Is a Flat Tax Fair For Americans?

Posted on 07. Jan, 2008 by in Economy, Taxes

As I become more actively involved in watching the presidential debates and following various candidates, one of the topics that is at the top of my list of concerns is the economy. Specifically I worry about the rising cost of health care, the state of social security, and of course… taxes. Most candidates have touched on this subject in some way or another – proposing a tax cut here or a rate hike there. But there’s one candidate (who I myself do not personally endorse by the way of full disclosure) who has a more ambitious plan:

“Am I running for president to shut down the federal government? Not exactly. But I am running to eliminate all federal income and payroll taxes. And I do mean all — personal federal, corporate federal, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare, self-employment. Instead,we will have the FairTax, a simple tax based on wealth.”

That quote comes from the website of the former Republican governor Mike Huckabee. The plan is simple in theory, but isn’t new. A grassroots campaign has been gaining popularity after being proposed by a group called Americans for Fair Taxation, and it has already been written into a bill sponsored by Georgia congressman John Linder.

To answer a few frequently asked questions about the proposal… here are a few points you should be aware of.

So how does this change current tax laws?

In a nutshell, it throws out the tax code entirely. That’s right… no more Form 1040, no more dreaded April 15th. Under the plan, you would pay only one federal tax, which would be applied to just about everything you buy: not just the goods you buy at stores (on which most states assess a sales tax), but nearly all services, including health care and insurance, the purchase of a new home or rental of an apartment, even things like a teenager mowing a lawn or baby-sitting for a neighbor.

How much would this tax be?
Depending on how you look at it – 23 to 30% If you purchased a $100 pair of shoes, the price would increase to $130 or 30%. However, the plan’s supporters say that works out as a 23% rate because $30 is 23% of $130. Whichever way you look at it, it would mean about a 30% increase in prices.

How is this fair to those paying 100% of what they earn?
For those of us (including myself) who pay close to 100% of their earnings on living expenses (rent, food, medicine) paying 23% doesn’t seem very fair. However, the the sales tax plan would partly offset this effect by sending every household in America, from the family of a poor single mother to Warren Buffett, a check to cover the taxes on their spending up to the poverty level. If you factor in that cash from the government, each family’s net tax burden goes down, so that the Fair Tax looks more progressive. For example, a family of three earning $30,000 a year and spending all their income would give 7% of their pay to the government; one earning and spending $125,000 would pay a net rate of about 19%.

What about those who can afford to save?
Critics of the plan claim that those of us who have “extra income” that we can put away for a rainy day will be able to avoid paying taxes on that amount. For example, if Bill Gates earned a cool $1 Billion next year, but only spent about $100 Million on living expenses, he would have gotten away with paying only about 2% of his income for taxes. However, if you think about the Fair Tax on a lifetime or long-term basis it makes more sense. Bill Gates could save that $900 Million for 10 years, or 20, or even hold on to it until he dies – but at some point that money will be spent and taxed. Perhaps not by himself in his lifetime, but by someone.

Why haven’t we heard about this sooner? This sounds like a great plan!
Officially it’s because critics of the plan claim that the rate we would have to pay is more like 40%. Unofficially, the reason a plan like this hasn’t been widely publicized, and probably won’t happen for a VERY long time is politics. There are too many special tax breaks and loopholes backed by very well-paid lobbyists. The plan would also limit the ability of legislators to target tax breaks to help favored groups – including many in the middle class. And if the legislature began to create exceptions… the plan falls apart. If you carve out medicine of baby food, for example, the rate would need to be higher for everything else.

So is this plan going to work?
There’s two questions we should be asking ourselves, and our representatives. First, can it work and is it good for America? There are some people much smarter than myself who are working on figuring this one out – crunching numbers and looking at more tax tables that I want to ever see. The second question is can we implement it? This is where the feet need to hit the pavement and congress needs to figure out if it has the courage to implement something like this. If it can work, and it is good for America and the economy, then why is it not happening?



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