Which Taxes Offer an Opportunity to Be Progressive?

BY busadmin  June 4, 2009 at 11:24 AM EDT

taxpayer; via Flickr

Question: What other taxes offer an opportunity to be progressive besides income and inheritance taxes?

Paul Solman: Great question. I hope school is still in session.

One alternative tax would be a progressive CONSUMPTION tax, as advocated by economist Robert Frank of Cornell, sometimes featured on this page.

Here’s he is on the idea:

Under such a tax, people would report not only their income but also their annual savings, as many already do under 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts. A family’s annual consumption is simply the difference between its income and its annual savings. That amount, minus a standard deduction — say, $30,000 for a family of four — would be the family’s taxable consumption. Rates would start low, like 10 percent. A family that earned $50,000 and saved $5,000 would thus have taxable consumption of $15,000. It would pay only $1,500 in tax. Under the current system of federal income taxes, this family would pay about $3,000 a year.

As taxable consumption rises, the tax rate on additional consumption would also rise. With a progressive income tax, marginal tax rates cannot rise beyond a certain threshold without threatening incentives to save and invest. Under a progressive consumption tax, however, higher marginal tax rates actually strengthen those incentives.

Consider a family that spends $10 million a year and is deciding whether to add a $2 million wing to its mansion. If the top marginal tax rate on consumption were 100 percent, the project would cost $4 million. The additional tax payment would reduce the federal deficit by $2 million. Alternatively, the family could scale back, building only a $1 million addition. Then it would pay $1 million in additional tax and could deposit $2 million in savings. The federal deficit would fall by $1 million, and the additional savings would stimulate investment, promoting growth. Either way, the nation would come out ahead with no real sacrifice required of the wealthy family, because when all build larger houses, the result is merely to redefine what constitutes acceptable housing. With a consumption tax in place, most neighbors would also scale back the new wings on their mansions.

I can’t resist adding one quote with regard to the inheritance (or “estate” or “death”) tax that I heard long ago from, of all people, my estate lawyer, quoting her son: “If you can’t tax dead rich people, who CAN you tax?”