Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

Comments for the Record
United States House of Representatives
Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Trade
Hearing on Modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
Tuesday, July 18, 2017, 10:00 A.M.
1100 Longworth House Office Building

By Michael G. Bindner
Center for Fiscal Equity

Chairman Reichert and Ranking Member Pascrell, thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments for the record to the Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade. As usual, we will preface our comments with our comprehensive four-part approach, which will provide context for our comments.

  • ·         A Value Added Tax (VAT) to fund domestic military spending and domestic discretionary spending with a rate between 10% and 13%, which makes sure very American pays something.
  • ·         Personal income surtaxes on joint and widowed filers with net annual incomes of $100,000 and single filers earning $50,000 per year to fund net interest payments, debt retirement and overseas and strategic military spending and other international spending, with graduated rates between 5% and 25%. 
  • ·         Employee contributions to Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) with a lower income cap, which allows for lower payment levels to wealthier retirees without making bend points more progressive.
  • ·         A VAT-like Net Business Receipts Tax (NBRT), which is essentially a subtraction VAT with additional tax expenditures for family support,  health care and the private delivery of governmental services, to fund entitlement spending and replace income tax filing for most people (including people who file without paying), the corporate income tax, business tax filing through individual income taxes and the employer contribution to OASI, all payroll taxes for hospital insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance and survivors under age 60.

Far be it from the Center to interfere with a dispute between the Committee and the White House over NAFTA.  As the invited witnesses have made clear, some industries lose, others win, still others simply shift while workers generally lose and consumers generally win very big (if they keep some kind of income).

A big impact on workers, industry and consumer is tax policy. Canada as a Goods and Services Tax while Mexico has a Value Added Tax. Both are zero rated at the border, so American consumers benefit while our lack of these taxes means that Canadian and Mexican consumers pay our taxes while getting none of the associated benefits, which essentially means they often shop elsewhere, which is not good for our workers or industry.

Some of our prior comments to the Trade Subcommittee from June of last year on our standard tax plan still apply, even though that hearing was on agricultural exports. Allow us to repeat them now:

The main trade impact in our plan is the first point, the value added tax (VAT).  This is because (exported) products would shed the tax, i.e. the tax would be zero rated, at export.  Whatever VAT congress sets is an export subsidy.  Seen another way, to not put as much taxation into VAT as possible is to enact an unconstitutional export tax.

The second point, the income and inheritance surtax, has no impact on exports.  It is what people pay when they have successfully exported goods and their costs have been otherwise covered by the VAT and the Net Business Receipts Tax/Subtraction VAT.  This VAT will fund U.S. military deployments abroad, so it helps make exports safe but is not involved in trade policy other than in protecting the seas.

The underlying fact is that attacking unions for the past 30 years has taken its toll on the American worker in both immigration and trade.  That has been facilitated by decreasing the top marginal income tax rates so that when savings are made to labor costs, the CEOs and stockholders actually benefit.  When tax rates are high, the government gets the cash so wages are not kept low nor unions busted.  It is a bit late in the day for the Majority to show real concern for the American worker rather than the American capitalist or consumer.

Reversing the plight of the American worker will involve more than trade, but I doubt that the Majority has the will to break from the last 30 years of tax policy to make worker wages safe again from their bosses. Sorry for being such a scold, but the times require it.

The third point is about individual retirement savings.  As long as such savings are funded through a payroll tax and linked to income, rather than funded by a consumption tax and paid as an average, they will add a small amount to the export cost of products.

The fourth bullet point is tricky.  The NBRT/Subtraction VAT could be made either border adjustable, like the VAT, or be included in the price.  This tax is designed to benefit the families of workers, either through government services or services provided by employers in lieu of tax.  As such, it is really part of compensation.  While we could run all compensation through the public sector and make it all border adjustable, that would be a mockery of the concept.  The tax is designed to pay for needed services.  Not including the tax at the border means that services provided to employees, such as a much needed expanded child tax credit – would be forgone.  To this we respond, absolutely not – Heaven forbid – over our dead bodies.  Just no.

The NBRT will have a huge impact on trade policy, probably much more than trade treaties, if one of the deductions from the tax is purchase of employer voting stock (in equal dollar amounts for each worker).  Over a fairly short period of time, much of American industry, if not employee-owned outright  (and there are other policies to accelerate this, like ESOP conversion) will give workers enough of a share to greatly impact wages, management hiring and compensation and dealing with overseas subsidiaries and the supply chain – as well as impacting certain legal provisions that limit the fiduciary impact of management decision to improving short-term profitability (at least that is the excuse managers give for not privileging job retention). 

Employee-owners will find it in their own interest to give their overseas subsidiaries and their supply chain’s employees the same deal that they get as far as employee-ownership plus an equivalent standard of living.  The same pay is not necessary, currency markets will adjust once worker standards of living rise. 

Over time, this will change the economies of the nations we trade with, as working in employee-owned companies will become the market preference and force other firms to adopt similar policies (in much the same way that, even without a tax benefit for purchasing stock, employee-owned companies that become more democratic or even more socialistic, will force all other employers to adopt similar measures to compete for the best workers and professionals).

In the long run, trade will no longer be an issue.  Internal company dynamics will replace the need for trade agreements as capitalists lose the ability to pit the interest of one nation’s workers against the other’s.  This approach is also the most effective way to deal with the advance of robotics.  If the workers own the robots, wages are swapped for profits with the profits going where they will enhance consumption without such devices as a guaranteed income.

If Senator Sanders had been nominated and elected, this is the type of trade policy you might be talking about today.  Although the staff at the Center supported the Senator, you can imagine some of us thought him too conservative in his approach to these issues, although we did agree with him on the $15 minimum wage.  Economically, this would have had little impact on trade, as workers at this price point often generate much more in productivity than their wage returns to them.  This is why the economy is slow, even with low wage foreign imports.  Such labor markets are what Welfare Economics call monopsonistic (either full monopsony, oligopsony or monopsonistic competition – which high wage workers mostly face).  Foreign wages are often less than the current minimum wage, however many jobs cannot be moved overseas.

As we stated at the outset, the best protection for American workers and American consumer are higher marginal tax rates for the wealthy.  This will also end the possibility of a future crisis where the U.S. Treasury cannot continue to roll over its debt into new borrowing.  Japan sells its debt to its rich and under-taxes them.  They have a huge Debt to GDP ratio, however they are a small nation.  We cannot expect the same treatment from our world-wide network of creditors, an issue which is also very important for trade.  Currently, we trade the security of our debt for consumer products.  Theoretically, some of these funds should make workers who lose their jobs whole – so far it has not.  This is another way that higher tax rates and collection (and we are nowhere near the top of the semi-fictitious Laffer Curve) hurt the American workforce.  Raising taxes solves both problems, even though it is the last thing I would expect of the Majority.

There are two other issues we would like to address as it relates to NAFTA and to all subsequent trade agreement. First is Chapter 11 Tribunals. These tribunals put national and state sovereignty at the mercy of the interests of multinational enterprise. If such enterprise were employee-owned, we would see no problem. That, however, is not the case. Local workers and the environment are put at the mercy of the wealthy few. It is economic gunboat diplomacy without the Navy and it must stop. A big reason we have Trump as President is this kind of trade issue. Obviously the public is not amused.

The second is visas. Canadian (including refugees from Hong Kong) and American citizens can immigrate for one year (renewable) on a NAFTA visa. Mexican workers cannot. This is purely racism. If the Congress believes there are too many Mexican workers in American fields and factories, repeal right to work laws. You will find most employers will prefer American workers if they have to pay a union wage and operate under safety standards set in collective bargaining. Until then, make visa rules uniform and apply them to workers already here. If this does not happen, someone may yet raise an equal protection case in our courts, which will also give us a test of the constitutionality of the Chapter 11 tribunals.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee.  We are, of course, available for direct testimony or to answer questions by members and staff.


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