Bruce Bartlett

According to columnist Robert Novak, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is adamant about replacing the entire federal tax system -- payroll and income taxes -- with a 30 percent national retail sales tax (NRST) collected by the states, such as that in H.R. 25, sponsored by Rep. John Linder, R-Ga.

 I have written many times before about what a dopy idea I think this is. Following is an effort to summarize the key arguments against it that appear over and over again in the scholarly literature.

 -- People will still have to keep records, file income tax returns and get audited, because the states and some cities will continue to have income taxes. There is no reason whatsoever to think that the states will get rid of their income taxes if the federal income tax is abolished.

 Quite the contrary, they are likely to view the federal government as co-opting their traditional tax base -- the general sales tax. Therefore, the states will just take over the tax base being given up by the federal government -- the income tax -- and abolish their state sales taxes, which would otherwise come on top of the NRST.

 The only way this can be prevented is if the federal government prohibits the states from imposing income taxes at the same time it abolishes the federal income tax, which is probably impossible constitutionally. And if the states keep their sales taxes, the federal government will have to force them to conform to its tax base. Right now, no two states have exactly the same sales tax systems and none come anywhere close to taxing sales as broadly as contemplated by the NRST.

 -- There is a very severe problem of taxing business inputs under a sales tax. These must be exempt from tax in order to avoid cascading -- taxes being levied on taxes -- which creates serious economic distortions. To avoid this under a NRST, every business, no matter how small, would need some sort of exemption certificate, which would create unlimited opportunities for evasion, or they will have to be extensively audited in ways at least as onerous as under the income tax.

 -- Services are by their nature much more difficult to tax than goods. For this reason, no state makes any effort to tax more than a few of them. Yet the NRST would tax 100 percent of services, including medical services and government services. Every time you go to the hospital, you will have to pay 30 percent on top to the federal government. And local governments will also be taxed by the federal government on services they provide, which will sharply raise property taxes.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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