The Imperative of Tax Reform in a Distracted World

Taxes. Nobody likes them, nobody wants them, and they’re only considered good when they’re going one direction: down. But they are fundamentally necessary for any society to function. In fact, if levied at moderate rates and the revenues they generate are properly spent, taxes are key for societal prosperity.

In America’s case, taxes are generally somewhat lower, especially at the federal level, compared to other developed countries . This is not to say that Americans don’t pay a significant amount of tax. Being a country with a sizeable tax burden and one that is relatively low tax are not mutually exclusive concepts. Still, at the federal level, marginal income tax rates and top rates are generally lower than those prevailing in Europe, and a Federal sales tax simply does not exist (also unlike Europe). When factoring in state and local taxes, levels are equalized a bit more, but burdens still are generally lower in America.

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Americans’ average tax burdens generally lower than peer countries

However, looking at rates and the revenue bite is only a part of the burden story. As is often said, America’s federal tax code is, quite simply, horrendous. In addition to the normal complexities of a progressive system (e.g. different rates for different brackets at various stages of income generation), the tax code is stuffed with various deductions, exemptions, credits, and loopholes that impose a not-so-insignificant burden on all Americans.  In the aggregate, this complexity is in itself a massive tax (or set of taxes). Precious time and real dollars must be spent to navigate and understand the code, resources that could be used for far more productive uses. The real tragedy of all this complexity is that it ultimately benefits no one in the end. The government does not generate revenue from complexity (indeed, it loses revenue from the loopholes and from reduced economic activity). Society as a whole wastes resources that could otherwise generate positive returns to try and minimize their burdens. The result is the potential for slower growth and lower living standards than would have been the case.

In this way, the net economic burden of America’s federal tax code could actually be on par with (or even exceed) the burden experienced in European countries (especially when including state and local codes). It is naturally rather difficult to put a value on this non-revenue burden, though most estimates place it at at least a few hundred billion dollars annually for the country as a whole.

Since personal income taxes represent a sizeable portion of the federal tax code (and its various complexities), many proposed “solutions” to the federal tax code burden (assuming it is labeled as a problem) focus on restructuring the federal income tax. One of the most popular proposals is replacing the current structure with a flat personal income tax.

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The Income Tax is the single largest source of Federal Tax Revenue

There are many laudable benefits to a flat tax. For one, it would be much easier for each taxpayer to calculate his or her “effective tax rate”. With a progressive income tax, rates change as income progresses. For (hypothetical) example, each dollar of taxable income within the $1 to $9,999 range would have a rate applied to each dollar, say, 10%. However, dollars within the $10, 000 through $19,999 bracket would have a different rate, say 15%, applied to each dollar. Naturally then, this makes calculating the effective tax rate (the total amount of tax as a percentage of total income) rather difficult. With a flat tax, however, there are no brackets – for all taxable income, the same rate is applied to each dollar. This makes the flat tax rate and effective tax rate essentially equal (assuming no credits, deductions, exemptions, or loopholes). In this way, unlike the current income tax structure, an individual can know with much greater certainty how much of their income will be withheld.  The need to outsource tax liability calculations to a firm is reduced, if not eliminated, freeing up resources and largely destroying a major source of federal lobbying efforts.

Second, in my view, a flat tax conceivably has something for everyone to like. It is simple, transparent, and does not penalize people who generate more income, which is especially important to conservatives . They see it as being neutral and as a means to boost individual productivity, efficiency, savings, and investment. However, a flat tax still makes people with higher income pay more in absolute amounts. The difference is that the proportion of income that goes to taxes is the same for everyone. For a simplistic example, let’s say there are two individuals A and B. Say A has a taxable income of $100 and B has a taxable income of $1000. If a flat rate of 10% is applied, A will pay $10 in tax while B will pay $100. B, being higher income, still pays more than A in taxes. But the proportion payed is the same for both A and B. This seems fair and attractive to both ends of the American political spectrum.

Third, the elimination of brackets and all of the other complexities riddling the current code would likely boost public confidence in the government and would reduce the feeling that a person is being unfairly taxed at arbitrary rates within arbitrary brackets.  This increased confidence might boost tax collection and faith in political institutions, which has been severely lacking in recent years.

Of course, the flat tax has many drawbacks. One of the most important concerns raised by critics of the flat tax is that it lacks the counter-cyclical elements of progressive income taxes.  For example: during a recession, incomes generally fall.  Falling incomes will place individuals in lower top tax brackets (meaning they have to “progress” through less brackets).  This means a lower effective tax rate – in essence, the structure of a progressive tax code means that it provides an effective tax cut during recessions or periods of slow economic activity.  In other words, it acts as an automatic stabilizer.  This is not so for flat taxes – the rate is always the same, regardless of changes in income.  The only route for effective tax cuts in a flat-tax world is via discretionary fiscal policy – actual legislative action – to reduce the applied rate.  This runs into the problems of policy lags – recognition lags, implementation lags, and impact lags.  It takes time for policymakers to identify economic conditions and the need for change, more time to actually make and implement a policy change, and even more time for an implemented change to have an affect – by which point, the policy change may be inappropriate for the macroeconomic environment.  If policymakers ever move towards a flat tax one day, they may have to consider a revamp of federal automatic stabilization systems for smoothing out the business cycle – and if not, the onus of economic stabilization will continue shifting towards monetary policy.

A second and virtually identical concern is the lack of progressiveness of flat taxes.  The US income tax code is currently considered among the most progressive in the developed world.  However, overall progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems is rather low, as many other federal, state, and local taxes are regressive, and “social assistance” programs, regardless of their impact of work incentives, are fairly skimpy by rich country standards.  Make the income tax code flat, and you remove a major source of progressiveness in America’s redistribution systems and would almost certainly increase after-tax income inequality.  Depending on your views regarding redistribution and income inequality, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Regardless of whether a flat tax is pursued or not, it is (quietly) agreed by both the American Left and the American Right that the tax code needs radical simplification.  Right now, though, the imperative of tax reform has been pushed to the side to make way for a focus on ISIS, poverty reduction, immigration, and healthcare issues (to name a few), and ironically, the complexities that tax reform would attempt to solve helps to further ensure that such reform never takes place.  It is overcoming this entrenched policy stagnation that is the great task of our times.

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