An elegant answer to the over-complicated tax system is to shift the basis of the system from income to spending. There have been a variety of proposals to make this happen. It’s the core of the so-called Fair Tax and Herman Cain incorporated its concept into his 9-9-9 tax plan. Other proposals have called for a value-added tax similar to the system in the United Kingdom.
Working to earn a living contributes to society, as does investing in businesses. Taxes on income, whether wages or dividends, could discourage this type of economically-beneficial activity. Consumer spending also benefits the economy, though, and if this tax system discourages spending, it might have a negative effect on the economy initially.
Also, lower-income households and those who live paycheck-to-paycheck would bear a higher burden. When almost all of a family’s income is spent, this family would be taxed on a high percentage of their income. On the other hand, a corporate executive earning more than a million dollars does not need to spend all of his money. His tax burden is more affordable. Under today’s tax environment, someone with the means might put money into real estate, invest in businesses, and shelter assets in offshore accounts. Under the new system, a wealthy individual might stay away from buying houses if those transactions are taxed, while bringing more offshore assets back to the United States.
Rather than adding a national sales tax to determine consumption, one solution is to report all income, as is currently done, as well as all contributions to savings, just like what is done for IRA and 401(k) accounts. The difference between income and savings would be the basis on which the government levies the consumption tax. There could be a high standard deduction applied to the difference, so that lower-income families who are struggling to save do not need to pay an unaffordable tax bill, and so that the system remains progressive.
Reforming the tax system away from income tax is a tall order. Thanks to deductions for tax-advantaged savings, the income tax system has already begun to shift towards a focus on spending, but if you believe that the system could be vastly improved by focusing solely on consumption, the system has a long way to go before workers and savers aren’t punished by a tax collection system.
Would you prefer a tax system based solely on consumption?
Published or updated January 23, 2012.