Distractions and Non-Issues in the Tax Reform Debate

Posted in: Tax and Economics

No matter whether the Republicans succeed in their current efforts to take health care away from non-rich people—partly to pay for tax cuts for rich people, and partly simply to allow everyone else to make “voluntary choices” to get sick and die—they will soon turn their attention squarely back to the tax system. What then?

We have known for years what the Republicans would like to do to the tax code. Although it comes in a variety of forms and is justified by overlapping sets of dishonest evasions, the basic idea is and always has been Reverse Robin Hood. More than anything else, Republicans are committed to giving tax cuts to rich people, no matter what they have to do to everyone else to make that happen.

In recent columns, I have critiqued the various supply-side fantasies that Republicans have used to justify their regressive tax cuts (most prominently here and here), and I have also pulled apart the Trump Administration’s tax “plan”—where the scare quotes are very necessary, because a short list of vague bullet points that fits easily on one page cannot be taken seriously as a tax proposal.

One thing that I have mostly left to one side is any discussion of what might count as a good set of tax policy ideas. In the current political environment, where progressive ideas have no chance of being enacted (in tax or any other area of policy), an aggressive defense is much more important than a nuanced offense.

Even so, I began my most recent Verdict column like this: “Can I think of changes to the tax code that would be good for the economy and improve people’s lives? Like anyone who has studied the U.S. tax system for any length of time, yes, I have some ideas. At some point, I might even write down a few of those thoughts.”

Why not now? Here, I begin what I expect to be a two-part series describing how the tax system could be changed for the better. Even here, however, it is necessary to begin with a description of what should not be on the table before getting to what we should be doing.

Today’s column, therefore, will discuss the red herrings of tax reform that we see again and again in public debates about tax policy. In a follow-up column, I will describe some ideas for tax reform that could actually improve people’s lives.

The bottom line is simple: We can use the federal tax system to fight against inequality. We do not have to fall for the snake oil salesmen who say that the tax system is a “job killer” but who are really looking for any excuse to deny to the federal government the revenues it needs to address serious social problems.

Before we get there, however, it is necessary to clear away some persistent distractions and non-issues.

Fighting the Temptation to be Grandiose

One of the most persistent temptations when thinking about tax policy is to imagine what an ideal system would look like. For a long time in the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, it was all but required for conservative politicians and think tanks to try to sell root-and-branch rewrites of the tax code.

We were thus treated to various flavors of so-called flat tax proposals, a number of national sales tax plans, something called the USATax, and on and on. The common theme was that the current system was so broken and complicated that the only way to proceed was to burn it all down and rebuild—much like the Republicans’ current (obviously dishonest) rhetoric regarding the Affordable Care Act.

That was a profoundly bad approach, and it would have been so even if the proposals were not all Trojan Horses hiding proposals for redistributing income upward.

The problem is that people and businesses make decisions partly on the basis of what they expect the tax consequences of those decisions to be, and radically departing from those expectations could seriously upend lives and businesses in unpredictable ways.

This means that what tax specialists call “transition relief,” which simply means allowing people to adjust to a new law without being forced to suffer serious losses against which they could not plan or insure, becomes even more important with plans to completely redesign the tax system. Nonetheless, we have almost never heard any political huckster with a big tax simplification plan taking transition relief seriously.

Beyond that threshold problem, however, the simple fact is that our tax system in its basic contours is already a very sensible system. I realize that this is highly counterintuitive, because politicians across the spectrum all seem to agree that the U.S. tax system is simply horrible.

Even a sensible system, however, can be severely compromised by the accumulation of a series of bad policy choices. Saying that the system’s basic design is sensible in no way denies that it could be improved in many ways.

The basic strength of our tax system lies in its having been built upon more than one type of tax. Usually, people who talk about tax reform are really talking about changing the federal income tax, but that is only one of several types of taxes on which the government relies.

In the current fiscal year, only about $1.6 trillion out of a total of $3.4 trillion in federal revenues will come from the federal individual income tax, and another $0.3 trillion will come from the corporate income tax. Together, therefore, the income tax accounts only for slightly more than half of federal revenues.

The remaining revenues include $1.2 trillion from payroll taxes (to fund Social Security and Medicare) and $267 billion from other sources.

The most contentious of those “other” taxes is the estate tax, which actually only contributes about one percent of federal revenues each year. Even that seemingly small amount, however, is “significantly more than the federal government will spend on the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency combined.”

But the point is that we have a federal tax system that collects revenues from all working people through the payroll tax and then collects additional revenues progressively by taxing incomes and profits, supplementing those revenues (inadequately, as I will explain in my follow-up column) with a tax on wealth as well as other miscellaneous taxes and fines.

Any reasonable discussion about tax policy should take this basic structure as a fundamentally sound starting point and make changes to it, either by altering the relative importance of the three basic types of taxes—payroll, income, and wealth—or by improving how those taxes are designed.

At the federal level, then, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. (State taxes are a completely different story, but that is beyond the scope of this column.) We have all of the basics in place, but we need to make the system work much better.

What Does “Simplification” Mean?

One of the dodgiest aspects of tax policy debates is the promise of simplification. Who could be against a simpler tax system? The fact is, however, that the system is already quite simple for the vast majority of people. Again, that sounds counterintuitive, but it is true.

As far as payroll taxes go, nothing could be simpler. If you are among the vast majority of Americans who is an employee, you never have to think about how to handle your payroll taxes. And the federal wealth tax (which is applied to estates and gifts aggregating to more than five or ten million dollars, depending on marital status) are simply irrelevant to all but a tiny, lucky fraction of the country.

But what about the income tax. Everyone hates it, right? Can it not be made simpler? Somewhat, but not in ways that most politicians are willing to discuss.

Slightly more than one in four Americans itemizes her income taxes, which means that most people do not face a complicated federal income tax situation at all. For non-itemizers, the system already provides essentially the much-hyped ability to “fill out your taxes on a postcard.”

Could it be even simpler? Yes, and Senator Elizabeth Warren and some of her colleagues offered a proposal last year that would radically simplify the tax filing system for most Americans. Unsurprisingly, Republicans—joined by the owners of TurboTax—have steadfastly opposed Warren’s approach.

It is true that people often worry about missing out on something, that is, they wonder whether the tax system could provide some potential benefits of which they are unaware. That worry could be addressed by reducing the large number of tax deductions and credits that are available, because it would make the system somewhat more transparent.

Even so, there is a strong countervailing tendency for people to want the tax code to take into account the many complications of their lives. They want their taxes reduced because of adoption costs, moving expenses, child care responsibilities, charitable deductions, medical costs, mortgage interest, and on and on.

The dirty non-secret of tax simplification is that people want politicians to make their lives less complicated, but they hate it when the complicated form that they used to have to fill out is gone, because the tax benefit is gone with it.

And people’s lives are certainly not improved when so-called simplification involves non-issues like reducing the number of tax brackets. As I noted in April, even left-of-center commentators like the editors of The New York Times can fall for that one.

But why would a middle class family care about the number of tax brackets? If you told them that you would reduce the number of brackets from the current seven to any smaller number, their question would be the same: “How much will I have to pay?” If their tax bill goes up, that is bad news, even if there are fewer brackets.

And even if a family’s tax bill goes down, there will still be politicians out there telling them that “your hard-earned money” is being wasted by evil government bureaucrats.

It is important not to tax more than is necessary, but the amount that we tax ourselves is never going to be zero, because people want their government to do things that cost money. It is crucial not to allow calls for simplification to become excuses for defunding the government.

Simplification for the Rich

When politicians talk about how complicated the tax system is, they are on very strong ground only when talking about high-income earners. And here, I am not talking about all itemizers, because even most of them only take a small number of deductions (mostly mortgage interest and property taxes). It is only the truly rich who face an inviting buffet of tax- minimizing possibilities.

Notice that I am talking here in positive terms, where a complicated system is a good thing for these taxpayers. Congress has added thousands of provisions to the tax code that rich people and businesses can use to control their tax outcomes in ways that non-rich people simply cannot.

The most important of those provisions is known as the “realization requirement.” Even though the income tax is levied on (appropriately enough) incomes, the tax code makes it possible for some fortunate taxpayers to delay having to pay taxes on their incomes, often for decades (and sometimes forever). Whereas most of us pay taxes on our incomes in the year that the income is earned, not everyone is held to that same standard.

For example, if I own a large portfolio of stocks and other financial assets, I can decide when to “realize” the gains in my portfolio by choosing when to sell those assets. Until I sell the stocks, no matter how much richer I have become (that is, no matter how much income I have earned), I do not pay taxes.

If I want to liquidate any assets in order to pay for my living expenses, I can choose which stocks to sell, choosing the ones that have the least amount of gain (or that have losses, and thus imply no income tax liability). Or, I can simply borrow against the value of my stocks, paying a nominal interest rate (because the loan is secured by the stocks themselves) and avoid taxes entirely.

When I teach the basic law school class in federal income taxation, my students quickly find that the truly complicated aspects of the code are these provisions that allow rich people and businesses to plan their tax lives to their own advantage. It is not only timing provisions but also special rules that allow people to reduce the tax rates that they must pay on certain types of income.

All kinds of rules that are in theory available to everyone are in fact only useful to people who are not relying on salaries or wages to finance their day-to-day lives. Making the system simpler by taking away those provisions would make those wealthier taxpayers quite angry. Unsurprisingly, the Republicans are not touching those provisions.

In short, the tax debate in this country is polluted by persistent distractions that truly have little or nothing to do with useful tax reform. The basic structure of our current system does not need to be changed, and there are some very straightforward ways to simplify most people’s tax lives that do not involve grandiose or radical changes to the tax system.

Fortunately, there are most definitely ways in which the tax system could be changed that would improve our economy and the lives of most Americans. Unfortunately, discussion of those possible changes must await my next entry in this series. For now, however, it is at least useful to know what we do not need to worry about.

  • Joe Paulson

    new picture?