A Bad Idea from Brookings

Originally published August 6, 1984

A COUPLE of months ago I had occasion to mention Gary Hart’s search for “a better title” for the radically new form of taxation he referred to as an “expenditure tax” or a “consumption tax”. (“Voodoo on the Primary Trail,” NL, April 20). Well, the Brookings Institution (described by the New York Times as” a liberal think tank”) has solved Hart’s problem. In a long pamphlet entitled “Economic Choices 1984, the scheme is called a “cash flow tax.” If it is adopted, the person who thought up the new name will be as much to blame as anyone.

The Brookings pamphlet, edited by Alice M. Rivlin, distinguished former director of the Congressional Budget Office, concerns many issues besides taxation. Parts of it remind one of Claude Rains’ line at the end of Casablanca: “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.” In the opening sentence of the opening chapter we learn that “High deficits in the Federal budget, together with high interest rates, are endangering the future growth of the U.S. economy and undermining the ability of American industry to compete in world markets.” Following this, we are told that fiscal policy and monetary policy are at cross purposes, that Medicaid and Medicare cost more than expected, that many a father shirks his responsibilities to his children and their mother, that the B-1 bomber, the MX missile and various flocks of airplanes and schools of warships are a waste of money.

Now, I am persuaded that all of these suspects are guilty as charged, and I have no doubt that the list could be considerably extended. But none of this is news, as the cash flow tax is purported to be.

The first thing to note about the Brookings statement of this tax is a disclaimer.

“It does not,” the authors say, “propose any shifts in the tax burden among economic classes.” And a complementary proviso declares that if the scheme should prove to be heavier on corporations than the present law, rates would be revised to restore the “balance.” You will remember that similar disclaimers and provisos are included in the plan put forward by Senator Bill Bradley (D.- N.J.) and Representative Richard A. Gephardt (D.-Mo.) (“A Cautionary Tale of Tax Reform,” NL, January 23). You may also have noticed that when the Reaganites undertook to remake the tax laws they had no compunction whatever about shifting the burden from the rich to the poor or reducing the share paid by corporations (the corporate share had already declined from 26.5 per cent in 1950 to 12.4 per cent in 1980; it is now less than 10 per cent).

On the basis of the foregoing I propose a new law of political science: In any confrontation between neoconservatives and neoliberals, the neoconservatives will always win, because the neoliberals will allow them to keep whatever they have previously gained, regardless of when or how they gained it.

It would not be difficult to convince me that the neoliberals have their priorities precisely wrong. As John Maynard Keynes said, “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” I hold these truths to be self-evident, and I therefore hold that the first test of any tax law is whether it contributes to the rectification of these faults.

The proposed cash flow tax deliberately fails this test, except to the extent that it pays some attention to gifts and bequests. The Brookings people insist that this feature distinguishes their levy from a straight consumption tax. In fact, the straight consumption tax people could take the same step without breaking stride, so it is a distinction without much difference. (Brookings, by the way, proposes that each household have a lifetime exemption of $200,000 for such purposes. Try that on your recordkeeping problem.)

What, then, is a cash flow tax? To keep my bias from showing, let me quote from the pamphlet: “Each taxpaying unit [household] would be taxed on all cash receipts, minus net saving… Receipts would include all wages and salaries, rent, interest, profits, dividends, transfer payments, gifts received, and inheritances. Savings would include all net payments into certain ‘qualified accounts,’ including all financial assets (stocks, bonds, and other securities), all accounts in banks and other depository institutions, the cash value of life insurance,  and real estate (except owner-occupied housing) …. Just as additions to saving would be deducted from income, such dissaving as the sale of stock or withdrawal from a bank account would be added to the tax base… Personal exemptions would be allowed as under the present personal income tax, although the amount should be modified… For joint returns, existing revenues could be matched with a 5 per cent tax on the first $10,000 of taxable expenditures, 20 per cent on the next $30,000… and 32 per cent… over $40,000 per year.”

All right. Now listen to me. I will make just three points:

1. Those seductively low rates are achieved, not because of the miraculous properties of the cash flow tax, but because none of the deductions – other taxes paid, charitable donations, interest paid, and the rest-would be allowed. If an income tax were similarly astringent (I’ d be in favor of that) it could achieve still lower rates, for it would not have made that massive deduction for saving.

2. Since the paperwork necessary to complete a cash flow tax return would hardly be much less than that for the present return, the new tax would not be substantially more “efficient” than the existing one. Indeed, if the present tax eliminated deductions and the special treatment for depreciation and capital gains, the return would be a piece of cake for almost everyone, like the present Form 1040A.

3. The switchover from an income tax to a consumption or cash flow tax would present horrendous problems. I’ll take a little space to explain one that is near and dear to my heart: What do you do about recently retired individuals like David Rockefeller, Walter Wriston and me? For the rest of our lives we’re going to be dissavers. We got taxed on the salaries from which we saved to make our nest eggs; we got taxed on much of the income earned by those eggs; and now we’re going to be taxed a third time when we use the income to live on.

Well, you know what would happen. We senior citizens are not so easy to kick around anymore. We belong to the American Association of Retired Persons and the Grey Panthers and such. We have the clout to insert a little provision in the law to the effect that those who have to be dissavers because they have no other income would not be taxed. This would only be fair. After all, if David Rockefeller, Walter Wriston and I don’t spend our income, we don’t live. But for you poor slobs who still work for a living the rates would have to go up.

The Brookings people are aware of this difficulty, and they have a solution whereby “each household could calculate the aggregate cost of all assets accumulated from savings out of previously taxed income (‘basis’ in current tax law) and claim an exemption spread over a number of years for consumption until the aggregate cost had been recovered tax free.”  Messrs. Rockefeller and Wriston might be able to live with that, too, because they have probably had accountants working for them night and day all their lives. The rest of us, who can read the words of the “solution” but are not even quite sure what they mean, and who certainly do not have meticulous records stretching over 65 years and more, might wonder what happened to the advertised simplicity of the new tax.

WHY DO THE Brookings people want to make what would be a fantastically complicated change? They have two principal reasons, both ideological. First, they have got hold of the notion that the trouble with the American economy is a lack of saving. But their own figures show that private saving (both individual and corporate), as a percentage of GNP, was 16.2 per cent in the 1950s and 16.3 per cent in the 1960s. True, these were the allegedly prosperous years. Yet in the 1970s, when things are supposed to have fallen apart, the rate was 17.1 per cent; and it is projected, under the existing law, to rise to 17.5 per cent in 1986-89. Given the inherent imprecision of these figures, they are nothing to bet your life or livelihood on. Nevertheless, one thing is certain about them: They do not support the view that the economy has been in trouble because of a lack of private saving. And of course everyone knows that the current recovery has been led by consumption, not by saving.

The other ideological notion is that the ideal economy would be one without taxes,  and that the cash flow tax is similarly” neutral.” This is nonsense. It is doubtful that a state of nature would be ideal for anyone; but there is no doubt  that a civilized state must have taxes, that just taxes are levied in accordance with ability to pay, and that ability to pay turns on income and wealth, not on savings.

There are many other things to be said about consumption taxes and consumption-like taxes. For further information I refer you, as I have before, to Robert S. McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice, 2020 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20006. Here I want to conclude with a reference to a table in the Brookings pamphlet, whose burden, as I mentioned at the outset, is that the deficit is going to destroy the economy unless we do something drastic in a hurry.

With that in mind, let’s look at Table 2-4. The first line of this table shows “Projected surplus or deficit under policies in effect January 1, 1981” (that is, when President Reagan took office), and the last line shows the projections “under policies in effect January 1, 1984.” The projection for 1989 on the first line is a surplus of $29 billion, while that on the last line is the now-familiar deficit of $308 billion.

Remember those figures when President Reagan tries to tell you that the deficit was caused by Democratic spending. He can, if he wants, blame the recession on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker. The deficit, however, is Reagan’s very own.

The New Leader


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