The United States has a tax code that encourages borrowing and consumption at the expense of savings and investment. I believe this concept is pretty well understood. What is less understood is that the rest of the world does not. The much-derided (in the United States at least) European-style welfare states actually have less progressive tax systems than the US, as do the developed Asian countries of Japan and South Korea. This means they are more apt to discourage consumption and to promote exports with value-added taxes. Most of these countries have found a policy balance that produces neutral trade deficits. Countries like China and Germany, on the other hand, take it even further and use their tax code to actively promote massive trade surpluses, a key source of the "global imbalances" that are threaten the world economy. Even worse, within the US tax code we discourage domestic investment in general, yet we lavish subsidies on specific old-economy industries like real estate, agriculture and energy extraction and even encourage US multinationals to invest overseas instead of in the United States. Our distorted tax policy is a bipartisan failure that must be addressed soon or our country will begin to lose ground economically while struggling under a mountain of foreign-owned debt.
How we got here
Much of The Dynamist blog is devoted to analyzing long term trends in economic policy, market valuations and political cycles. One of the consistent themes (for examples see here and here) is that the United States needs to focus on reducing its structural trade deficit. When we run a trade deficit, we are importing capital (i.e. borrowing) from abroad. Importing capital is not inherently bad. If the US had a surplus of investment opportunities relative to its pool of savings, investment capital may come in from abroad to make up the difference. In such an event, the investments would presumably increase the long run growth rate of the US economy.
The trade deficits that the US has run since the mid-1990s, and in the 1980s before that can generally be attributed to policy distortion by the Federal Government or by the Federal Reserve. The Fed's policy of high real interest rates in the early 1980s and late 1990s drew in a great deal of capital from abroad. In the 1980s, it funded Reagan's tax cuts and military buildup. In the 1990s, it funded the investment in a large increase in US manufacturing production capacity. In the Dynamist's view, neither of these investments were bad things and they generally made the US stronger.
The problem came when the disinflationary high interest rate policy was unwound. In both the late 1990s and 2000s, the combination of falling real interest rates, a weakening dollar, a surge in liquidity and an upturn in inflation create a ripe environment for a junk bond and real estate boom. Finance-fuelled booms like these tend to leave behind banking crises, overleveraged LBOs and real estate overcapacity. In the 1980s, the S&L deregulation led to a commercial real estate bubble. In the 2000s, the flow of Chinese money into the agency debt of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with the policy innovation of "securitizations" and credit derivatives created the housing bubble. While such investments aren't useless, they don't have much of an impact on future US productivity.
I've written before about how US economic policy since the Great Depression has basically promoted consumption and real estate investment at the expense of saving and business investment. Domestic tax policy is skewed toward taxing high earners and lenders and supporting lower earners, borrowers and leveraged equity owners, particularly in real estate and farming (this even after the income tax rate reductions of the Reagan and Bush eras). When examining how domestic policy leads to distortions to the external trade and capital accounts, it is worth comparing how our policies compare to those of our largest competitors.
Global tax rates
A couple of months ago, The Economist had an interesting table outlining the tax policies of various countries (it can be found here, by those with a subscription). I worked with the numbers a bit so we could compare the state's take (including state and local taxes) relative to GDP across various types of taxes. I don't have the underlying data, nor do I know the policy details behind how various countries collect taxes, but in rough terms the data give one a good idea about the thrust of tax policy.
I took the average of five European-style welfare states (Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy), two developed Asia industrial powerhouses (South Korea and Japan), the US, China and Germany stand-alone. Their sources of tax revenue relative to GDP are shown below:
Source: The Economist, author's calculations
Unsurprisingly, governments in the United States collect a smaller amount of taxes as a percent of the economy than the four European countries and Canada. To compare apples-to-apples, however, the 6-8% of GDP that flows to privately-funded health care in the US should be added to the relatively regressive "social contributions" line item, for health insurance costs are deducted directly from our compensation just like Social Security and Medicare taxes. That would move US taxes to within 4-6% of European levels.
Surprisingly, the total tax take from "progressive" sources like income, capital and property in the United States is almost identical to that of Europe. The big difference between the two systems is in the "regressive" taxation of consumption. The European-style welfare states use value-added taxes that collect consumption taxes to the tune of 10.4% of GDP. The US taxes consumption, mostly in the form of state sales taxes, at only 4.4% of GDP. In other words, the US has a more progressive tax code than the European-style welfare states. The result is Europe as a whole runs a trade balance and the consumption-driven US runs a trade deficit.
The developed Asia countries of South Korea and Japan tax their economies by a similar percent as the US and have similar percentages for social contributions. The difference is that developed Asia taxes income less and consumption more than the US, with a difference of about 3 percentage points in each category.
Now look at China. It has a weak social safety net, and collects nothing in terms of "social contributions". It then gets nearly two-thirds of its tax base from consumption taxes, with most of the rest coming from taxes on companies. No wonder China has huge levels of savings and investment and low consumption levels. Combine that with a policy to suppress currency values and you have the ideal recipe for large trade deficits.
Germany is another great promoter of global imbalances, particularly within Europe, as has come to light with the recent Greek debt crisis. It collects a huge portion of its tax base from regressive consumption taxes and social contributions, while collecting less than the US in progressive income, capital and property taxes. Additionally, of the developed countries it takes the lowest percentage from companies. By taxing employment so highly via social contributions, and taxing companies at such a low level, Germany is encouraging "capital deepening", or investment in its great export machine. Germany's high consumption taxes have also encouraged the lowest level of consumption of the major developed economies.
Even within the US tax code, the US discourages domestic business investment relative to encouraging US multinationals to invest abroad; punishes businesses in general with the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world while it lavishes massive subsidies on individual sectors like agriculture, energy extraction, and real estate; forces companies to write off investments in productive capacity over long periods of time while other countries offer massive incentives for multinationals to invest. In the past 30 years, the US has gotten away with its disincentives to business investment funded by domestic savings by replacing domestic savings with foreign savings flowing through its levered-up capital markets casino.
Reform the Tax Code
It was nice while it lasted. We got lots of investment, bigger houses, a beefed-up military, technological innovation, and debt-fuelled consumption with low domestic savings. Now that the bill has come due, we either need to encourage more saving or live with less investment. Opting for the latter is not the path to long run prosperity. The tax code needs to be reformed to tax more consumption (which could include a carbon tax, an export-promoting value added tax and/or larger deductions for saving), not to increase income taxes and to reform the corporate tax code to replace the subsidies for specific old-economy industries with incentives for investment in domestic manufacturing capacity and R&D.
For corporate taxes, I would propose a general reform that would lower the statutory rate by eliminating special-interest subsidies and the deferral of international income, while also allowing the full, immediate expensing of business investment and R&D. I would also support the deductibility of dividends, while returning the tax rate on individual dividends back to the income tax rate. This reform would discourage corporate cash-hoarding for buybacks and ill-conceived acquisitions. (If you can't convince the capital markets to fund an acquisition, you probably shouldn't do it.)
In a globalized economy, large differences in tax policy cause trade and capital flow distortions. The US can no longer pretend it is an island unto itself. Our tax code is harmful enough to our national interests as it is, it gets even worse when allows the rest of the world to take advantage of us.