BEA to begin tracking “trade in value added”

December 13, 2021

If you visit the web site for the “Bureau of Economic Analysis,” you’ll be greeted with an announcement that the Bureau will begin tracking “trade in value added,” which I find very interesting. Could this be the first step toward the U.S. imposing a “value added tax” – or “VAT” – on imports?

What is a “value added tax?” It’s a very complicated subject. It’s essentially a sales tax – one that would be levied by the federal government. Nearly every country in the world uses it to generate a substantial portion of their government’s revenue. The United States is one of the few, and most glaring, exceptions. When applied to imports, it essentially functions as a sort of tariff – but one that’s perfectly legal under the rules of the World Trade Organization.

Wikipedia has a very long article explaining the value added tax and it will leave your head spinning when you’ve finished it. What’s most important is the effect on trade. For that, zip right to the end of the article:

Many politicians and economists in the United States consider value-added taxation on US goods and VAT rebates for goods from other countries to be unfair practice. For example, the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition claims that any rebates or special taxes on imported goods should not be allowed by the rules of the World Trade Organisation. AMTAC claims that so-called “border tax disadvantage” is the greatest contributing factor to the $5.8 trillion US current account deficit for the decade of the 2000s, and estimated this disadvantage to US producers and service providers to be $518 billion in 2008 alone.

In other words, other countries use the VAT as a sort of tariff, which the WTO allows. The U.S. doesn’t, putting it at a huge trade disadvantage. So this announcement by the BEA that it will begin compiling “value added” data may be signaling that a move in that direction. In other words, the U.S. may finally have reached the conclusion that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” This would be an enormous development!

Some may protest that they don’t want to pay more sales tax – one to the federal government on top of what they already pay to their state. But if it were accompanied by a corresponding reduction in federal income tax, the only effect would be its role in leveling the trade playing field, at least to some extent (probably not enough to offset the the effect of population density disparities), bringing high-paying manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

If the U.S. doesn’t have the guts to thumb its nose at the WTO and impose tariffs on imports (like Trump did with China), at least a VAT would be a smaller step in the right direction.