Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Dont' believe the tax-refrom hype

By Christopher Lingle

Politicians and bureaucrats use so-called tax reform as a cover for them to raise taxes while avoiding the hard choices involved with exercising fiscal responsibility. So, it is not surprising that the noise out of Taipei is that it is impossible to avoid tax increases to sort out Taiwan's fiscal imbalance. But it turns out that this assertion is based on a logic that places the comfort of politicians and bureaucrats above the interests of citizens and taxpayers.

While a large deficit is against the interests of future generations, raising taxes to offset deficits does not serve them well. It would be far better to end fiscal profligacy and politically-motivated spending that inhibit Taiwan's long-term economic growth potential.

Hoping to increase revenues by almost NT$60 billion (US$1.91 billion) a year, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) economic advisers propose an increased value-added tax, a minimum tax rate for companies, as well as a tax on capital gains on unlisted stocks and carbon dioxide emissions.

The value-added tax rate would be increased by one to two percentage points from 5 percent and tax breaks currently offered to encourage investment would end, with a minimum tax rate on corporate income.

It would appear that the decisions are based on a presumption that government spending reflects the preferences of the country. The truth is that Taiwan should cut spending rather than increase the overall burden of taxes to reduce its budget deficit.

As it is, economic theory and empirical evidence suggest that spending tends to adjust to available tax revenue rather than the other way around. It turns out that government expenditures are influenced by political battles between taxpayers and interest groups that aim to benefit from higher government spending.

Instead of a borrow-and-spend approach, the move is toward a tax-and-spend approach. However, the real problem is the unwillingness of bureaucrats and politicians to curb spending. Rather than make tough decisions, additional burdens will be imposed on the private sector.

While companies and households have been forced to tighten their belts, there has been scant progress in fiscal reform by central and local governments. And this is the essential source of the problem with deficits and debt.

Although revenues disappear during economic downturns, government spending does not. Governments tend to ratchet up tax rates during downturns while increasing commitments for spending during prosperity. This leads to a tendency to raise taxes when times are bad.

Unfortunately, this is a perfect recipe for ensuring further economic stagnation, since higher tax burdens reduce disposable income and household spending while curbing investment spending.

A better proposal would be to lower tax rates on corporate income so Taiwanese companies will invest more (at home, rather than in China?) and consumers can spend more. In addition, consumption taxes and capital gains taxes should also be lowered. In short, there ought to be a comprehensive overhaul of the entire tax code to reduce the overall tax burden on businesses and households.

These reductions should be across the board and not directed toward special interests or based on the misguided logic of bureaucrats or politicians. And they must be permanent so that economic decision makers will build them into their long-term planning horizons.

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