Seven ways to reform a broken tax system

Tax reform should include a redesign of income tax.

By , Guest blogger

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    Our tax system is broken, writes Donald Marron. Reforming income tax is one thing that will start to fix the problem.
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This morning I appeared at a Senate Budget Committee hearing, “Tax Reform: A Necessary Component for Restoring Fiscal Sustainability.” My full testimony, “Cutting Tax Preferences Is Key to Tax Reform and Deficit Reduction,” is available here.

Here’s my opening statement:

America’s tax system is broken. It’s needlessly complex, economically harmful, and often unfair. It fails at its most basic task, raising enough money to pay our government’s bills. And it’s increasingly unpredictable, with large, temporary tax cuts not only in the individual income tax, but also in corporate, payroll, and estate taxes.

Recommended: Obama vs. Romney 101: 5 ways they differ on taxes

For all those reasons, our tax system cries out for reform. Such reform could follow many paths. Some analysts recommend the introduction of new taxes—such as a value-added tax, national retail sales tax, or pollution taxes—to supplement or replace our current system. Those ideas are worth serious discussion, but in today’s testimony I would like to focus on a more traditional approach to reform: redesigning our income tax.

I would like to make seven main points:

1. Tax preferences pervade the tax code. These preferences total more than $1 trillion annually, almost as much as what we collected from individual and corporate income taxes combined. These preferences narrow the tax base, reduce revenues, distort economic activity, complicate the tax system, force tax rates higher than they would otherwise be, and are often unfair.

2. The first step in any income tax reform should be to broaden the tax base by reducing or eliminating tax preferences. Doing so would help level the playing field among different economic activities, reduce the degree to which taxes distort economic behavior, and make taxes simpler to file and administer.

3. Policymakers can use the resulting revenue – potentially hundreds of billions of dollars each year – to lower tax rates, reduce future deficits, or both. Lowering tax rates would further reduce the economic distortions created by the tax system and would encourage economic growth. Reducing future deficits would help tame our federal debt, which threatens to grow to unsustainable levels in coming years and thus poses a significant risk to our economy.

4. Many tax preferences are effectively spending programs run through the tax code; that poses a challenge for how we talk about tax reform and the size of government. Any cuts to these spending-like preferences will increase federal revenues, but will reduce government’s influence over economic activity. Advocates of smaller government are often skeptical of proposals that would increase federal revenues. When it comes to paring back spending-like tax preferences, however, an increase in revenues may actually mean that government’s role in getting smaller.

5. Other tax preferences, however, are not spending programs in disguise. More and more observers have embraced the idea that tax preferences resemble spending through the tax code. That’s a promising development. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm has sometimes led to the misconception that all items identified as tax preferences are akin to spending. That’s understandable given that these items are often called “tax expenditures.” But it is not correct. Preferential tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, for example, are (imperfect) efforts to limit the double taxation that can occur when investment income is subject to both personal and corporate taxes. Such provisions should be viewed and evaluated as tax measures, not as hidden spending programs.

6. Many tax preferences provide benefits to millions of taxpayers; they aren’t just “tax breaks for special interests.” For example, the three largest tax preferences are the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, preferences for retirement saving, and the mortgage interest deduction. Americans should understand that to get the benefits of tax reform – lower rates, simpler taxes, and a more vibrant economy – they will need to give up some popular tax breaks.

7. Policymakers should re-evaluate the design of any tax preferences that they decide to keep. Some preferences are needlessly complex and could be simplified; that’s true, for example, of the preferences aimed at low-income workers and families. Other preferences might operate more efficiently as credits rather than as deductions or exclusions. Credits can provide more uniform incentives to particular activities – e.g., homeownership – than deductions or exclusions whose value depends on whether a taxpayer itemizes and what tax bracket they are in.

Bottom line: By reducing, eliminating, or redesigning many tax preferences, policymakers can:

  • Make the tax system simpler, fairer, and more conducive to America’s future prosperity;
  • Raise revenues to finance both across-the-board tax cuts and much-needed deficit reduction; and
  • Improve the efficiency and fairness of any remaining preferences.

P.S. The other witnesses included two other Tax Policy Center folks – former director Rosanne Altshuler and co-founder Gene Steuerle — and Larry Lindsey. All our testimonies are available here.

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