Budget deficits are soaring so the smart thing to do would be to stop wasting money. Instead Once Considered Unthinkable, U.S. Sales Tax Gets Fresh Look.

With budget deficits soaring and President Obama pushing a trillion-dollar-plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money-making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax.

Common around the world, including in Europe, such a tax — called a value-added tax, or VAT — has not been seriously considered in the United States. But advocates say few other options can generate the kind of money the nation will need to avert fiscal calamity.

At a White House conference earlier this year on the government’s budget problems, a roomful of tax experts pleaded with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to consider a VAT. “There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental tax reform,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said in an interview. “I think a VAT and a high-end income tax have got to be on the table.”

A VAT is a tax on the transfer of goods and services that ultimately is borne by the consumer. Highly visible, it would increase the cost of just about everything, from a carton of eggs to a visit with a lawyer. It is also hugely regressive, falling heavily on the poor. But VAT advocates say those negatives could be offset by using the proceeds to pay for health care for every American — a tangible benefit that would be highly valuable to low-income families.

“Everybody who understands our long-term budget problems understands we’re going to need a new source of revenue, and a VAT is an obvious candidate,” said Leonard Burman, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, who testified on Capitol Hill this month about his own VAT plan. “It’s common to the rest of the world, and we don’t have it.”

The federal budget deficit is projected to approach $1.3 trillion next year, the highest ever except for this year, when the deficit is forecast to exceed $1.8 trillion. The Treasury is borrowing 46 cents of every dollar it spends, largely from China and other foreign creditors, who are growing increasingly uneasy about the security of their investments. Unless Congress comes up with some serious cash, expanding the nation’s health-care system will only add to the problem.

Obama wants to raise income taxes for high earners and impose new levies on business, but those moves would not generate enough cash to cover the cost of health care, much less balance the budget, and they have not been fully embraced by Congress. Obama’s plan to tax greenhouse-gas emissions could raise trillions of dollars, but again, Congress is balking.

Enter the VAT, one of the world’s most popular taxes, in use in more than 130 countries. Among industrialized nations, rates range from 5 percent in Japan to 25 percent in Hungary and in parts of Scandinavia. A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering its corporate tax rate.

The VAT has advantages: Because producers, wholesalers and retailers are each required to record their transactions and pay a portion of the VAT, the tax is hard to dodge. It punishes spending rather than savings, which the administration hopes to encourage. And the threat of a VAT could pull the country out of recession, some economists argue, by hurrying consumers to the mall before the tax hits.

A VAT’s Bottom Line

What would it cost? Emanuel argues in his book that a 10 percent VAT would pay for every American not entitled to Medicare or Medicaid to enroll in a health plan with no deductibles and minimal copayments. In his 2008 book, “100 Million Unnecessary Returns,” Yale law professor Michael J. Graetz estimates that a VAT of 10 to 14 percent would raise enough money to exempt families earning less than $100,000 — about 90 percent of households — from the income tax and would lower rates for everyone else.

And in a paper published last month in the Virginia Tax Review, Burman suggests that a 25 percent VAT could do it all: Pay for health-care reform, balance the federal budget and exempt millions of families from the income tax while slashing the top rate to 25 percent. A gallon of milk would jump from $3.69 to $4.61, and a $5,000 bathroom renovation would suddenly cost $6,250, but the nation’s debt would stabilize and everybody could see a doctor.

Most lawmakers are still looking for “a painless source of revenue” to overhaul the health-care system and dig the nation out of debt, Burman said. “Who knows?” he added. “Maybe the tooth fairy will bring that to them.”

The Senate Finance Committee refused to consider the VAT to pay for health care. I guess health care is free.

Imagine a 25% hike on the price of everything you buy. Think that would fly? Still, if they would eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and replace them solely with a VAT (excluding food and medicine) I would be in favor of it, IF they would cut unneeded programs which is nearly every Congressional program on the books.

It’s time to balance the budget. Public support for wars would drop to zero if taxes had to be raised to pay for them. Same holds true for unneeded military programs, Fannie Mae bailouts, Bank of America bailouts, etc etc.

“I think interest is quietly picking up,” Graetz said. “People are beginning to recognize that the mathematics of the current system are just unsustainable. You have to do something. And a VAT has got to be on the table if you want to do something big and serious.”

Therein lies the problem. The mathematics are unsustainable for the simple reason we are spending too much money. Rethinking taxes is a good idea, especially substituting taxes that encourage saving. However, the fear (and likelihood) is more taxes will just lead to more stupid spending.

Congress can come up with innumerable ways to waste money if given the chance. Unfortunately a VAT at this point is likely to accomplish nothing other than giving Congress that chance. Taxing people to pay for programs (or wars) that most would opt out of if they could, is not good policy.

The US can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. Before considering a VAT, Why don’t we just start there and see what the savings would be?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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