Jane CoCo Cowles, a tax attorney who lives in Manhattan, is co-chairwoman of the Students & New Lawyers Committee of the New York Women's Bar Association.
It's Tax Day today, and a good time to think about our country's finances. Just how can America resolve one of its most difficult fiscal problems, the mushrooming deficit? Now more than $12.8 trillion, today's deficit threatens to affect the April Fifteenths of our children and our children's children.
It's unrealistic to think we can make a significant dent in the deficit without raising taxes - an unpopular idea any day of the year. But it may be time to consider one solution, which is in use in much of Europe today: a value-added tax, similar to a national sales tax. Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who is one of President Barack Obama's fiscal advisers, said recently that the United States should put the idea on the table.
Some people don't like the VAT because it's regressive. But there are a few things to consider. For one, when the government needs to raise money quickly, a VAT is an effective tool. Economists argue that an efficient tax is one that covers a broad base and is simple to administer. A VAT applies to the general public, so it has a broad base. And unlike an income tax, it's not loaded with complicated credits and deductions that can lead to tax shelters. This makes it relatively simple to administer.
As for the concern that the VAT is regressive, disproportionately hitting low-income earners, it could be constructed with exemptions for basic necessities like food.
Most European countries, including the Netherlands, France and Switzerland, have adopted the VAT. In fact, the United States is one of the few countries that doesn't have one.
The VAT is a net tax. It applies to the net value added at each stage of the production chain. Hence, it's not a gross cumulative tax that is spread evenly over the production chain, and it doesn't result in double-taxation.
Here's a simplified example: Let's say a cattle owner sells a cowhide to a shoemaker for $50. If you apply a 10 percent VAT, the shoemaker pays the cattle owner $55, who remits $5 to the taxing authority. The shoemaker then sells the shoe for $80 to a retailer. Applying a 10 percent VAT, the retailer pays $88 to the shoemaker, who remits a net $3 to the taxing authority, because he can deduct the $5 he paid to the cattle owner. Finally, the retailer sells the shoe to a customer for $100 plus a 10 percent VAT, for a total of $110. The retailer remits a net $2 to the taxing authority, deducting the $8 tax already paid - the $5 remitted by the cattle owner and the $3 by the shoemaker.
The burden of the VAT is ultimately passed on to the customer, who pays the tax in full. However, it will be less of a pinch than other measures. While on a per-item basis the increase may seem negligible to some, it is certainly an increase that will add up for consumers. But given the already convoluted income tax code, many taxpayers may find a VAT preferable to layering even more complexities on to their April 15 returns.
I can tell you this: A lot of buyers of high-end goods will not notice. I recently visited one of Long Island (and the country's) toniest malls, the Americana in Manhasset. I thought that given the high unemployment rate, I'd find ample parking and salespeople waiting eagerly to help me. But there were few spaces available in the giant lot, and at Tiffany's, I got a polite, "We'll be with you soon." Meanwhile, the customer before me handed over her credit card without hesitation, saying,"Oh, I don't need a receipt."
The government should make the most of people who are readily buying.