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A flat tax (short for flat-rate tax) is a tax with a single rate on the taxable amount, after accounting for any deductions or exemptions from the tax base. It is not necessarily a fully proportional tax. Implementations are often progressive due to exemptions, or regressive in case of a maximum taxable amount. There are various tax systems that are labeled "flat tax" even though they are significantly different. The defining characteristic is the existence of only one tax rate other than zero, as opposed to multiple non-zero rates that vary depending on the amount subject to taxation.
A flat tax system is usually discussed in the context of an income tax, where progressivity is common, but it may also apply to taxes on consumption, property or transfers.
Flat tax proposals differ in how the subject of the tax is defined.
A true flat-rate tax is a system of taxation where one tax rate is applied to all personal income with no deductions.
Where deductions are allowed, a 'flat tax' is a progressive tax with the special characteristic that, above the maximum deduction, the marginal rate on all further income is constant. Such a tax is said to be marginally flat above that point. The difference between a true flat tax and a marginally flat tax can be reconciled by recognizing that the latter simply excludes certain types of income from being defined as taxable income; hence, both kinds of tax are flat on taxable income.
Modified flat taxes have been proposed which would allow deductions for a very few items, while still eliminating the vast majority of existing deductions. Charitable deductions and home mortgage interest are the most discussed examples of deductions that would be retained, as these deductions are popular with voters and are often used. Another common theme is a single, large, fixed deduction. This large fixed deduction would compensate for the elimination of various existing deductions and would simplify taxes, having the side-effect that many (mostly low income) households will not have to file tax returns.
Main article: Hall–Rabushka flat tax
Designed by economists at the Hoover Institution, Hall–Rabushka is a flat tax on consumption. Principally, Hall–Rabushka accomplishes a consumption tax effect by taxing income and then excluding investment. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka have consulted extensively in designing the flat tax systems in Eastern Europe.
Main article: Negative income tax
The negative income tax (NIT), which Milton Friedman proposed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, is a type of flat tax. The basic idea is the same as a flat tax with personal deductions, except that when deductions exceed income, the taxable income is allowed to become negative rather than being set to zero. The flat tax rate is then applied to the resulting "negative income," resulting in a "negative income tax" that the government would owe to the household—unlike the usual "positive" income tax, which the household owes the government.
For example, let the flat rate be 20%, and let the deductions be $20,000 per adult and $7,000 per dependent. Under such a system, a family of four making $54,000 a year would owe no tax. A family of four making $74,000 a year would owe tax amounting to 0.20 × (74,000 − 54,000) = $4,000, as would be the case under a flat tax system with deductions. Families of four earning less than $54,000 per year, however, would experience a "negative" amount of tax (that is, the family would receive money from the government instead of paying to the government). For example, if the family earned $34,000 a year, it would receive a check for $4,000. The NIT is intended to replace not just the USA's income tax, but also many benefits low income American households receive, such as food stamps and Medicaid. The NIT is designed to avoid the welfare trap—effective high marginal tax rates arising from the rules reducing benefits as market income rises. An objection to the NIT is that it is welfare without a work requirement. Those who would owe negative tax would be receiving a form of welfare without having to make an effort to obtain employment. Another objection is that the NIT subsidizes industries employing low-cost labor, but this objection can also be made against current systems of benefits for the working poor.[according to whom?]
A capped flat tax is one in which income is taxed at a flat rate until a specified cap amount is reached. For example, the United States Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit (in 2019, up to $132,900 of earnings, for a maximum tax of $8239.80). This cap has the effect of turning a nominally flat tax into a regressive tax.
In devising a flat tax system, several recurring issues must be enumerated, principally with deductions and the identification of when money is earned.
Since a central tenet of the flat tax is to minimize the compartmentalization of incomes into myriad special or sheltered cases, a vexing problem is deciding when income occurs. This is demonstrated by the taxation of interest income and stock dividends. The shareholders own the company and so the company's profits belong to them. If a company is taxed on its profits, then the funds paid out as dividends have already been taxed. It's a debatable question if they should subsequently be treated as income to the shareholders and thus subject to further tax. A similar issue arises in deciding if interest paid on loans should be deductible from the taxable income since that interest is in-turn taxed as income to the loan provider. There is no universally agreed answer to what is fair. For example, in the United States, dividends are not deductible but mortgage interest is deductible. Thus a Flat Tax proposal is not fully defined until it differentiates new untaxed income from a pass-through of already taxed income.
Taxes, in addition to providing revenue, can be potent instruments of policy. For example, it is common for governments to encourage social policy such as home insulation or low income housing with tax credits rather than constituting a ministry to implement these policies. In a flat tax system with limited deductions such policy administration, mechanisms are curtailed. In addition to social policy, flat taxes can remove tools for adjusting economic policy as well. For example, in the United States, short-term capital gains are taxed at a higher rate than long-term gains as means to promote long-term investment horizons and damp speculative fluctuation. Thus, if one assumes that government should be active in policy decisions such as this, then claims that flat taxes are cheaper/simpler to administer than others are incomplete until they factor in costs for alternative policy administration.
In general, the question of how to eliminate deductions is fundamental to the flat tax design; deductions dramatically affect the effective "flatness" in the tax rate. Perhaps the single biggest necessary deduction is for business expenses. If businesses were not allowed to deduct expenses, businesses with a profit margin below the flat tax rate could never earn any money since the tax on revenues would always exceed the earnings. For example, grocery stores typically earn pennies on every dollar of revenue; they could not pay a tax rate of 25% on revenues unless their markup exceeded 25%. Thus, corporations must be able to deduct operating expenses even if individual citizens cannot. A practical dilemma now arises as to identifying what is an expense for a business. For example, if a peanut butter producer purchases a jar manufacturer, is that an expense (since they have to purchase jars somehow) or a sheltering of their income through investment? Flat tax systems can differ greatly in how they accommodate such gray areas. For example, the "9-9-9" flat tax proposal would allow businesses to deduct purchases but not labor costs. (This effectively taxes labor-intensive industrial revenue at a higher rate.) How deductions are implemented will dramatically change the effective total tax, and thus the flatness of the tax. Thus, a flat tax proposal is not fully defined unless the proposal includes a differentiation between deductible and non-deductible expenses.
Flat tax benefits higher income brackets progressively due to decline in marginal value. For example, if a flat tax system has a large per-citizen deductible (such as the "Armey" scheme below), then it is a progressive tax. As a result, the term Flat Tax is actually a shorthand for the more proper marginally flat tax.
One type of flat tax would be imposed on all income once; at the source of the income. Hall and Rabushka (1995) includes a proposed amendment to the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that would implement the variant of the flat tax they advocate. This amendment, only a few pages long, would replace hundreds of pages of statutory language (although most statutory language in taxation statutes is not directed at specifying graduated tax rates).
As it now stands, the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is over several million words long, and contains many loopholes, deductions, and exemptions which, advocates of flat taxes claim, render the collection of taxes and the enforcement of tax law complicated and inefficient.
It is further argued that current tax law slows economic growth by distorting economic incentives, and by allowing, even encouraging, tax avoidance. With a flat tax, there are fewer incentives than in the current system to create tax shelters, and to engage in other forms of tax avoidance.
Flat tax critics contend that a flat tax system could be created with many loopholes, or a progressive tax system without loopholes, and that a progressive tax system could be as simple, or simpler, than a flat tax system. A simple progressive tax would also discourage tax avoidance.
Under a pure flat tax without deductions, every tax period a company would make a single payment to the government covering the taxes on the employees and the taxes on the company profit. For example, suppose that in a given year, a company called ACME earns a profit of 3 million, spends 2 million in wages, and spends 1 million on other expenses that under the tax law is taxable income to recipients, such as the receipt of stock options, bonuses, and certain executive privileges. Given a flat rate of 15%, ACME would then owe the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (3M + 2M + 1M) × 0.15 = 900,000. This payment would, in one fell swoop, settle the tax liabilities of ACME's employees as well as the corporate taxes owed by ACME. Most employees throughout the economy would never need to interact with the IRS, as all tax owed on wages, interest, dividends, royalties, etc. would be withheld at the source. The main exceptions would be employees with incomes from personal ventures. The Economist claims that such a system would reduce the number of entities required to file returns from about 130 million individuals, households, and businesses, as at present, to a mere 8 million businesses and self-employed.
However, this simplicity depends on the absence of deductions of any kind being allowed (or at least no variability in the deductions of different people). Furthermore, if income of differing types are segregated (e.g., pass-through, long term cap gains, regular income, etc.) then complications ensue. For example, if realized capital gains were subject to the flat tax, the law would require brokers and mutual funds to calculate the realized capital gain on all sales and redemption. If there were a gain, a tax equal to 15% of the amount of the gain would be withheld and sent to the IRS. If there were a loss, the amount would be reported to the IRS. The loss would offset gains, and then the IRS would settle up with taxpayers at the end of the period. Lacking deductions, this scheme cannot be used to implement economic and social policy indirectly by tax credits and thus, as noted above, the simplifications to the government's revenue collection apparatus might be offset by new government ministries required to administer those policies.
The Russian Federation is considered a prime case of the success of a flat tax; the real revenues from its Personal Income Tax rose by 25.2% in the first year after the Federation introduced a flat tax, followed by a 24.6% increase in the second year, and a 15.2% increase in the third year.
The Russian example is often used as proof of the validity of this analysis, despite an International Monetary Fund study in 2006 which found that there was no sign "of Laffer-type behavioral responses generating revenue increases from the tax cut elements of these reforms" in Russia or in other countries.
Taxes other than the income tax (for example, taxes on sales and payrolls) tend to be regressive. Under such a structure, those with lower incomes tend to pay a higher proportion of their income in total taxes than the affluent do. The fraction of household income that is a return to capital (dividends, interest, royalties, profits of unincorporated businesses) is positively correlated with total household income. Hence a flat tax limited to wages would seem to leave the wealthy better off. Modifying the tax base can change the effects. A flat tax could be targeted at income (rather than wages), which could place the tax burden equally on all earners, including those who earn income primarily from returns on investment. Tax systems could utilize a flat sales tax to target all consumption, which can be modified with rebates or exemptions to remove regressive effects (such as the proposed Fair Tax in the U.S.).
A flat tax system and income taxes overall are not inherently border-adjustable; meaning the tax component embedded into products via taxes imposed on companies (including corporate taxes and payroll taxes) are not removed when exported to a foreign country (see Effect of taxes and subsidies on price). Taxation systems such as a sales tax or value added tax can remove the tax component when goods are exported and apply the tax component on imports. The domestic products could be at a disadvantage to foreign products (at home and abroad) that are border-adjustable, which would impact the global competitiveness of a country. However, it's possible that a flat tax system could be combined with tariffs and credits to act as border adjustments (the proposed Border Tax Equity Act in the U.S. attempts this). Implementing an income tax with a border adjustment tax credit is a violation of the World Trade Organization agreement. Tax exemptions (allowances) on low income wages, a component of most income tax systems could mitigate this issue for high labour content industries like textiles that compete Globally.
In a subsequent section, various proposals for flat tax-like schemes are discussed, these differ mainly on how they approach with the following issues of deductions, defining income, and policy implementation.
Main article: List of countries by tax rates
Most countries tax personal income at the national level using progressive rates, but some use a flat rate. Most countries that have or had a flat tax on personal income at the national level are former communist countries or islands.
In some countries, subdivisions are allowed to tax personal income in addition to the national government. Many of these subdivisions use a flat rate, even if their national government uses progressive rates. Examples are all counties and municipalities of the Nordic countries, all prefectures and municipalities of Japan, and some subdivisions of Italy and of the United States.
The table below lists jurisdictions where the personal income tax imposed by all levels of government is a flat rate. It includes independent countries and other autonomous jurisdictions. The tax rate listed is the one that applies to income from work, but does not include mandatory contributions to social security. In some jurisdictions, different rates (also flat) apply to other types of income, such as from investments.
The table below lists subnational jurisdictions that tax personal income at a flat rate, in addition to the progressive rates used by their national government. The tax rates listed are those that apply to income from work, except as otherwise noted. Where a range of rates is listed, it means that the flat rate varies by location, not progressive rates.
Despite not having a permanent population, some jurisdictions tax the local income of temporary workers, using a flat rate.