“How to Energize a Lackluster Economy”

I’m playing off Edward Lazear’s Wall Street Journal op-ed of the same title.  In his piece, he touted the benefits of a consumption tax over an income tax, but his argument flows from a number of false premises.

Lazear asserted

…over 30% of US gross domestic product is taxed away to fund federal, state, and local governments.  Tax compliance costs are also large, estimated to be around 1% of GDP.

The hidden cost of the tax system is the biggest of all—namely, the slower economic growth that results from taxing investment, which impedes the formation of capital and hinders productivity and wage growth.

So far, so good.  These taxes and their associated compliance costs are way too high (and, using 2007 data, a flat tax of 10%, with no deductions, credits, or what-have-yous that everyone pays would net the government an increase in revenue compared with the current system.  Now, whether the government needs that increase is a separate discussion).

But then he said

An easy way to remove the impediment to growth is to move toward a consumption tax by allowing the full and immediate deductibility of capital investment.

Here begins his first false premise.

The argument rests on two points.  First, consumption taxes are better for economic growth than are income taxes.

No, they’re not.  Consumption taxes are horribly regressive, and they actively hurt the poorest among us the most.

Second, allowing full expensing (immediate deductibility) of investment turns the current tax system into a consumption tax.

His second false premise is an implied one: that (income) tax structure and rates should remain essentially as high as they are, other than his deductibility of capital investment.  See above about lowering rates and eliminating deductions, credits, etc.

He went on:

Consumption taxes [his capital investment taxes] are better for economic growth because they create stronger incentives to save and invest than do income taxes.

Under an income tax, a person who consumes what he earns immediately is taxed once, specifically on the earnings that he receives in that year.  If instead he invests what he earns, the interest on that investment, which is compensation for deferring consumption, is also taxed.

This rationalization of his first false premise, though, is centered on yet a third (again implied rather than explicit) false premise: that our tax system should be used for social engineering at all—here, attempting to push money uses into this purpose instead of that—instead of solely for the three explicitly identified purposes for which taxes are permitted under our Constitution.  Those three permissible purposes are, as any grade school civics student knows, are to pay the nation’s debts, to provide for the nation’s defense, and to provide for the general welfare, which itself is explicitly defined by the next 16 clauses of Article I, Section 8.

There’s a fourth false premise (yet again, implied) that underlies all of Lazear’s argument: that businesses should be taxed at all.  Since business taxes are just another cost center for businesses, their taxes, like their other costs, are passed on to their customers—ultimately us—in the form of higher prices.  In the end, then, we pay the business’ taxes, even though it’s the company CFO who signs the check to the Treasury.

No.  Better instead to change the income tax system altogether to a flat tax (I argue for a 10% rate) that every citizen and no business pays.  No social engineering by taxation.  Full stop.

With that in place, watch how thoroughly our economy is energized.

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