Thursday, July 4, 2019

How to Replace Personal Income Taxes with Middle-class friendly Progressive Consumption Taxes

Under the existing income tax system, the top 1% pays 40% of all federal taxes. According to the Tax Policy Center, 44% of Americans will not pay any income taxes this year. On the other hand, Warren Buffett claims he has a lower tax rate than his secretary. While much buzz was created about the carried interest, nothing has been done yet and as a result hedge fund billionaires continue to enjoy one of the lowest tax rates. According to Fortune, “Amazon will pay a whopping $0 in federal taxes on $11.2 billion profits.” These conflicting scenarios demonstrate how irrational our income tax system has become. Therefore, it’s high time that we (phase out and) replace the personal income tax with a set of progressive consumption taxes.


Of course, the one-size-fits-all consumption tax – which was proposed before and was justly unsuccessful – is inherently regressive, as poor and middle class folks tend to spend a much higher percentage of their incomes compared to the rich folks. Yet, the consumption tax could be an ideal replacement for the current income tax, as long as it is progressive. How? Quite simple – all non-food goods and services must be broken down into three tax-progressive categories: Basic, Luxury and Ultra-luxury. While the basic category will have the lowest tax rates, luxury and ultra-luxury will carry progressively higher rates; for example, the national sales tax rate (atop the state and local sales taxes as it replaces the federal income tax) for basic durable goods (e.g., appliance) could be 2 to 3%, whereas the luxury and ultra-luxury could carry 5% and 10% rates, respectively. Needless to say, the lower rates for the basic category will advantage the middle class while the rich will be more than happy to pay higher national sales taxes in lieu of their disproportionately higher share of the federal income taxes (case in point: the top 1% pays 40% of all federal taxes). 


So, how will the progressive consumption tax system work?


1. National Sales Tax on Basic and Luxury Durable Goods – In order to save, say $5K to $5M on annual income taxes, taxpayers would be amenable to an additional national sales tax – obviously atop the current state and municipal sales taxes – on durable goods. Unlike income taxes, consumption taxes are more humane meaning families can budget or plan for these expenditures. Since the basic durable goods impact the poor and middle class, the rate must be lower, say 2 to 3%, followed by progressively higher rates on luxury durable and ultra luxury durable goods demanded by the rich; for instance, all appliances under $10K could be basic, $10K to $20K being the luxury and >$20K as the ultra luxury category, with progressively higher rates. Likewise, automobiles could have three categories as well. Since this a national sales tax, it must cover all online purchases. While states and municipalities will continue to charge different sales tax rates, the national sales tax rates will be uniform across states as they will replace the federal income taxes.

2. National Sales Tax on Unhealthy (processed) Foods and Beverages – It’s about time that the health-conscious folks are not forced to subsidize those who basically live off junk foods and high-calorie beverages. This is a (preventive) health issue and, hopefully, this national sales tax will save citizens billions in health insurance premiums down the road. The counter case is equally compelling: Today smokers are paying a hefty price for their lifestyle (significantly higher taxes on their lifestyle products and higher premiums on life and health insurances, etc.). While we must not take smokers’ choice away, the rest of us must not finance their lifestyles either. The phase-out of the income tax system will take 5 to 7 years, during which as the income tax revenue starts to come down, the junk food/beverage sales tax should start at, say 10%, graduating up and perhaps leveling out at 20%.


3. National Sales Tax on all Name Brand Prescription Medications – When a particular medication (all forms: oral, injection, iv, etc.) has a generic counterpart, it must be subjected to the national sales tax. Since the name brands are significantly costlier, they are generally meant for the rich folks. Obviously, when the generic is not available (or is not easily/readily available), the brand must be exempted from the proposed tax. Even prescription generics produced in foreign facilities could be taxed (excise or sales).


4. National Sales Taxes on Million$-plus Home Sales – Since the rich and ultra-rich owning the upscale and expensive homes will be big beneficiaries of the phase-out (followed by no income taxes), the million$-plus home sales must be subjected to additional progressive national sales taxes. It must not be a blanket one-size-fits-all rate; instead, it must be progressive, for example, sale price $1M to $2M @5.00%, $2M to $3M @5.25%, $3M to $5M @5.75%, $5M to $10M @6.00% and $10M+ @6.25%, etc. At the individual level, unlike the income taxes, these sales will impact them once in a while, thus a far preferable option than the high annual income taxes they have been paying. On the contrary, in order to keep the upscale housing market liquid and economic, the property tax component of the SALT cap must be separated and de-capped. Should sales clusters start to balloon just under $1M, the threshold could be lowered to the jumbo mortgage (non-conforming) level.


5. National Sales Tax on Luxury Hotels (4 and 5-Star) – These hotels are primarily for the corporate executives and rich folks so an additional 5-6% national sales tax will not harm the hotel industry. In fact, these hotels might even use this sales tax as a promo (“We Will Pay Your National Sales Tax”) in order to compete for the traffic during off-peak seasons. A vast majority of these hotels have medium-to-large convention centers – seasonal to round-the-year – so convention center surtax could be an ancillary surtax as well. The hotels that are run as resorts must be subjected to an additional resort surtax. Similarly, all private golf courses must have additional surtaxes. None of these will adversely impact the middle class; even if they impact the middle class to some extent, it will be insignificant when compared to the tax savings they will be enjoying from the elimination of income taxes.


6. National Sales Tax on all Luxury Air Travels, Amtrak, Vacation Cruises and Car Rentals – Business and first class air travel, both domestic and international, is primarily for the corporate executives and rich folks so an additional 5-6% national sales tax will not harm the airline industry. Similarly, those who spend thousands more on luxury and ultra-luxury vacation cruise suites can afford an additional 5-6% national sales tax and it won’t harm the cruise industry either. Foreign cruises coming to the US shores may be subjected to additional port charges. Luxury car, charter flights and private jet rentals must carry sizable luxury and ultra-luxury national sales taxes. Likewise, upscale suites and berths on Amtrak must be subjected to the national sales tax as well. Again, none of these will adversely impact our middle class.


7. Consider Selling Non-specific National Sales Tax Data to Private Companies – Undoubtedly, the national sales tax data will pave the way for the largest warehouse of the most uniform consumer spending and market performance Big Data, so the Commerce Department might consider selling the generic data to private companies, reducing the importance of the back-door data from the social media. Private companies in the consumer sphere, including the market research and econometric consulting firms, will pay large sums on an on-going basis to have access to such central and uniform data. Since the data will constantly change in line with the economic cycles, companies will be dependent on it, perennially. Additionally, the sale of data to the end-user private companies will be directly taxed while the value-added resellers will collect sales taxes from their clients. In no time, the national sales tax data could be a big money maker for the federal government. Citizenry would be relieved as the dominance of the social media data taking a nosedive.


ADDITIONALLY...

8. Consider Selling Naming Rights to Lesser-known or Un-named Federal Infrastructures – Let the rich people/private institutions pay to put up their names on lesser-known federal government buildings, town squares adjacent to federal buildings, highways, bridges, parks and recreational centers, education/job training centers, shelters, libraries, etc. (that the federal government owns and operates). Federal government must also take back/reserve the naming rights while funding (or primarily funding) non-profit institutions with federal dollars. If we build a wall on the southern border, naming rights to each stretch/segment must be auctioned off as well (in fact, this could provide partial funding for the wall, as well as on-going maintenance!!). The selling process must be totally open and transparent (via open tenders), thus awarding the naming rights to the highest bidders (some restrictions could apply). Also, in order to attract the right market price, it must also be term-limited, say 3 to 5 years. US DOT should also consider private-public joint ventures to build new toll roads and bridges (unable to get federal funding) wherein the private party incurs all costs to build the infrastructure in return for the toll incomes for 10-15 years.


9. Last but not least, Massive Savings will be generated by Downsizing IRS – IRS has over 80,000 employees with an operating cost of $11.5B. Obviously, the vast majority of them are expected to work on the personal income side. With the phase-out and eventual elimination of personal income taxes, the overall manpower could be significantly downsized, reducing the operating cost to $2B to $3B. Of course, a much smaller national sales tax group (Collection, IT and Data Science) will be needed under the umbrella of the Commerce Dept. Along with the reduced headcount, many IRS Centers around the country could be closed, data centers merged and cloud/storage scaled back. The corporate income tax rate has already been lowered to 21% and any further reduction would necessitate some compensating European Union-style VAT. 

 
Instead of forcing the top 1% to pay 40% of all federal income taxes, we should seriously consider switching to a more humane progressive consumption tax system wherein people at large get to plan and decide the amount of taxes they would pay. While progressive consumption tax is poor and middle-class friendly, the rich would also welcome the idea considering the trade-off. Studies will be needed to make the switch revenue neutral.


COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL


Thanks.

Sid Som, MBA, MIM
President, Homequant, Inc. 

homequant@gmail.com

  

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