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Tax reform and simplification

Writing from Orlando, Florida

Two recent Wall Street Journal articles (“A Golden Opportunity” in the November 1, 2005 issue, and “Triple Jeopardy” in the November 2, 2005 issue) make the case for simplification and reform of our current income tax system. In these articles we learn these things:

“… true reform — changing to a broad-based income or consumption levy that taxes income only once — could yield once-and-for-all annual household income gains of 9%.”

Our tax system has a bias against saving and investment. That slows capital formation and wage growth.

“It is the marginal tax rate — the rate on the additional dollar earned from work, saving or entrepreneurship — that sets incentives and governs the pro-growth gains from tax reform.”

“Eliminating the tax bias altogether in favor of employer-provided insurance is sound tax policy and would increase efficiency in health-care spending.” I have written in the past about how employer-provided health insurance is not good for our economy, or for consumers of insurance.

“A tax system should generate the government’s required revenue with as little economic distortion as possible, while distributing tax burdens fairly. It should not discourage work, saving or entrepreneurship more than is necessary, and it should not discourage individuals from acquiring the skills and education that will increase their productivity. It should not discourage investment, or favor investments in one asset over those in another. In short, an efficient tax system alters economic decision-making as little as possible.

“Although many see simplification as the primary goal of tax reform, promoting economic growth is a more important objective. Even in the relatively short run, the economic costs of a tax system that slows growth are likely to exceed compliance costs. U.S. households spend roughly 1% of GDP in complying with the income tax system. Halving the costs of compliance would be equivalent to raising GDP by one half of one percent — no minor accomplishment. The increase in GDP that might result from a tax reform that reduces tax burdens on investment and shifts the tax system toward a consumption tax are much larger.”

“Tax reform, as distinct from tax reduction, inevitably involves curtailing some entrenched tax benefits. If reform proposals are dissected by politicians in an attempt to promote provisions that reduce their constituents’ tax liabilities while excising those that increase constituents’ tax liabilities, reform will inevitably fail. But if reform proposals are viewed instead as a collection of provisions that leave most families in a position not very different from their current one, while also shifting the tax system toward a structure that will promote long-term economic growth and reduce the burden of tax compliance, then these proposals can command broad popular support and even enthusiasm. Genuine tax reform is a difficult process that requires commitment to the goal of creating a more efficient, simpler and fairer tax system.”

With so much to be gained, why isn’t there a rush to implement tax reform and simplification? The primary reason is that there are many special interest groups with a lot of political power that favor the present system. These interests include those industries and companies powerful enough to manipulate the tax system to their benefit. Politicians, of course, enjoy the present system, as it offers many ways to reward those who help them stay in office and increase their power. It also lets them influence the behavior of nearly everyone through manipulation of the activities that the tax code favors with deductions and breaks.

Sadly, neither promotes economic growth and prosperity, which is what would really benefit the average person. Instead, people cringe at the idea that they might not be able to deduct their home mortgage interest. In reality, the mortgage interest deduction is worth very little to most middle-income families. (I get the feeling sometimes that people think they get to deduct the interest from their tax liability rather than from their taxable income.) Considering today’s low mortgage interest rates, the relatively low marginal income tax rate many people pay, and the fact that the benefit of the deduction is only valuable to the extent it exceeds the standard deduction, many families may not see any benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. But they would probably revolt against any politician who supported its elimination.

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