Speaker Ryan’s Use of Reporters’ Recorders to Explain His Border Tax Was Cute — But Misleading

by Veronique de Rugy

Faced with growing opposition to their border-adjustment tax, congressional Republicans are nonetheless on the offensive trying to sell it. I have expressed my many reasons for opposing the tax, including my disbelief that Republicans would support a massive tax increase alongside what is otherwise a pro-growth tax reform. While they oppose tax increases to pay for spending increases in other contexts and usually make the case that spending increases should be paid for by spending cuts, Republicans continue to push for this massive new source of revenue, in spite of the distortions it would introduce.

Until now, supporters of the tax have used many questionable arguments. For instance, they claim we shouldn’t worry about the protectionist aspect of a tax that imposes a 20 percent rate to imports but exempts exports under the hope that the U.S. dollar will adjust fully and quickly. However, there are reasons to believe that while the U.S. currency will adjust, it won’t adjust fully (Federal Reserve Board chairwoman Janet Yellen is only the latest one to stress that point), it won’t adjust as quickly as they claim (especially if the tax is challenged under the World Trade Organization as the Europeans have warned is going to be the case), and it won’t result in unicorns and rainbows.

But the latest misguided statements about the border-adjustment tax comes from House speaker Paul Ryan — who ought to know better. During a press conference last week, he repeated the claim that United States was at a disadvantage because other countries’ exports are exempted from taxes while U.S. goods aren’t.

[Ryan] noted that most other countries already border-adjust their taxes and tax goods based on whether they were consumed in their jurisdiction.

That comment is bound to confuse reporters because, as Mr. Ryan must know, no other country border-adjusts their corporate income tax. They border-adjust their Value Added Tax. Conflating the two is misleading, to say the least.

Ryan continued:

The Speaker picked up two reporters’ recorders to give an example of how goods are taxed currently. He suggested one was American-made and the other was Japanese-made. Early on, he dropped one of the recorders, saying “oops” and receiving laughter from the reporters.

“Here’s what Japan does when they make this tape recorder: When they send it for export they take the tax off of it, and then it comes to America and it’s not taxed, and it comes through to compete against our good, which was taxed. Theirs was untaxed twice,” Ryan said.

“When America makes something, like a tape recorder, we tax it, and then we send it to Japan. As it enters Japan it’s taxed again, to compete against their tape recorder,” he continued. “So we are doing it to ourselves. We are hurting our manufacturing and jobs. We are putting a bias against making things in America in the tax code. . . . That is why we think this is very important. This is good manufacturing policy.”

Oh boy, where do I begin? First, it is true that U.S. companies are at a disadvantage but it is not because of other countries’ tax codes. It is because our corporate-income-tax system has the highest rate of all OECD countries and because, unlike most of our competitors, it taxes U.S. companies’ profits no matter where they are earned in the world. The solution to this disadvantage is to reduce the rates and move to a territorial system. Oh, and by the way, unlike what Ryan and other proponents of a border-adjustment tax would like you to believe, you do not need to move to an expansive destination-based-cash-flow tax to have a territorial tax.

Now let me address the cute tape-recorder example used by the speaker. It is totally misleading because it conflates foreign countries corporate tax and VAT taxes and it paints a picture that is incorrect. For instance, he claims that Japanese exports are exempt from taxes. No, Japanese products exported to the U.S. are exempt from the Japanese VAT but the Japanese company is still paying U.S. corporate tax on its U.S. profits. And you know what? In that sense, the Japanese export is treated exactly like the U.S. goods sold in the U.S. In other words, the playing field is even! I repeat: Japanese goods in the U.S. are taxed like U.S. goods in the U.S.

How about U.S. exports in Japan? Well, it gets hit by the Japanese VAT in Japan and by the Japanese corporate tax but so are Japanese goods sold in Japan. Again, the only disadvantage faced by U.S. companies selling tape recorders abroad comes from the U.S. tax system, which requires that income earned in Japan be taxed by Uncle Sam at 35 percent after benefiting from a tax credit for tax paid in Japan. If the U.S. company decides to keep its Japanese income outside the U.S., the U.S. rate won’t apply.

Dan Mitchell explains why the VAT doesn’t change the terms of trade in this video.

Finally, economists have debunked the idea implied by the speaker that foreign VATs give an advantage to foreign exports — and therefor boost foreign exports. It is simply not true. It follows that imposing a border-adjustment tax in the U.S. will not boost U.S. exports either. Period.

Let me summarize this for you:

  • No, other countries do not border-adjust their corporate income tax. Comparing other countries’ VATs and our corporate tax is problematic to say the least.
  • No, foreign exports sold in the U.S. do not have an advantage over U.S. goods sold in the U.S.
  • Foreign VATs do not boost foreign exports.
  • A border tax in the U.S. will not boost our exports but it will hurt consumers and many U.S. retailers.
  • The disadvantage faced by U.S. companies exporting goods abroad comes from the terrible worldwide tax and high rates of the U.S. tax regime, not from other countries’ tax system.
  • The way to fix the U.S. disadvantage is not to create a new expansive tax that would penalize imports in the U.S. — including imports for the benefit of U.S. domestic companies — and would penalize U.S. consumers. The solution is to reform our corporate-tax rate by lowering the rate and moving to an origin-based territorial-tax regime.

Speaker Ryan should know better. This isn’t the way to reform our tax code.

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