An Interview With Bruce Bartlett
Bruce Bartlett's conservative credentials are impeccable: He's worked for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Jude Wanniski and Gary Bauer, Ron Paul and Jack Kemp. But he's also an economic realist: Government spending is growing, he says, and taxes are going to have to grow with it. The question for his party is whether it wants to get to work crafting those tax increases in a responsible way, or whether it wants to let Democrats levy inefficient hits on the rich and strange changes to the tax code. The health-care debate is a perfect example: A VAT could pay for this efficiently. But without Republican support, a surtax on the rich is likely to pay for this inefficiently. We spoke yesterday.
Start at the beginning. Why do we even need taxes? Why pay for anything?
We have a stream of revenue we'll continue to get in the future from the policies in place. But spending is projected to rise much more rapidly. So the question becomes what is the politically and economically tolerable level of the deficit? The Republican position seems to be, as Dick Cheney once said, that "deficits don't matter."
I don't know when we reach that threshold. But I think we were getting close even before the current problems. And federal spending is supposed to rise by about 50 percent over the next 25 years or so, and that was before any of the recent events. I think long before we'd reach the year 2030 we'd have a deficit large enough to create massive economic and political problems. Since the deficit has gotten so much larger so much faster, we're starting to see those problems on the horizon: Weakness of the dollar, increased efforts of foreign countries to diversify, unwillingness of other countries to hold the dollar. Eventually, we'll have a lot more trouble selling our bonds because our foreigners won't want them any longer.
What do you think a compromise between sensible members of both parties would look like?
I think the administration made a mistake approaching the funding of health-care reform how it did and I think Republicans made a mistake refusing to seriously debate the issue or its funding.
The value-added tax would be a very appropriate tax to use for this purpose. One reason is I am disturbed that we have a large percentage of the population that pay no income taxes. And I know many of those people pay payroll taxes. But income taxes fund the general government. According to a study by the Tax Policy Center, 47 percent pay no income tax, or have negative liability. And I think it's bad for democracy when people get into the position when a majority can vote benefits for themselves but not pay for it. And that should disturb liberals as much as conservatives.
The VAT would necessarily be a broad-based tax. It would be a way of getting people to pay for the benefits they themselves receive. People like Len Burman and Rahm Emmanuel's brother [Ezekiel Emmanuel, a health care adviser to Peter Orszag] have supported this for some time. Len argues that if people knew the VAT was dedicated to health-care reform, and the rate rose and fell automatically with the spending of the system, they would have an incentive to hold down taxes. They would have some positive reinforcement we do not now have with Medicare. I hope that's right. You know, every other major developed country has a VAT: The parties of the left in Europe made a deal a long time ago: If conservatives will let us have a welfare state, we'll fund it conservatively. And I think that's still a good deal.
So why aren't we seeing anything like that?
I think there's a couple of reasons for that. Both sides are pathologically afraid of advocating any kind of tax that would be paid by the average person. Republicans are opposed in particular to the VAT precisely because it's such a good tax. They fear it would become a money machine and it would help the government grow. I agreed with that for a long time. But the problem now is that we need a money machine! We have all this spending in the pipeline. It's not a question of whether we'll create new programs. It's whether we'll fund the ones that are already there.
What about a financial transactions tax?
I think that's pretty well dead. I don't support that myself. I think it's too easy for trading to shift to London or Tokyo or some other such place. It is interesting though that it hasn't come up. It could have something to do with the fact that guys like Chuck Schumer and Chris Dodd are in leadership positions and they're going to protect Wall Street.
Are there any other options you think particularly interesting?
One reason I've been more sympathetic to a carbon tax than other conservatives is that if you did it right it would be pretty close to a VAT. One of the objections a lot of us have to cap-and-trade is that it's too easily manipulated. It sounds good in theory, but once in the political meat-grinder, its failures become overwhelming.
Also, the corporate tax is no longer a viable source of revenue because of international capital flows and international trade. It's hard to pinpoint the source of a company's revenue. And this means we really need to shift more toward consumption-based taxation. You know where people consume. I think that's important.
And thinking about this from another perspective, suppose we had a VAT right now and we wanted to stimulated consumption. Reducing the VAT rate temporarily would be a wonderful way to stimulate consumption. Suppose you had a 10 percent VAT and we said we weren't going to collect it for the next 10 months. People would buy like crazy. They'd buy toilet paper, they'd buy anything they could get their hands on that they knew they'd need in the future. We're depriving ourselves of a great stimulant tool by ignoring this.
This gets back to the areas where there's no debate and there should be. I'd like to see some overall tax reform that lets us raise revenue at a lower deadweight cost to GDP. If you just did a tax reform that reduced that deadweight you could reduce the burden even as you kept the revenue. I'd love to see ways to do that discussed.
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