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How to rob from the poor and give to the rich: Border Tax Equity Act of 2016

Published Nov 07, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

In September, Donald Trump started calling for the US to tax imports from Mexico and China etc, on various theories having to do with his vision of what fair trade policy involving the United States would require. Democratic lawmaker Bill Pascrell appears to have seized the moment to re-introduce a bill that has failed multiple times in the U.S. Congress over the years, namely, the so-called Border Tax Equity Act. The idea of this act is simple: tax US consumers on imports and give the money to US companies that export things. If you find it amazing that anyone anywhere could support a tax and redistribute scheme like this, blame it on the pitch: Pascrell (and others) laud this as an answer to what they have characterized as a discriminatory practice, namely the exemption of exported products from value added taxes (VAT) by the 160+ countries that have federal consumption taxes. The argument is that "[t]he disparate treatment of border taxes is arbitrary, inequitable, causes economic distortions based only on the type of tax system used by a country, and is a primary obstacle to more balanced trade relations between the United States and its major trading partners."

This argument is specious and I don't expect the bill to pass but this issue is one that just does not seem like it will go away, I think because it is too easy to pitch the VAT border tax adjustment as "unfair." I had an exchange with trade expert Simon Lester almost ten years ago on this very subject, and re-reading my response today, it seems to cover the bases so I thought I would re-post it. You can see his original post here including a discussion in the comments between myself, Simon, and Sungjoon Cho on the matter. Sungjoon helpfully linked to a GATT working party report from 1970 but his original link is dead, however you can find that report here. Here is what I said (highlights added):

The great fallacy here is that the foreign exporter to the U.S. is somehow subject to no tax while the U.S. exporter is subject to two taxes. This is simply not the case. Other countries, especially our biggest trading partners (e.g. Canada) have both a federal corporate income tax and a federal consumption tax, while the U.S. has only a federal corporate tax. You cannot honestly assess the impact of the VAT in the context of only one country’s corporate income tax, and supporting this legislation this way is dishonest. The Textileworld site you reference conveniently ignores foreign corporate taxes in its analysis—I will leave you to decide for yourself why they might do that.

...I will give a drastically oversimplified example. Assume a U.S. person manufactures a product in the U.S. which it will sell in Canada. The company’s profit on the sale is subject to federal income tax in the U.S., plus VAT in Canada (there called a general sales tax). Let us assume a Canadian company makes a similar product. With the same profit margin as the U.S. company on that product, the big issue here is the different rates of federal corporate taxes each company pays to its home country, because both pay an equal amount of VAT tax in that market. What the export credit in the U.S. would do is lower the U.S . company’s federal income tax burden relative to the Canadian one.

Now flip the scenario, the U.S. manufactures and sells a product in the U.S., where there is no VAT, and the Canadian company manufactures a product in Canada to sell in the U.S. Now each company again will pay its income tax to its home country but what happens to the VAT? Well there is no U.S. federal sales tax, and Canada’s VAT only applies to sales in that market, so the VAT is not imposed on the Canadian product coming in to the U.S.—it is exempt from their VAT. Again, in the U.S. market, there is no price distortion other than the difference in corporate income tax burdens—neither product is subject to VAT. If the U.S. imposes a border tax, I think you might now see that as distortionary (to the extent you believe that a tariff is distortionary in any event). Now you might say yeah, but many states have state sales taxes, wouldn't that equalize the incoming product, exempted from sales (VAT) tax in its foreign country? The answer is, of course, yes. But you don’t see very many people complaining if New York does not impose its sales tax on a product being shipped out of New York for sale in Canada—that is a (much-ignored) direct corollary to the VAT exemption.

I could go on but this argument has been made many times before. I appreciate that tax is complex and there are many alternative taxes and scenarios in which they apply differently, so that it is easy to be swayed by something that “seem unfair.” The bottom line is that people will continue to compare VAT to income taxes when it suits their purposes (i.e., supports protectionist policies like the border tax), and not when it doesn’t (i.e, when they want to pressure a government to lower its corporate tax rate to align with other nations’ corporate tax rate). But don’t be fooled by someone who tries to get you to look at one piece of a complex puzzle and guess what the image is.
Further...
[I]f you seek a level playing field, border taxes and rebates do not achieve that, and in fact, I doubt anyone could ever be confident about how to go about getting it via tax breaks for some and tax penalties for others (I have some ideas about where I would start, but I'll restrain myself). A border tax/rebate does not operate like an inverse VAT or offset an extra cost imposed by a VAT. A border tax is a tariff and a rebate is a subsidy, plain and simple, and I would expect many of our trading partners to oppose it if enacted.

Incidentally, abolishing all income taxes might solve the problem of the income tax competition, but then you have a much different problem. By some estimates, if the U.S. were to abolish the income tax entirely in favor of a sales tax, the rate could be as high as 50%. More likely scenario: we keep the income tax just like it is and ADD a 10-20% federal VAT. This would get rid of the erroneous "VAT as distortion" complaint but I personally would rather keep the debate and take a pass on the VAT.
Today, I am less convinced that the income tax is worth saving and more open to a federal VAT, but that's a discussion for another day. To the above I would only add that in 2009 the US Congressional Research Service undertook a study called International Competitiveness: An Economic Analysis of VAT Border Tax Adjustments, well worth reading--the authors were Maxim Shvedov (now tax policy expert at AARP) and Donald Marples, whose more recent work on inversions with Jane Gravelle is also of interest. Their conclusion:
Economists have long recognized that border tax adjustments have no effect on a nation's competitiveness. Border tax adjustments have been shown to mitigate the double taxation of cross-border transactions and to provide a level playing field for domestic and foreign goods and services. Hence, in the absence of changes to the underlying macroeconomic variables affecting capital flows (for example, interest rates), any changes in the product prices of traded goods and services brought about by border tax adjustments would be immediately offset by exchange-rate adjustments. This is not to say, however, that a nation's tax structure cannot influence patterns of trade or the composition of trade.
In summary: No, taxing at the border for the reasons given does not introduce "equity." It introduces WTO-prohibited tariffs and export subsidies. One could imagine that if the tariffs so raised were used to fund public goods, the possibility for an equitable outcome could be increased. But taking the money out of the pockets of US consumers and putting it in the pocket of US exporters in no way fulfills the stated policy goal.

Tagged as: fairness politics tax policy VAT

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