The flat tax, long a dream of economic conservatives, is finally getting its day -- not in the United States, but in Iraq.
It took L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, no more than a stroke of the pen Sept. 15 to accomplish what eluded the likes of publisher Steve Forbes, Reps. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) over the course of a decade and two presidential campaigns.
"The highest individual and corporate income tax rates for 2004 and subsequent years shall not exceed 15 percent," Bremer wrote in Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 37, "Tax Strategy for 2003," issued last month.
Voila! Iraq has a flat tax, and the 15 percent rate is even lower than Forbes (17 percent) and Gramm (16 percent) favored for the United States. And, unless a future Iraqi government rescinds it, the flat tax will remain long after the Americans have left.
"It's extremely good news," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a Bush administration ally. Bremer's vaguely worded edict leaves open the possibility that Iraqis could face different levels of taxation below 15 percent, but "they told me it's a flat rate and it appears as though it's a flat rate," Norquist said. The tax fighter added: "It might be a hint to the rest of us."
Bremer's new economic policy for Iraq will slash Saddam Hussein's top tax rate for individuals and businesses from 45 to 15 percent. Of course, since Hussein's government, like others in the Middle East, almost never enforced tax collection, there is no real history of paying taxes in the country.
During the more than three decades of Baath Party rule, Hussein ran a centrally controlled economy with most large businesses owned or operated by the state. The government also managed the import of most goods.
John B. Taylor, undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs, said the Iraq flat tax was discussed before the war as preliminary planning was done with the help of some Iraqi exiles.
After major combat ended, the discussions continued with Iraqis in Baghdad, with emphasis on tax policies adopted by other countries making the transition from controlled economies. "One was Russia and subsequently Ukraine, where we heard good things after flat taxes were adopted," Taylor said.
On Sept. 22, Bremer told the Senate Appropriations Committee: "Iraq's new tax system is admirably straightforward. The highest marginal tax rate on personal and corporate income is 15 percent."
Iraq's new finance minister, Kamil Mubdir Gailani, is considered a follower of Ahmed Chalabi, the Western-oriented banker who has closely adhered to the Bush administration's economic policies, according to one expert on the Iraqi economy. Gailani presented the new Iraq finance program, including the flat tax, at a recent international meeting.
"A piece of social engineering is being done on Iraq, but it has almost no support from other members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council," said a Middle East expert who heard Gailani's presentation.
Proponents of the flat tax have long favored this kind of tax system for Iraq. Without much of a framework to start with, Iraq "need not worry about all the political and transition problems that have made adoption of fundamental tax reform here so difficult," Bruce Bartlett, an economist in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, wrote this spring. "It is gratifying, therefore, that leaders of the new Iraq are said to be looking at a flat rate tax system for their country."
Bartlett, once an aide to Kemp and now with the National Center for Policy Analysis, said the model for Iraq should be Russia, which in 2001 set a 13 percent flat tax on individual income. The Bush administration, still disturbed by much higher tax rates here, has said it admires Russia's flat tax. Russia "understands the importance of getting the tax structure right in your economy," Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans told the conservative Heritage Foundation last year.
President Bush, in Russia last year to see President Vladimir Putin, said: "The good news is that the flat tax in Russia is a good, fair tax -- much more fair, by the way, than many Western countries, I might add."
One economist familiar with the area said: "At the previous 40 percent to 50 percent, Russian people were evading. Now at a lower rate, they are paying because the penalties are so heavy."
Conservatives have similarly celebrated Bremer's move in Iraq. "Such low rates will put Iraq on a par with Hong Kong and flat-tax-land Russia," editorialist Amity Shlaes wrote in the Financial Times. "They contrast favorably with the onerous regimes of some neighbors."
American flat-tax advocates have made little headway at home, in part because Democrats say it would disproportionately hurt lower-income Americans and because expensive tax breaks such as the deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations are beloved in both parties. But in places such as Russia, the Baltic states and Iraq, there was no well-established tax code defended by an army of lobbyists. "Somehow, it's easier when you start from scratch," Norquist said.
The 15 percent rate does not take effect until January. In the meantime, Bremer has abolished all taxes except for real estate, car sales, gasoline and the pleasantly named "excellent and first class hotel and restaurant tax." Even while leaving these Hussein-era levies in place, Bremer exempted his coalition authority, the armed forces, their contractors and humanitarian organizations. Exempting occupation personnel leaves only the Iraqis to pay taxes, as well as journalists, business people and other foreigners.
Looking back at the failed attempt by presidential candidate Forbes to rally U.S. public support behind the flat tax, Gene Sperling, a senior Clinton economic adviser who is with the Council on Foreign Relations, said wryly, "If Steve Forbes does a bus tour [of Iraq] to promote it, I hope they have adequate security."