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The Fair Tax — At least worth a debate?

OK, everyone — time to take a breath and consider a new idea. Well, not really a new idea. It is called the Fair Tax plan and was conceived in 1998 by a nonpartisan group out of Houston called Americans for Fair Taxation. 

The simple proposal: Apply a 23 percent consumption tax paid once at the point of purchase of all new retail goods and services, while eliminating all other taxes in America — that’s right, all. That means no more income tax, personal or corporate; Social Security or Medicare payroll tax; dividends or capital gains tax; gift taxes; the estate tax or the Alternative Minimum Tax.

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The Fair Tax plan reduces some of the regressive effect of a consumption tax by paying those who live at or below the poverty level a Family Consumption Allowance, or “pre-bate,” on purchases of “basic necessities.” One expert on the Fair Tax wrote me that a family of four at or below the poverty level would receive a $565 pre-bate payment on the first of each month. 

The 23 percent consumption tax level is set in order to keep federal revenues neutral — meaning the revenues estimated to be generated by a 23 percent consumption tax would be about equal to current revenues generated by the income and all other taxes. That’s the theory, anyway. Proponents also argue that goods and services prices will not go up because the 23 percent consumption tax is about the same as the “embedded” 22 percent tax on all goods and services needed to pay for current taxes.  

Among the positive effects, proponents claim the national consumption tax would: 

• Encourage savings and investments (since income is not taxed); 

• Eliminate an estimated $300 billion to $ 450 billion per year spent by Americans on tax compliance; 

• Cause the repatriation of an estimated $12 trillion to $15 trillion that are hidden in offshore accounts in order to avoid or escape U.S. taxation — and, once returned home, would cause interest rates to fall as increased capital becomes available for investments;

• Result in increased job creation — given the higher levels of investment from the greater available capital;

• Provide a sustainable and stable source of revenue for Social Security and Medicare, since there will always be 300 million-plus consumers purchasing at least necessities every month;

• Have positive environmental effects because it leaves untaxed old and used goods, encouraging people to use and re-use things rather than consuming natural resources to create new things. 

Critics cite such disadvantages as the loss of the hundreds of thousands of tax-related jobs (such as IRS employees, income tax preparers, tax software vendors and — yes! — tax-break lobbyists). And elimination of the popular mortgage interest deduction will be controversial (i.e., no income tax, thus, no need to deduct anything). But some economists claim reduced interest rates under the Fair Tax will more than offset the loss of mortgage interest deductibility. 

Look, I’m skeptical — especially with the notion that the retail prices will drop 23 percent dollar-for-dollar, due to the absence of the “embedded” taxes, so that prices won’t go up when a 23 percent consumption tax is added; or that interest rates will drop enough to offset the loss of mortgage interest deductibility. I am also skeptical because — full disclosure — I have relied for much of this column on the often unreliable Wikipedia Fair Tax write-up and material found on the not-objective Fair Tax website.

My biggest problem with the Fair Tax idea is the fact that it is revenue-neutral. Yes, it’s interesting to examine the possible positive social and economic effects of eliminating all taxation based on income. But my focus remains on the need for liberals and conservatives to join hands and raise taxes and cut spending at the same time — as Bill Clinton bravely did in 1994 — and begin to balance our budgets and pay down the more than $13 trillion national debt. 

Next week I will begin a series of columns on the Bowles-Simpson Commission proposal — and why I believe it represents the best, and only, hope for stopping the credit card addiction that immorally, in my judgment, leaves our children and grandchildren to pay for our lack of fiscal discipline. 

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.