scheme. Shame on them.
Now I’m sad.
But, what is it that makes the VAT so "fundamentally awful", and why should I feel shame for advocating it? Let’s start with his first objection:
Yes, you can put VAT on each and every sales receipt. But unless the taxpayer keeps and diligently tallies every receipt, he will have no idea what he’s ended up handing over to Uncle Sam.
This feature of the VAT is a tax-and-spend liberal’s wet dream because it keeps the taxpayer-voter in ignorance of how much of his property the government is appropriating over time.
Prior to 1913, this pretty much described the entire US Tax code. The Federal government was funded entirely by customs duties, tariffs, and excise taxes. All of those, of course, are hidden taxes, so, from 1789 until 1913, no one knew what they were paying in Federal taxes unless they kept and diligently tallied every receipt. Or, you know, cared. It seems to have worked out pretty well. It doesn’t seem people really worried all that much about how much of the purchase price of goods went to the Feds back in Oldy Days. Part of that, of course, was that the Federal government was pretty remote from the citizenry back then. But, I suspect part of it was also because knowing how big a cut the Federal government was taking didn’t have any relation to being sent to prison for getting it wrong.
What didn’t seem to work out well was an income tax whose top rate rose from 1% in 1913 to 90% in 1943, where it stayed until 1962 or so. Then we got a big tax cut to 70% at the top rate. If you want to look at a tax system that turned into a "liberal’s wet dream", a system whose top rate increased by 990% in 30 years seems like a good place to start. The explosion of big government didn’t start with the pre-1913 tax system. It was the current tax system that fueled the move from a minimalist to a maximalist state.
So, I’m not sure that arguing the post-1913 income taxation system is a better way to go in restraining tax increases is the way you want to go. Because it hasn’t really done a bang-up job of restraining government.
Moreover, even I don’t know what I pay—or even what I might owe—until my CPA tells me at the end of every year. My LLC has to buy all sorts of stuff. I might have to hire a subcontractor. There’s lots happening, so I don’t know what my tax burden is on a day-to-day basis. I may do work for some clients who can make it a charitable deduction instead of paying me in money. So I have to sequester thousands in income to be sure I’ve got the scratch to pay the bill every April 14th. And even then, I don’t really know what I’ve paid until the actual minute I look at my tax return. I’d trade knowing that on one day a year for not worrying about it and giving me my full cash flow to play with to upgrade software, buy new computers, etc.
The thing about a VAT is, that, unlike the income tax, you can pretty directly control how much tax you pay. You just buy less stuff. Maybe save more, since the VAT doesn’t penalize saving. Or investment. Like the income tax does. And avoiding paying the VAT doesn’t require that you forego income. The income tax does. It seems pretty apparent that the individual has a far greater degree of control over how much VAT he pays by altering his purchasing habits, and he can do so without penalizing himself in terms of income. There’s simply no way to exercise that sort of control over income taxation without making less income, or spending an inordinate amount of time burrowing through the tax code for some sort of shelter. Which may, or may not, get you audited, or sent to jail.
But you don’t get sent to jail if you don’t buy enough stuff under a VAT.
But at least that objection contains a colorable argument that makes sense. The remaining two objections are just unreasonable in terms of judging the two systems. First, there’s this:
And there, too, a VAT gives Congress even greater means to target disfavored industries and individuals. Progressive nannies can push for a higher VAT on soda and fast food. Social conservatives can push for a higher VAT on…er, morally questionable commerce. Other major targets: the oil industry (after all, they should pay more for being Gaia-raping capitalists); the pharmaceutical industry (it’s for the children, somehow); and, without a doubt, Big Tobacco (for obvious reasons).
Let’s leave aside the argument that an increase in the VAT would make every product more expensive, so I suspect people would notice that their salaries aren’t going as far as they used to.
Really, the trouble here is that Congress already has the plenary power to tax. Plenary. You can’t make Congress’ power…more plenary. This is not an argument against the VAT as much as it is an argument against, well, taxation. or, at least, the unlimited power of taxation.
There is nothing that prevents congress from slapping an excise tax on soda or fast food now. There’s already an 18.5¢ per gallon excise tax on gasoline, just as there are already massive excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. A Congress that wants to tax is going to tax. But I don’t think the solution to that is submit your personal liberty to the IRS. At least, it hasn’t been up ’til now. Nor do I think, in a larger sense, that the solution relies on any particular system of taxation, but rather on a restraint on spending. I think the evidence is pretty clear that a "starve the beast" taxation strategy simply doesn’t work when it comes to spending.
And let’s not kid ourselves that the income tax does not, somewhere in its 3.7 million words, do a perfectly fine job of targeting disfavored individuals. Which is something else the VAT doesn’t do. You can certainly target products with a VAT, if you want to reduce the incentive to buy certain classes of goods and services. But you can’t target individuals, and you can’t dictate economic outcomes for individuals by penalizing those you don’t like. But you can have a 90% income tax rate on successful individuals. We did it.
Our problem is not that revenue drives spending, but quite the opposite. It is the insatiable desire for more money to spend that drives the search for ever larger revenues. That is currently being expressed in the president’s "eat the rich" tax proposals, which would have the unpleasant side effect of penalizing individual success. Which, as I’ve already noted, is something the VAT doesn’t do. Limit the government’s spending to a defined percentage of GDP, and you automatically limit the desire for additional income.
Revenue is not the problem. Spending is.
And, of course, the key factor is the relationship of the individual to the state.
The last objection is equally confusing to me.
Economists laud the VAT because it is a "more efficient" means of collecting taxes. As a conservative, hell as a taxpayer, I am not in favor of more efficiency in letting the government take what’s mine.
So, are you in favor of draining 6 billion man-hours and $1.165 trillion in compliance costs from the productive economy? Are you in favor of having a massively large IRS, paying thousands upon thousands of employees to review and audit 175 million tax returns? I just don’t get this objection.
I thought that a more efficient tax code—in the sense that Gabriel seems to be addressing it here—means that we could reduce compliance costs, eliminate the time spent preparing tax returns, and reducing the size and scope of government. Those seem like pretty conservative/libertarian goals. So does removing the direct relationship of the individual to the IRS. I’m pretty sure efficiency is a feature, not a bug. A more efficient tax code is easier to comply with, and requires a smaller governmental mechanism to ensure compliance. I cannot, for the life of me, see why this would be a bad thing.
Of course, when we speak of tax efficiency, we usually are not referring to how efficiently the government gathers taxes. We are referring instead to the excess burden of taxation, i.e., "the economic loss that society suffers as the result of a tax, over and above the revenue it collects". Increasing efficiency in taxation refers to reducing the economic loss the tax imposes. I can’t really understand why anyone would be against decreasing the economic losses imposed by income taxation, which include moving people out of the work force, or into the underground economy, or reducing savings and investment.
However the term "efficiency" is being used in Gabriel’s quote above, I’m just having a really hard time understanding why it’s bad.
I want what taxes I’m paying to be SCREAMINGLY obvious.
Well…OK. Man up and keep your receipts, if it’s that important to you. Maybe buy a copy of QuickBooks.
My highest priority is not knowing to the cent the amount of taxes I pay. My highest priority is liberating myself from the direct financial supervision of the US government, and the possibility of being sent to jail or losing my house if I get it wrong. Secondarily, I’d like not to have to pay $1,000+ per year to a CPA to prepare my personal and LLC tax returns. I’m pretty sure I can use that thousand bucks for lots of things more fun than a CPA.
If the price of that is more effort tracking my federal taxes down to the penny, I’ll happily pay that to get the Feds off my neck.
If you listen to those who are semi-coherent in the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they blame Wall Street for the financial straits we’re in. They’ve been convinced (and I’m sure for most it didn’t take much convincing) that it is the greed and recklessness of bankers and Wall Street tycoons which caused the housing bubble and subsequent financial collapse.
However Peter Wallison has taken the time and made the effort to lay out the entire sequence of government actions (and their subsequent consequences) which drove both the housing bubble and its collapse which put us in the financial position we’re in today.
As usual, it was government intrusion – in the name of social justice – that distorted the housing market and created incentives that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Social engineering, with the best of intentions, that led to catastrophic unintended consequences.
The irony, of course, and what Wallison points out, is the OWS crowd is clueless at best or mendacious at worst. But the fault for our condition should be laid squarely in government’s lap. Where these protests should be taking place is in front of Congress, the White House, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration – not Wall Street.
Beginning in 1992, the government required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to direct a substantial portion of their mortgage financing to borrowers who were at or below the median income in their communities. The original legislative quota was 30%. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development was given authority to adjust it, and through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations HUD raised the quota to 50% by 2000 and 55% by 2007.
It is certainly possible to find prime borrowers among people with incomes below the median. But when more than half of the mortgages Fannie and Freddie were required to buy were required to have that characteristic, these two government-sponsored enterprises had to significantly reduce their underwriting standards.
Fannie and Freddie were not the only government-backed or government-controlled organizations that were enlisted in this process. The Federal Housing Administration was competing with Fannie and Freddie for the same mortgages. And thanks to rules adopted in 1995 under the Community Reinvestment Act, regulated banks as well as savings and loan associations had to make a certain number of loans to borrowers who were at or below 80% of the median income in the areas they served.
So there are the required guidelines – by law – enforced by government. And note, it wasn’t just Democrats. It was Republicans too. But the impetus and driving force behind all of this wasn’t Wall Street. It was government.
Research by Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer of Fannie Mae (now a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute) has shown that 27 million loans—half of all mortgages in the U.S.—were subprime or otherwise weak by 2008. That is, the loans were made to borrowers with blemished credit, or were loans with no or low down payments, no documentation, or required only interest payments.
Of these, over 70% were held or guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie or some other government agency or government-regulated institution. Thus it is clear where the demand for these deficient mortgages came from.
The huge government investment in subprime mortgages achieved its purpose. Home ownership in the U.S. increased to 69% from 65% (where it had been for 30 years). But it also led to the biggest housing bubble in American history. This bubble, which lasted from 1997 to 2007, also created a huge private market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS) based on pools of subprime loans. [emphasis mine]
Subprime loans, required by law to go to a certain percentage of applicants who otherwise wouldn’t get loans, built to half of all loans closed. Bubble created. Why? Because you’re talking about government “guaranteed” loans – safe money. That created a private market for MBS because the subprime loans in question would have been a poor risk on their own, but were a good risk with the government guarantee.
Demand grew, the bubble grew. But this was a foundation built on financial sand:
As housing bubbles grow, rising prices suppress delinquencies and defaults. People who could not meet their mortgage obligations could refinance or sell, because their houses were now worth more.
Accordingly, by the mid-2000s, investors had begun to notice that securities based on subprime mortgages were producing the high yields, but not showing the large number of defaults, that are usually associated with subprime loans. This triggered strong investor demand for these securities, causing the growth of the first significant private market for MBS based on subprime and other risky mortgages.
Again, because of who was holding or guaranteeing the loans, the real risk was masked, thereby triggering demand for these high-yield securities. How risky could they really be if they’re backed by the full faith and credit of the US, right?
And so the MBS market continued to grow:
By 2008, Mr. Pinto has shown, this market consisted of about 7.8 million subprime loans, somewhat less than one-third of the 27 million that were then outstanding. The private financial sector must certainly share some blame for the financial crisis, but it cannot fairly be accused of causing that crisis when only a small minority of subprime and other risky mortgages outstanding in 2008 were the result of that private activity.
And there is the salient point. No government intrusion, no government guarantees, no laws which “encouraged” or put quotas on loans with a certain percentage in the subprime category and no housing bubble, no demand for risky MBS, no financial crisis.
People, as they have for centuries, would have actually had to meet much stricter criteria for a loan and fewer would have owned homes. The market would have stayed stable, no bubble would have developed and we’d not be in the shape we’re in today. Oh, don’t get me wrong – government would still be out of control and on it’s eternal spending spree – but we wouldn’t have the added financial stress of a recession caused by government.
When the bubble popped, the inevitable happened:
When the bubble deflated in 2007, an unprecedented number of weak mortgages went into default, driving down housing prices throughout the U.S. and throwing Fannie and Freddie into insolvency. Seeing these sudden losses, investors fled from the market for privately issued MBS, and mark-to-market accounting required banks and others to write down the value of their mortgage-backed assets to the distress levels in a market that now had few buyers. This raised questions about the solvency and liquidity of the largest financial institutions and began a period of great investor anxiety.
The government’s rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008 temporarily calmed the market. But it created significant moral hazard: Market participants were led to believe that the government would rescue all large financial institutions. When Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail in September, investors panicked. They withdrew their funds from the institutions that held large amounts of privately issued MBS, causing banks and others—such as investment banks, finance companies and insurers—to hoard cash against the risk of further withdrawals. Their refusal to lend to one another in these conditions froze credit markets, bringing on what we now call the financial crisis.
And there’s the real litany of how what happened happened. Market distortion by government is the real cause of this debacle. We’ve been pointing this out for quite some time. The problem, of course, is the unintended consequences of such intrusion seem never to be understood by the lawmakers and technocrats who come up with these sorts of grand social justice schemes. And again, understand that it wasn’t just the Democrats who helped this all along.
The bottom line however, as Wallison points out, is that while Wall Street isn’t blameless in all of this, their role, in comparison, is minor. The entire scenario was government inspired. However, that’s not what has been sold to the public. Instead we’ve gotten propaganda and class warfare in a blatant attempt to shift the blame to private concerns:
The narrative that came out of these events—largely propagated by government officials and accepted by a credulous media—was that the private sector’s greed and risk-taking caused the financial crisis and the government’s policies were not responsible. This narrative stimulated the punitive Dodd-Frank Act—fittingly named after Congress’s two key supporters of the government’s destructive housing policies. It also gave us the occupiers of Wall Street.
Indeed. If anyone needs to be in jail it is the perpetrators of the government policy that encouraged/required the market distortion that led to the bubble and ultimately collapse of the housing market.
That wasn’t Wall Street. What happened in the financial community is they reacted to an incentive created and supposedly guaranteed by government. But it was unsustainable. And it finally came to a head, dealing financial destruction all around.
Here’s the bottom line – no government intrusion, no incentive/requirement to push subprime loans. No subprime loans (especially in the amount required by government), no housing bubble. No housing bubble, no financial crisis. No financial crisis, no OWS, who simply have it all wrong.
But then, given the government propaganda effort to this group who want to believe what government is claiming, is anyone surprised?
One of the interesting things I’ve observed over the years is how the left has sold the idea that the right has the monopoly on violence. Yet, it is almost without exception that the examples of violent rhetoric always seem to emanate from the left.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (and imagine how a speaker at a right-wing rally would have been treated by the media if he had said something comparable) . This is one of the speakers at the “Occupy LA” event (video at link):
Occupy L.A. Speaker: “One of the speakers said the solution is nonviolent movement. No, my friend. I’ll give you two examples: French Revolution, and Indian so-called Revolution.
Gandhi, Gandhi today is, with respect to all of you, Gandhi today is a tumor that the ruling class is using constantly to mislead us. French Revolution made fundamental transformation. But it was bloody.
India, the result of Gandhi, is 600 million people living in maximum poverty.
So, ultimately, the bourgeoisie won’t go without violent means. Revolution! Yes, revolution that is led by the working class.
Long live revolution! Long live socialism!”
Ballot box? We don’t need no stinkin’ ballot box.
When you use the French Revolution as a “good” revolution, you’re really appealing to blood, death, mayhem and frankly, anarchy. Oh they dressed it up some with various bits of fluff designed to give legitimacy to their murder orgs, but in reality it was just that, organized murder of anyone the mob thought was a threat to their new found power.
It eventually burned itself out when it turned inward. But it was indeed one of the most violent revolutions on record. He’s right, there was a “fundamental transformation”, but not for the better and, later, it went back to square one for a while.
And of course the “fundamental transformation” this boob is asking for is to the failed ideology of socialism. That means heavy and oppressive government, planned economies and ultimate failure.
But some people never learn from history – well except how to kill, maim and destroy.
Naturally, this idiot picked up that part of the lesson (and seems to revel in it) and ignores the rest.
A typical leftist sans sheep’s clothing. Study him well – he’s just saying what many believe (and don’t expect this to show up in any report about violent groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center, because apparently they just exist on the right – just sayin’).
It appears Iran hatched a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US. Fausta has as good a run down on the plot as anyone. Unsurprisingly it involved a Mexican drug cartel and the southern border to the US.
You know, the border the left keeps telling us just isn’t a problem, shouldn’t be a priority, we’re secure enough, etc.
Funny how our enemies seem to be drawn to what they perceive as a weak point like a moth to a flame. And they know who to contact to get what they need or want done to move a plot into the US.
Yes, we lucked out this time – the plotter contacted a confidential informant associated with a drug cartel. The rest follows the expected course and we finally arrested the plotter when he showed up in the US.
But you have to wonder how many of these plots are still undetected and working within the same sorts of organizations in Mexico or other South or Central American drug cartels.
This should be setting off warning sirens all over the place within our law enforcement and intelligence community. And most likely it is. But it should also finally make a point to those who want to waive off border security. It isn’t just about illegal immigration.
It’s about national security as well. And it is high time we started understanding that and making border security there a much higher priority than it is.