by Elaine Schwartz    •    Nov 14, 2010    •    675 Views

Dating back to the 18th century, the Chinese vase that a brother and sister found “in a dusty attic” sold for $69.5 million at a London auction. The NY Times called it a “treasure-in-the-attic” story. For us economists, it is a VAT story.

According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) the U.K.’s value-added tax rate is 17.5%. Typically, taxing “value added” means a tax is added to each stage of production. But, for this 16 inch, mostly yellow and sky-blue vase that was probably fired near Shanghai, the only value-added stage was the auction. With the VAT, the price of $69.5 million became $81.7 million. (I am not sure why the NY Times says that with the VAT and a 20% buyer’s premium, the final price was $85.9 million.)

If the same vase had been sold in NYC to a local resident, maybe an 8.875% sales tax would have applied. On the sell side, perhaps the IRS personal income tax obligation would soar.

You can see where this is going. Depending on where you are, because tax systems vary, so too do incentives. A VAT, as a consumption tax, is supposed to encourage saving. With the deficit commission proposing a vastly simplified tax system, we might see incentives change in the U.S.

The Economic Lesson

The OECD tells us that VAT revenue for close to 150 countries is approximately 20% of their total receipts. The United States is the exception. In the U.S., for FY 2009, the personal income tax generated 44% of all tax revenue while social insurance taxes accounted for 42%. Corporate income taxes were a distant third at 7%.

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