Fixing the budget means higher taxes

If we really are going to reduce the federal deficit, new tax revenues must be part of the solution.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. According to Gale, the federal government must reduce the deficit by creating tax revenue, broadening the tax base, and eliminating tax loopholes for the wealthy.

If we are going to reduce the medium- and long-deficit, new tax revenues must be part of the solution. And those taxes must be progressive and as conducive to economic growth as possible.

Historical revenue levels will not be sufficient to fund the federal government in the future. We will need to control the ballooning costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. However, because their enrollment will be growing with the aging population, additional revenue still will be needed.

Past major budget agreements included both revenue increases and spending cuts because using both sides of the budget provides a sense of fairness and shared sacrifice. Americans prefer a balanced approach to spending cuts alone

Interestingly, raising taxes has proved more effective at restraining spending than allowing the government to finance its outlays with deficits. Under presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, taxes fell but spending rose. Spending fell only in the 1990s, when President Clinton and Congress raised taxes. This makes sense, since raising taxes to pay for current spending makes it clear to taxpayers that there is a cost to current spending, whereas the cost of deficit financing, while real enough, are obscured by the fact that it is does not create current tax liabilities.

Done right, higher taxes will not destroy the economy. In 1993, top income tax rates rose to 39.6 percent, and the economy flourished for the rest of the decade. Even the massive tax increases during and after World War II-amounting to a permanent rise of ten to fifteen  percent of GDP-did not hamper U.S. economic growth. 

The best way to raises taxes is to broaden the tax base by reducing the number of specialized credits, deductions, and loopholes. For example, limiting the tax benefit of itemized deductions to 15 percent would affect mostly high-income households and raise more than $1 trillion over the next decade without raising marginal tax rates.  

New revenues should come from a progressive tax, which means the tax burden on high-income, high-wealth households needs to rise. Last year’s debt deal contained only spending cuts that place almost the entire burden of closing the fiscal gap on low- and middle-income households but have little or no impact on high-income households.

Over the past 30 years, the share of total household income for the top one percent of the income distribution more than doubled. Yet, those high-income households have seen their average tax burden fall, not rise, during that period. 

The claim that these tax  increases will harm small business is often overstated. Most income for high-income households is not business income. Yet, a recent Treasury report shows that just 1 percent of small business owners would be affected by a “millionaire’s surtax.” And even those firms face effective tax rates likely to be zero or negative since they can immediately and fully deduct the cost of new investment, even as they finance it WITH tax-deductible debt.  

In addition to income tax reform, our leaders should move the United States toward a system that taxes consumption (using a value-added tax for example) and nonrenewable and polluting energy use (by increasing gasoline taxes or implementing a carbon tax).

The VAT exists in about 150 countries worldwide. It can raise substantial revenue, is easily administrable, and is minimally harmful to economic growth. In addition, a pre-announced, phased-in VAT could accelerate economic recovery. Concerns about regressivity and transparency can be addressed, and concerns that it would fuel an increase in government spending are overstated. 

Long-term challenges related to energy production and consumption and long-term fiscal challenges can be addressed together. A far-reaching, upstream carbon tax can reduce the deficit and our dependence on foreign oil, protect the environment, lower the costs of healthcare, and encourage the development of clean, sustainable energy sources without the need for costly, inefficient energy subsidies. In the absence of a full-blown carbon tax, raising the gas tax offers many of the same advantages.

None of this means the United States needs to move to European levels of taxation. But between the very low tax revenues we raise now-the lowest share of the economy in six decades-and the high levels of taxation in other developed countries, there is room to raise revenue in a way that achieves serious medium- and long-term deficit reduction and supports a reasonable level of government.

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