I should have published this item yesterday but better late than never.

I find the subject of taxes fascinating. If I had not been a diplomat I would most likely have had a career in taxes. Not the most glamorous of professions, in fact an often reviled one. Jesus Christ was reproached for “consorting with prostitutes and tax collectors.” But a career with as secure a future as a mortician.

And taxes are the talk of today. I even saw President Obama’s tax return spread around on the internet. Most likely you have just sent your return in.

My first thought is what my old tax teacher, who was one of those venerable professors who literally wrote the book on the subject, at least the one we used in his course, who said one warm afternoon, “There are two elements of a good tax, first they collect sufficient revenue and second they are easy to collect.” Notice, he did not mention equity, fairness, income distribution and such. Just raise enough to pay the bills and don’t waste time collecting them.

Well we know that taxes in the USA today do not raise sufficient funds, we pay allot of public expenses with borrowed funds. We also know that taxes in the USA are not easy to collect, just ask the current head of the IRS, Treasury Secretary Geithner. This has led to endless debate about improving our tax system, indeed it was a core feature of President Obama’s election campaign.

One way of collecting taxes that raises sufficient revenue and is easy to collect is through government monopolies. At different times governments have raised funds through government monopolies that sold goods, such as salt, matches, and tobacco to the public. This allows the government to raise taxes whenever it wants and it is easy to collect. However, it is difficult to control, since smugglers have always managed to steal some of the income.

A similar process was that of the Soviet Union. It owned the “means of production” or most of the industry in the country. It took its “taxes” from the sale of the products made. These “taxes” would have been profits in a capitalist system.

In general, however, taxes is a complex subject. I hear many Americans complain about the complex US tax code, they want a simpler formula. I reply that a thick tax code is the tax payer’s friend, while a simple tax code favors the collector.

This complexity is made even more so when taken to the international arena. As a diplomat, I had to examine tax systems in other countries and at times help negotiate tax agreements between the USA and other countries. Let me assure you that there are more angles on taxes throughout the world than there stars in the sky.

So what to do? I personally go for the so-called “flat tax” that Steve Forbes used as the banner for his campaign for president a few years ago. As with all income taxes, it is a “direct” tax, rather than an “indirect” tax such as sales taxes. As income goes up, your tax payment increases, as opposed to a consumption tax.

It is generally calculated that for a flat tax to raise sufficient funds in the USA it would be about 15-17% of income. Interesting to note, Vice President Biden’s joint tax return for 2008 showed that he paid about 17% of his adjusted income in federal tax. President Obama and his wife paid about 30% of their $2.5 million income in taxes.

Of course the complaint about the flat tax is that it is “regressive” which means it places a higher burden on low incomes than it does on high incomes, i.e taking 15% from an income of $20,000 means more hardship on the payer than taking 15% from an income of $1 million. But remember under our current tax system something less than 50% of income earners pay no tax. So the flat tax need only be applied to the wealthier half of the population.

Now I am sure some will also consider my comments here to be facile and I will admit that they only touch the subject. But when we do go about reorganizing our tax system let us keep in mind the words of my old tax teacher, “Make sure it collects sufficient revenue and that it is easy to collect.”

Leo Cecchini
April 2009