Consumption Tax

progessive consumption tax by Rob Donnelly

A consumption tax is a tax on spending on goods and services. Consumption taxes are usually indirect, such as a sales tax or a value added tax. However, a consumption tax can also be structured as a form of direct, personal taxation, such as an expenditure tax (a tax levied on the total consumption expenditure of an individual).

Consumption taxes do not tax savings, which allows invested assets to grow more quickly. Although personal and corporate income taxes provide the bulk of revenue to the federal government, consumption taxes continue to be a primary source of income for state and local governments.

A value added tax (VAT) applies to the market value added to a product or material at each stage of its manufacture or distribution. If a retailer buys a shirt for $20 and sells it for $30, this tax would apply to the $10 difference between the two amounts. A simple VAT would be proportional on consumption but also be regressive on income at higher income levels (as consumption falls as a percentage of income). Savings and investment are tax-deferred until they become consumption. A VAT may exclude certain goods, creating progressive effects. The tax is used in countries within the European Union.

A sales tax typically applies to the sale of goods, less often to the sales of services. The tax is applied at the point of sale. Like a VAT, simple sales taxes hit lower-income consumers harder than others, leading to exemptions for basic items such as food. An excise tax is a sales tax that applies to a specific class of goods, typically alcohol, gasoline (petrol), or tourism. The tax rate varies according to the type of good and quantity purchased and is typically unaffected by the person who purchases it.

A direct, personal consumption tax may take the form of an expenditure tax or an income tax that deducts savings and investments. A direct consumption tax may be called an expenditure tax, a cash-flow tax, or a consumed-income tax and can be flat or progressive.

This form of tax applies to the difference between an individual’s income and increase/decrease savings. Like the other consumption taxes, simple personal consumption taxes are regressive with respect to income. However, because this tax applies on an individual basis, it can be made as progressive as a progressive personal income tax. Just as income tax rates increase with personal income, consumption tax rates increase with personal consumption.

Consumption taxes, specifically excise taxes, have featured in several notable historic events. In the U.S., the Stamp tax, the tax on tea, and whisky taxes produced revolts, the first two against the British government and the latter against the nascent American Republic. In India, an excise tax on salt led to Gandhi’s famous Salt Satyagraha, a seminal moment in his struggle to win independence from the U.K.

In the early U.S., taxes were levied principally on consumption. Alexander Hamilton, one of the two chief authors of the anonymous Federalist Papers, favored consumption taxes in part because they are harder to raise to ‘confiscatory’ levels than incomes taxes. In the ‘Federalist Papers,’ Hamilton wrote:

‘It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed—that is, an extension of the revenue. If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds.’

To the extent that taxing something results in less of it (whether income or consumption), taxing consumption instead of income should encourage both work and capital formation, which will increase economic growth, while discouraging consumption. Secondly, the tax base will be larger because all consumption will be taxed.

Some critics argue that sales and consumption taxes can shift the tax burden to the less well-off. The ratio of tax obligation shrinks as wealth grows because the wealthy spend proportionally less of their income on consumables. An individual unable to save will pay taxes on 100%, but individuals who save or invest a portion of their income will be taxed only on the remaining income.

Many proposed consumption taxes share some features with the current income tax systems. Under these proposals, taxpayers would be given exemptions and a standard deduction in order to ensure that the poor do not pay any tax. In a pure consumption tax, other deductions would not be permitted, because all savings would be deductible.

A withholding system might also be put into place in order to estimate the total tax liability. It would be difficult for many taxpayers to pay no tax all year, only to be faced with a large tax bill at the end of the year.

A consumption tax could also eliminate the concept of basis when computing the value of investments. All income that is put in investments (such as property, stocks, savings accounts) is tax-free. As the asset grows in value, it is not taxed. Only when the proceeds from the asset are spent is any tax imposed. This is in contrast with the current system where if one buys land for $10,000 and sells it for $15,000, one has a taxable gain of $5,000. A consumption tax taxes only consumption, so if one sells an investment to buy another investment, no tax is imposed.

Renters necessarily ‘consume’ housing, so they will be taxed on the expenditure of rent. However, homeowners also consume housing in the same way, but as they pay down a mortgage, the payments are classified as savings, not consumption (because equity is being built in an asset).

The disparity is explained by what is known as the imputed rental value of a home. A homeowner could choose to rent the home to others in exchange for money but instead chooses to live in the home to the exclusion of all possible renters. Therefore, the homeowner is also consuming housing by not permitting renters to pay for and occupy the home. The amount of money that the homeowner could receive in rent is the imputed rental value of the home.

A true consumption tax would tax the imputed rental value of the home (which could be determined in the same way that valuation occurs for property tax purposes) and would not tax the increase in the value of the asset (the home). In the United States, home ownership is subsidized by the federal government by permitting a deduction for mortgage interest expense and exempting a significant increase in value from the capital gains tax.

Also, a consumption tax could utilize progressive rates in order to maintain ‘fairness.’ The more that someone spends on consumption, the more that the person will be taxed. The rate structure could look like the current bracket system, or a new bracket system could be implemented.

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