Posts tagged with: Flat tax

Amid the hustle and bustle of preparing for tonight’s Acton Institute annual dinner, I’m trying to carve out some time to make final preparations for my participation in the 9th Annual Christian Scholars’ Symposium hosted by the Christian Legal Society. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be debating with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on the question, “Justice, Poverty, Politics & the State: Is There a Christian Perspective?”

One of the pressing issues related to the size and scope of government is the complex nature of today’s tax system, particularly at the federal level. Regardless of what you think of Herman Cain’s “9-9-9″ tax plan, Arthur Laffer’s opening observations in a WSJ op-ed yesterday summarize well where we find ourselves:

It used to be that the sole purpose of the tax code was to raise the necessary funds to run government. But in today’s world the tax mandate has many more facets. These include income redistribution, encouraging favored industries, and discouraging unfavorable behavior.

To make matters worse there are millions and millions of taxpayers who are highly motivated to reduce their tax liabilities. And, as those taxpayers finagle and connive to find ways around the tax code, government responds by propagating new rules, new interpretations of the code, and new taxes in a never-ending chase. In the process, we create ever-more arcane tax codes that do a poor job of achieving any of their mandates.

Gideon was kind enough to ask me to contribute to CPJ’s Capital Commentary a few months back on the question of getting back to first principles with respect to the tax code. And in that piece, “Back Door Social Engineering,” I made the following case, taking my own point of departure with another quote from Laffer:

A return to a first-principles discussion of taxation in America requires a return to the fundamental purposes of taxation. Notwithstanding the current size of the federal tax code, the fundamental purpose of government taxation is not to encourage or discourage particular behaviors. The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities. It is true, as economist Arthur Laffer has made famous, that “when you tax something you get less of it, and when you reward something you get more of it.” But this reality, which takes into account how people respond to incentives, is secondary to the basic function of taxation.

It is immoral for a government to chronically run up deficits and lack the willpower to actually raise the funds it needs to do what it sets before itself. Michael Munger put it well: “Deficits are future taxes.” Quite apart from the question of what the government ought to be doing is the issue of paying for what it actually does, and our government has failed miserably on that latter point.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, June 17, 2011

Today at Capital Commentary I discuss the size and scope of the tax code in the US relative to its basic purposes.

In “Back Door Social Engineering,” I argue, “When governments run huge deficits in part because of the complexity of its tax system and the ability of people and institutions to engage in large-scale (and legal) tax avoidance, there is something deeply wrong with the system.”

The basic purpose of taxes is to raise money for the government, not to determine social behavior. We have laws for that.

Read the whole thing here.

Jordan Ballor has already done a fine job of commenting on A Call for Intergenerational Justice, and I’m sure that others will be chiming in on the PowerBlog as well. I’d like to focus on a couple of points that stand out to me from an initial reading of the document.

I suppose it says something about a document when you can’t finish reading the title without alarm bells going off. “Intergenerational Justice” is a fine sounding term, but what does it mean in the context of the statement? While it isn’t spelled out in any detail, my best guess based on the text and the known political positions of many of the signers is that “intergenerational justice” refers to a continuation of the various Federal entitlement programs that make up the lion’s share of the mandatory portion of the Federal budget. To wit:

“Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded.” 

The only program specifically mentioned in the document is Social Security. The authors of the statement believe that the program can be modestly changed, but no indication is given that any radical reform will be tolerated:

“We must make Social Security sustainable. We can slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security.” 

I think it’s fair to infer from the limited detail provided by the writers of this statement that there is little enthusiasm for major reform of the core Federal entitlement programs that ultimately lie at the root of our debt problem, and no consideration of the idea that these programs may have been ill-concieved, or that the Federal government might not be an appropriate vehicle for meeting such basic human needs. The programs are there, and for the demands of “intergenerational justice” to be satisfied, they must remain in place.

Absent from the discussion, however, is any mention of the intergenerational injustice that these social programs represent in the first place. For instance: I’m in my mid-thirties. I cannot remember any time since I became politically aware that I believed Social Security would be solvent and able to provide benefits to me when I reach old age. Politicians and commentators have been talking about the coming collapse of Social Security since I’ve been reading political commentary. Various temporary fixes to the program have been enacted, but none of them fix the structural problems that plague the program and lead to the ongoing crisis – they just shove the inevitable bankruptcy back by a decade or two (and the same is true of Medicare and other similar entitlements).

And this is nothing new. Today, I just happened to pick up John Samples’ The Struggle to Limit Government and read the following passage describing the arguments over Social Security in its early years:

The intergenerational character of Social Security attracted criticism from the start. M. Albert Linton, an insurance executive and advisor to the program, argued that Social Security would create a large and intolerable burden on future generations. He noted that Social Security’s experts planned eventually to devote as much as 20 percent of taxable payroll to benefits, a sum that the generation of 1939 had not devoted to the program. Why should the current generation be allowed to commit future generations to a burden it would not now impose on itself? Linton’s admonition had no effect on Social Security officials. During a presentation about the future of the program, the council’s chair, J. Douglas Brown, remarked, “Après moi le déluge.” Future generations could take care of themselves; the experts of 1939, not to mention the politicians running in 1940, had little interest in what happened to people who did not exist. 

So, Wallis et al., what say you? If the programs you so desire to save were designed in a way that took no account of their sustainability or of the wellbeing of future generations, and if those same problems persist today and even threaten to completely overwhelm the Federal fisc, why the insistence on saving them? Is there no other way to provide for human needs than through a bureaucracy? It strikes me as odd to demand the maintenance of fiscally crippling entitlements in the name of intergenerational justice when just treatment for future generations was of no concern to the designers of the entitlements in the first place.

One additional point from the “Call” jumped out at me from the “Core Proposals” section. Specifically:

“We must reform the tax code. We should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive.” 

There is a lot to agree with in that statement – the Federal tax code is monstrous, and it is very likely that there is no one person with the capability to understand it in all of its intricacy. It is filled with all manner of loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies, and needs to be brought under control if we have any hope of understanding exactly how Washington obtains and distributes its revenue. But why the insistence that the tax code remain “progressive”? Why must that be part of any “Christian” proposal to address our nation’s debt crisis? Is progressive taxation truly just? When I read that statement, I recalled reading a contrary opinion from one of my favorite theologians and commentators, R.C. Sproul, on just this issue:

Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came and examined the great American experiment of democracy, said two things can destroy this experiment: One is when people learn that their vote is worth money, that you can bribe people to get their vote or that you can use the vote to somehow shelter yourself from financial or other obligations imposed upon others. Have we taken the blindfold away from lady justice? Are we not all equal under the law? 

On the contrary, we have an income tax structure today that is inherently unjust. We almost never hear anybody discuss this injustice. But when God set up a system of taxation, He did things differently. God said I’m going to impose a tax on my people and it’s going to be ten percent from everybody: The rich man and the poor man are not going to pay the same amount. The rich man’s going to pay much more than the poor man, but they’re both going to pay the same percentage. They’re both going to have the same responsibility. That way the rich man can’t use his power to exploit the poor man, saying, “I’m going to pay five percent, but you’re going to pay fifty percent.” The rich weren’t allowed to do that. Nor were the poor allowed to say, “We’re going to pay five percent and the rich are going to pay fifty percent because they can afford it.” What that is ladies and gentlemen is the politics of envy that legalizes theft. Anytime you vote a tax on somebody else that is not a tax on yourself, you’re stealing from your brother. And though the whole world does it and though it’s common practice in the United States of America, a Christian shouldn’t be caught dead voting to fill his own pocketbook at the expense of someone else. Isn’t that plain? Isn’t that clear? And until we get some kind of flat tax, we’re going to have a politicized economy, we’re going to have class warfare, and we’re going to have the whole nation’s rule being determined by the rush for economic advantage at the polls. Don’t do it. Even if that means sacrificing some benefit you might receive from the federal government. Don’t ask other people at the point of a gun to give you from their pockets what you don’t have. That’s sin.

I don’t write any of this to call into question the Christian commitment of any of the signers of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In fact, I have little doubt that the signers of the document do indeed have a deep concern for the poorer members of society that they hope to defend in their actions. I’m more interested in pointing out that this document is exactly what its subtitle claims it to be: “A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” Emphasis on A. It is not the Christian proposal; it is simply one of many responses that well-intentioned Christians can have to our current crisis. And it is entirely possible that well-intentioned people can have blind spots or propose economically flawed solutions to pressing problems. That seems to be a big part of what’s going on here.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, January 10, 2011

Catching up on some recent Acton commentaries. We welcome a new writer, John Addison Teevan, who is director of the Prison Extension Program at Grace College. He also teaches economics and Bible courses at the Winona Lake, Ind., school. This column was published Dec. 29. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.

A Tithe for Uncle Sam

By John Addision Teevan

Political leaders talk as if the money Americans keep (not paid in taxes) belongs to the government and that our keeping money they could tax is an actual cost to them. This kind of distorted thinking has led us into the fiscal irresponsibility that threatens to destroy our country.

It is, of course, fair to say that there are many exemptions that, if eliminated, could bring in more tax revenue. But Congress prefers a tax code of convoluted exemptions and tax breaks that they create and sustain to keep various interest groups coming to their offices. Taxpayers love breaks such as the homeowners’ exemption that allows taxpayers who itemize to deduct their mortgage interest. Although paying less in taxes is in general a good thing, all such exemptions confuse the process, contribute to an impossibly intricate tax code and keep lawyers, accountants and tax prep software companies prospering. The amount we spend on tax preparation in terms of actual cost and time wasted compared to a simplified tax code is worth billions.

The most extreme example of the fallacious notion that government has a right to its citizens’ money is the idea is that the cost to the government of not taxing the disposable income of all Americans at 100 percent is $11.5 trillion (as if we’d bother working if we faced a 100 percent tax rate). Economist Arthur Laffer noted that the government might collect little in taxes if the tax rates were either very low or very high, because in the latter case Americans would adjust their income according to tax incentives. Government officials unfortunately tend not to think in terms of incentives but of rules and therefore assume, contrary to Laffer’s findings, that higher tax rates always bring in more revenue.

Taken to its conclusion, this thinking leads tragically to socialism. If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people. One small faction that I read about in an Ohio paper wants Uncle Sam to hire all unemployed people and then print the money to pay them. This childish scheme is really a variation of the more respectable idea that tax cuts “cost” the government in the same way that spending on defense or health care does.

The foolishness of the concept can be illustrated by analogy with a church. Imagine a congregation of 100 families with a budget that reflected an estimated tithe on $65,000 average family income. Using government thinking, the church budget could be $650,000 (10 percent of 100 x $65,000), even if the actual offerings to the church were only $300,000. This is based on the fairly reasonable idea that the people owe their church 10 percent of their income.

Here’s how government budget thinking might work in that church.

Budget: $650,000. Expenses: charitable relief for church members: $350,000 (54 percent), staff: $150,000 (22 percent), building expenses: $50,000 (8 percent), ministry expenses: $50,000 (8 percent); debt retirement: $50,000 (8 percent).

What is that $350,000 for ‘charitable’ relief for church members? That is the part of the tithe that the members should have given to the church, but did not. Rather than ignore it, the church would reckon it as both income and expense even though not a single dollar changed hands. Government thinking sees any foregone revenue as an expense so that the largest item in this budget is the (fictional) $350,000 expense as if the church spent that money on its own parishioners.

As it stands, the federal government appears to be incapable of balancing income and spending. Right now it is collecting about 16 percent of GDP in taxes and spending well above 20 percent, creating an immense government borrowing gap. Many politicians’ proposed solution is to demand that the existing tax regime be repealed in favor of higher rates; we can’t “afford” the lower rates, they argue. In an economic downturn, however, raising taxes is a surefire way to suppress recovery.

Addressing the spending side of the budget equation is politically painful, no doubt, but it is unavoidable. America faces difficult challenges as we try to grow out of the recession. Having the government think soberly about its tax income and budget expenses would be a good start.