Sun, Mar 02, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Tax code needs complete overhaul

By Norman Yin 殷乃平

At the end of December last year, Academia Sinica academic Gregory Chow (鄒至莊) wrote an article in the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times on tax reform in Taiwan that focused on the issue of reforms based on a expenditure tax and merits further thinking.

A look at the current tax system from the point of view of the targets for taxation shows that many economists favor an expenditure tax because income is a return on labor provided by workers and the contributions they make to society. In general, the higher the tax paid by a person, the more that person contributes to society. However, if, as a result of this, a person is taxed more the more they work, tax becomes a punishment for hard work and workers will be less willing to work.

Spending, on the other hand, is an act in which people consume already produced goods. The more a person spends, the fewer social resources there are. Since an expenditure tax can stop the loss of these resources, it is a more positive form of tax. Of course, such a tax also encourages saving and is beneficial to the accumulation of social capital.

In view of this, many academics dealing with finance and taxation are studying how to come up with an expenditure tax system to replace the current income tax system. However, earlier consumption taxes were indirect in nature and were levied as goods were sold. Those familiar with economic theory are probably aware that the sales tax burden that gets shifted to consumers is influenced by the price elasticity of demand. The price elasticity of demand for necessity goods is less flexible and can for the most part be shifted, while the demand elasticity of luxury goods is larger and can therefore cannot be shifted as easily. For example, if sales taxes are shifted by increasing prices, sales levels will drop and as a result, manufacturers will absorb a greater proportion of the tax burden.

However, the value-added taxes in most countries allow manufacturers a business-tax discount when they sell their goods, which, in the end, still results in consumers having to absorb this tax burden. What is unavoidable in all of these systems is that the price elasticity of demand retains a certain amount of influence on the shifting of tax burdens. Ultimately, a value-added tax is a regressive tax that hits low-income households harder. When coupled with how such a tax shifts more of the tax burden over to necessity goods, it becomes even more regressive.

In 1955, British economist Nicholas Kaldor published An Expenditure Tax, in which he proposed a direct form of expenditure tax based on income minus savings. Such a system was tested in the late 1950s in India and Sri Lanka. However, it was levied there alongside income tax and eventually scrapped because it was considered a failure. Although many economists have since promoted this idea, it has never gained acceptance and replaced the income tax system that has now become so ingrained in societies.

However, a look at the design of sales tax systems in other countries shows that many use a variety of remedial measures aimed at the shortcomings of the regressive nature of the tax. Of these, Chow talked about the payments made by governments to lower-income earners in the form of assistance. What he did not mention is that many countries do not levy taxes on essential commodities, such as food and clothing, while levying higher and more selective special sales taxes on luxury goods, as well as commodity taxes.

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