Japan’s consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase substantially in April (from 5% to 8%). The motive is to address the long-term problem of very high debt. (Takatoshi Ito has stated the case in favor of the tax increase.) Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has apparently decided to go ahead with it. Many observers, however, are worried that the loss in purchasing power resulting from the sharp increase in the sales tax rate will send the Japanese economy back into recession.
It is very reminiscent of April 1997. I remember Larry Summers, who was then Undersecretary of the US Treasury, repeatedly warning the Japanese government that if it went ahead with the consumption tax hike that was scheduled for that date, Japan’s economy would go back into recession. I was in the US government then too. As the date drew near, I asked Summers why he persisted in offering Tokyo this unwanted advice, given that the prime minister of the day was clearly locked into the policy politically. Summers told me that he knew he was unlikely to change their minds, but that he wanted to be sure the Japanese would realize their mistake when they went ahead with the tax increase and his prediction subsequently came true – as it did.
I was recently asked by the National Journal to comment on what I thought was a desirable path for tax reform, if one could wish away political constraints that normally handcuff politicians. My answer was, of course, to tax energy, particularly carbon emissions, and use the revenue to reduce other taxes. As I and many others have noted often in the past, taxes on oil or gasoline hit many birds with one stone.
Discussion of energy taxes has always been political suicide. But here are several twists that could potentially increase the ability of the electorate to swallow them politically:
Politicians are often tempted to think that a policy to help one goal, say air quality, must also help lots of other goals, say economic growth. Economists are more likely to presume tradeoffs, and to use the principle of targets and instruments. That principle says that you cannot expect to hit more than one bird with one stone, except by coincidence.
At the American Economic Association meetings in San Francisco, January 3, I was on a panel titled “Energy and the Environment: Policy Advice for the New Administration” (along with some real energy experts; I am a relative latecomer to the area). Within the framework of targets and instruments, I proposed a matrix such as the one that appears below. Continue reading →