Monday, October 21, 2019

Hoisted From The Archives, June 17, 2010: The Origins Of The Flat Tax

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in its June 2010 edition of Region magazine, published a lengthy interview with Robert E. Hall that covers a broad range of economic issues. One discusses tax policy. As most readers of this site know, Bob is my coauthor of four books (1983, 1985, 1995, 2007) and numerous articles on the flat tax.

Bob stated that “it wouldn’t be remotely practical to do it [tax reform] with a single positive tax rate now.” This is due, in his view, to the dramatic widening of the income distribution in the U.S. since 1981. “This means that the idea of the poor paying the same tax rate just seems less viable than it was when the income distribution was tighter.”

....”So I play around with systems that have, say, two brackets.”

The Tax Reform Act of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan, had two brackets of 15% and 28%. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation that added a 31% bracket. In 1993, President Clinton followed with two higher brackets of 36% and 39.6%. Two brackets lasted just five years. Moreover, the administrative simplicity of the Hall-Rabushka flat tax quickly evaporates with the addition of a second or more rates.

I also need to restate the historical record of our joint work. Bob stated that “The origin of our initial flat tax effort was Rabushka coming to me in 1980 and saying, ‘I know what the people want. The people want a flat tax, but I don’t quite know what that is.’ And I said ‘I know what it is because I’ve been thinking about it since I was a graduate student.’”  (He restated this history at a Hoover Event on October 2, 2019.)

Bob’s account is wrong. I had been observing Hong Kong’s approximate flat tax since 1973 and had looked at other cases in the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. I was asked to serve on President Reagan’s Tax Policy Task Force, which met between his nomination in August 1980 and election in November 1980. Having been dissatisfied with our 400-plus page report, I published a brief article in the March 25, 1981, edition of the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Attractions of a Flat-Rate Tax System.” Until that point, I had no knowledge that Bob had ever thought about the subject. Bob came to me and suggested that we write a flat-tax plan to replace the then current U.S. federal personal and corporate income taxes, which we did over the summer of 1981. We went public with the plan in the December 10, 1981, edition of the Wall Street Journal, entitled “A Proposal to Simplify Our Tax System.”

One other quibble is with his comment that the flat tax has not gone very far in the rest of the world. The dozens of postings on this site indicate otherwise.

Bob has not yet formally disassociated himself from the H-R flat tax. However, he has been less outspoken in its support in recent years. As president of the American Economic Association in 2010, I worry that this may be the year he walks himself back from the flat tax, explicitly stating a preference for a multi- bracket federal income tax.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Flat Tax In Retreat

The flat tax movement peaked at 40 countries.  Beginning in 2009, the following countries added a second (or more) higher rate(s) on upper-income households, with two adding a second lower rate.

Tuvalu, 2009:   added second lower rate of 15% to previous 30% flat rate

Iceland, 2010:  replaced 36% flat rate with progressive rate schedule up to 46.28%

Ukraine, 2011:  added second higher rate of 17% to previous 13% flat rate

Czech Republic, 2013:  added second higher rate of 22% to previous 15% flat rate

Slovakia, 2013:  added second higher rate of 25% to previous 19% flat rate

Montenegro, 2013:  added second higher rate of 15% to previous 9% rate

Albania, 2014:  replaced 10% flat rate with two rates of 13% and 23%

Grenada, 2014:  added second lower rate of 15% to previous 30% flat rate

St. Helena, 2015:  replaced 25% flat rate with two rates of 26% and 31%

Jamaica, 2016:  added second higher rate of 30% to previous 25% flat rate

Guyana, 2017:  replaced 30% flat rate with two rates of 28% and 40%

Mauritius, 2017:  replaced flat rate of 15% with two rates of 10% and 20%

Trinidad and Tobago, 2017:  added second higher rate of 30% to previous 25% flat rate

Latvia, 2018:  Replaced its 23% flat rate with three rates of 20%, 23%, and 31.4%

North Macedonia, 2019:  added second higher rate of 18% to previous 10% flat rate

The second higher rates in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are temporary 7-year measures.  They may be extended, made permanent, or allowed to lapse.

All of these measures were enacted after the financial crisis of 2008-09, some to raise additional revenue, others promoted by newly-elected leftist political parties.

Updates will be posted if and when other countries add a second or more rates to their flat tax, or if new countries adopt a flat tax.