A debt-free America? Yes – it’s possible

We all know, liberals and conservatives, that the growth of the U.S. national debt is, to use a favorite word of our time, unsustainable.

Americans owe, as of July 2010, more than $13 trillion to our creditors — mostly foreigners who have loaned us this money over the years. This is 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. By next year we could be above 100 percent. We are paying more than $300 billion in interest on this debt, mostly to foreign lenders.

Meanwhile, our annual deficit, currently running above $1.6 trillion, continues to add to the national debt.

We all know there is only one answer to paying down the debt and balancing the budget: cutting spending and raising taxes. Both are necessary. Getting leaders of both parties to be honest about that and to have the courage to do something about it is the great challenge faced by the Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — headed by Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff and currently president of the University of North Carolina — and Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming.

One idea for raising taxes to pay down the debt is the bill introduced this February by Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). His “Debt Free America Act” (H.R. 4646) would impose a 1 percent “transaction tax” on every financial transaction — whether paid by cash, credit card or any form of financial transfer, the only exception being transactions involving the purchase or sale of stock. Theoretically, everyone would pay one cent on the dollar for every such transaction in America every day — whether $3 million on a $300 million business acquisition, $300 on the purchase of a $30,000 car, or $5 on a $500 ATM withdrawal.

To reduce the impact of such a flat tax on the poor, Fattah’s bill provides for a 1 percent tax credit for couples earning $250,000 or less ($125,000 or less for individuals) and discretion by the Treasury Department to exempt certain transactions on which lower-income people disproportionately rely. Another idea would be to amend his bill to exempt all transactions below $500.

Using 2008 numbers as an example: There was $755 trillion in total transactions that year. If you deduct the exempted $312 million in stock transactions, that leaves $443 trillion in new revenues, minus the cost of the tax credit and other possible measures to soften the impact on the poor. This means that with Fattah’s transaction tax in place, there is a real chance for eliminating the national debt within the next 10 years. In the long term, the transaction tax could replace the need to rely entirely on the income tax, which too often favors wealthier taxpayers who can game the system with fancy shelters and expensive tax lawyers and accountants.