Hopefully the tax reform law to be adopted by Congress in the coming months will closely resemble The Better Way Tax proposed outline by Congressmen Paul Ryan and Kevin Brady on June 24, 2016. Their plan would be revenue neutral (i.e., would raise the same revenue as existing income tax laws by a combination of a broadened tax base and lower marginal tax rates), and would dramatically simplify returns for both individuals and companies. It would remove many distortions in investment and resource allocation decisions and thus promote growth and fairness. It would include an incentive to repatriate the U.S. corporate profits held abroad, estimated in 2015 to be $2.6 trillion, and by basing taxes on income earned in the U.S., it would eliminate the tax minimization strategy of shifting production abroad.
Unlike tax systems in most other countries, both U.S. individual and corporate income taxes are currently source based, meaning broadly speaking that an American’s income is taxed on his or her income wherever it is earned. Even Americans living and earning income abroad pay U.S. income taxes on it. Similarly companies operating in the U.S. pay U.S. taxes on their income no matter where it is earned. However, it is not taxed until they bring it home. This unusual approach to taxation for companies operating globally has given rise to all kinds of strategies for reducing U.S. taxes by earning income in (or attributing it to) low tax jurisdictions.
Under the Better Way proposals business income will be taxed on a territorial or destination rather than source bases. In addition to removing a tax bias for debt financing (by eliminating the deduction of interest costs) and expensing capital investments rather than amortizing them over their estimated life, businesses will be taxed on the basis of their income from domestic sales only. Their so-called Destination Based Cash Flow Tax comes close to being a consumption tax (the gold standard tax bases among economists). “The Principles of Tax Reform” Cayman Financial Review, July 2013. A key feature of their proposal is that the tax would be levied on business revenue from domestic sales of goods and services and not on goods and services sold abroad. For domestic sales the tax would be the same whether they are inputs or were produced domestically.
This would remove the existing tax subsidy for imports. As congressman Brady put it in a June 24, 2016 WSJ article: “And because ’Made in America’ products and services currently face a price disadvantage both at home and abroad, American exports will no longer be taxed, and imports will not be subsidized. Competition will occur on price, quality and service—rather than tax regimes.” “The GOP plan for tax sanity.” It would also remove the existing double taxation of exports, the income from which is now taxable as part of American business income and is taxed again at whatever rates apply in the country receiving them.
This is all very sensible and in fact the practice of most other countries that rely heavily on VATs (Value Added Taxes). Regrettably for public understanding, this proposed treatment has been dubbed a “Border Adjustment Tax” by which imports are taxed and exports are exempted from U.S. taxation. This sounds rather different, but it isn’t. It suggests punitive (protectionist) treatment of imports when in fact, as explained above, it gives imports the same tax treatment as received by domestically produced goods.
Some have argued that by removing the import subsidy (i.e. by taxing them at the same rate as domestically produced goods), American consumers of “cheap” imports will have to pay more. It is certainly true that subsidies encourage consumption in excess of a competitive market rate just as subsidizing debt (by deducting interest costs from taxable income) encourages excessive borrowing. So if people import less because they must pay more for such imports without their subsidy, resource allocation and economic efficiency will be improved. However, the reduced demand for foreign currency needed to pay for imports and the increased supply of those currencies to buy larger amounts of American exports are expected to appreciate the exchange rate of the dollar for these currencies. An appreciated exchange value of the dollar will reduce the cost of imports and increase the cost to foreigners of American exports. The impact on import and export prices of the “Border Adjustment Tax” and the resulting exchange rate adjustment are expected to approximately off set each other.
It is tempting for each affected group to evaluate the fairness of proposed tax reforms on the basis of whether it increases their taxes or lowers them (and thus increases someone else’s taxes). On that basis any tax change will always have proponents and opponents. The proper basis for judging a reform’s fairness is in relation to a broadly agreed concept of fairness. This calls for a John Rawlsian veil of ignorance, i.e., judging the fairness of a tax system without knowing in whose shoes you will stand.
There is much more to the prospective tax reform proposals, including unfortunately changes that might be made to buy off special interests affected one way or another, and it promises to be an interesting debate. I hope that it is more open and considered by all (Republicans and Democrats) than was the case for the now (temporarily) abandoned effort to reform Obamacare. And in the end I hope that something very close to the Better Way proposals of last year is adopted. The reality of a bipartisan approach to Tax reform is unfortunately unlikely under the current climate, but we can always hope and dream.