My Hideous Tax Reform

(With apologies to economist and author Joel Slemrod, author of the paper, My Beautiful Tax Reform)

As an accountant, I get involved in the practical and tedious task of applying tax laws (and related loopholes) to our clients’ fact situations.  Rarely do accountants get the time to contemplate (or fantasize about) tax reform, nor to consider systems used effectively by other countries.  But, before tax season gets truly underway this year, I have been spending some time educating myself about these matters so that I can combine my practical knowledge with the wisdom of economists and policy analysts around the world.

Professor Slemrod has spent many years evaluating our tax system and expresses the view that a business Value Added Tax (VAT), combined with a highly progressive but simplified individual income tax would deliver the best combination of Fairness and Simplicity (my two objectives for tax reform), and would achieve what he calls “elegance”.  He proposes an individual income tax that would exempt most individuals from filing returns, basically by eliminating all deductions and credits, thus broadening the tax base, and then relying on wage withholding to create the proper and equally applied tax to all labor income.  The VAT tax would apply to ALL business income, and at a flat rate.  Shareholders of corporations would be able to get a credit from the portion of their income already taxed at the corporate level, with the goal being to eliminate all double taxes, and to eliminate all preferential treatment now available through special deductions, credits and business entity selection.

Our current system attempts to tax income (roughly defined as increases in consumption power) by dividing it into 3 pots:  labor income, business income, and income from the employment of capital.  However, there is little consistency in how these different categories actually work.  For example, if I am Mitt Romney and earn my income from “carried interest” I get to pay taxes at a flat capital gains rate of 15%.  If I am Warren Buffet’s secretary, I get to pay taxes at much higher rates, depending on my income and deductions, and I also have to pay social security taxes.  Publicly traded corporations are subject to a double tax whenever they pay dividends to their shareholders, whereas when they pay interest to their bondholders, they are not.  If I lose money on a capital transaction, I can’t deduct the loss unless I have made money on other capital transactions.  If I sell my home at a profit, I can exclude the gain up to $500,000 if I am (legally) married.  If I earn all my income from dividends and capital gains, I might not have to pay ANY taxes.  And, if I am a worker earning a good living, I may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax and lose the deductions that my neighbor, who earns less, gets to deduct, thus vastly increasing my marginal tax rate.  These are just a few, selected examples of the way our tax system is both complex and unfair.

Fairness in taxation by definition would have to include progressivity as its underpinning.  In fact, Professor Slemrod rejects consumption taxes outright, as they can never be made progressive enough.  By taxing only consumption, such as through a national sales tax, those who would pay the highest effective rate of tax would be the poor and middle classes, who have to consume certain basic amounts in order to survive.  That would be highly unfair, but would admittedly be a simpler tax to administer than our current income tax.

One reason tax reform is so hideous is that anything that affects the federal system will also affect all the states who are connected to the federal system for purposes of defining and determining taxable income.  Any major reforms at the federal level will require these states to seriously evaluate and reform their own systems of taxation.  Another reason is that by trying to achieve simplicity, one may introduce unfairness, and vice versa.  For example, it might be fairer to measure and subtract inflation before taxing capital gains, but now you have introduced a highly complex calculation into the system.  You can eliminate this problem by using a consumption tax instead of an income tax, but as noted previously, a consumption tax is a regressive tax, and thus, unfair.

In order to restore legitimacy and moral authority to our government and its system of taxation, the current system MUST be reformed, and it must become fairer and simpler, yet still provide adequate funds.  Any steps in those directions are to the good, hideous or not.  President Obama’s recent budget proposals include some movements in the right direction:  indexing and making permanent AMT exemptions,  taxation of carried interest as ordinary income (too bad, Mitt), and simplification of the earned income credit.  However, when you read the summary of the President’s budget (spanning 215 pages) you start to feel pretty queasy.  More and more tax expenditures (credits and deductions) are being proposed in a desperate effort to insert more fairness into the system, but the end result is more, and much more, of the same highly complex and unfair system that we currently have.  Can we give up our favorite deductions and tax credits in exchange for lower and more progressive tax rates?   What might be beautiful is restoring the portion of total income taxes once borne by corporations in 1950 (30% of total revenues) from the shockingly low 7% today, something which could be achieved through a VAT tax.