The House Republican “Better Way” tax reform blueprint proposes a desperately needed overhaul of the tax code. It has been more than 30 years since tax reform was last signed into law, and it is past time this outdated code was updated.
On both the individual side and business side, the plan reduces taxes across the board. In addition, the plan calls for much needed simplification, and implements numerous pro-growth policies. Specifically, the blueprint transforms the current corporate income tax to a cash-flow business tax through the implementation of full business expensing, the creation a territorial system of international taxation, and adding a border adjustability component.
While the plan is extremely pro-growth, border adjustability has been subject to mischaracterization and confusion. While it may sound to some like a tariff or a Value-Added Tax, it contains important differences with both. Instead, it should be viewed as an integral part of a modern, internationally competitive cash-flow business tax that replaces the cumbersome corporate income tax used today.
Is Border Adjustability A New Tax?
Although some have described the border adjustability component of the cash-flow business tax as a new, one trillion dollar tax on imports, this is a complete mischaracterization. While the border adjustability component raises revenue, it should not be viewed in isolation, but as a base broadener that facilitates lower rates for all businesses.
Border adjustability should also be considered in the context of the many, pro-growth changes in the Better Way plan, and as part of a system that equalizes the taxation of American businesses relative to foreign competitors. It is a dramatic tax cut for businesses and consumers relative to our existing system of taxation, as the plan creates a new, low rate for corporations of 20 percent and a 25 percent rate for pass-through entities.
The House plan reduces taxes on small businesses and corporations by about $4 trillion through reductions in marginal rates and by allowing immediate expensing of new business investments, which greatly exceeds the $1 trillion raised by border adjustability. In total, the plan reduces taxes by $2.4 trillion on a static basis, according to estimates by the Tax Foundation. Through the many pro-growth policies, the plan also leads to increased household income of almost 9 percent after economic feedback.
How Does Border Adjustability Work and Why is it Needed?
Under the border adjustability system, the costs associated with products exported from the US are fully deductible from the cash-flow tax, and the costs associated with products imported into the US are not deductible from the cash-flow tax.
This change is made to ensure American businesses are on a level playing field with foreign competitors, not so they have a protectionist advantage. America is the only nation without border adjustment among the 35-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the five country BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The only other countries with a border adjustment include nations like North Korea, South Sudan, Iraq, Myanmar, and Western Sahara.
Normally, when a product leaves a country the border adjustment mechanism adjusts rates downward, which is then offset when it enters the new country which border adjusts rates upwards. Neither country is imposing a tariff, rather they are taxing based on where the product is consumed.
Because the US does not have a border adjustment mechanism, American businesses that sell products overseas face an export penalty relative to transactions between two other countries with border adjustable systems. Similarly, foreign businesses selling in the U.S. receive an import tax break compared to transactions between two other developed nations.
Is the Border Adjustment Component A Tariff?
A border adjustment mechanism is not a tariff – it is administered through the tax code so it cannot be considered trade policy.
The differences between the two are far from technical. Implementing a border adjustment system is about treating exports and imports equally in the global economy. Implementing a tariff is about reducing imports from another country in a discriminatory way.
Border adjustability is trade neutral because the export portion and the import portion of the border adjustment are off-setting and equal in nature. Any revenue raised is dependent on the size of the country’s trade deficit or surplus.
In the U.S. context, the border adjustment component of the cash-flow business tax raises a projected $1 trillion over a decade, but this is solely because of the U.S. trade deficit which totals roughly $500 billion every year. Every dollar worth of goods leaving the country cancels out one dollar worth of goods arriving in the country. A trade surplus would result in the component raising no revenue.
Border adjustability is also likely compliant with the World Trade Organization –the global body governing international trade—because it is structured around an indirect, consumption based tax. The cash-flow business tax contains many components of an indirect tax such as the elimination of interest deductibility and allowing full business expensing to ensure it is compliant with global norms.
How Does the Cash-Flow Business Tax Differ From A Value-Added Tax?
The cash-flow, border adjustment tax in the House blueprint is not a VAT.
The most important difference between the two is that the House tax plan allows for a business to deduct any labor compensation, which is then taxed through the individual income tax. This ensures that taxation is transparent to voters and taxpayers. In contrast, VATs have a much broader base that includes all compensation paid to workers, which shields the true impact of the tax from those who pay it.
This difference addresses a key problem with the VAT – that it is hidden from taxpayers. The VAT is applied at every stage of consumption, from wholesale to retail. It is passed along until it literally becomes as much an inherent and cloaked component in the price as transportation or raw materials. It is embedded in the final cost of the goods sold, and is hidden to the consumer. As a result, countries that have adopted a VAT can easily raise the rate over time to expand the size of government. The same cannot be said for the cash-flow border adjusted business tax.