An Almost-Ideal Plan to Fix the AMT

Kevin Hassett’s column proposes to solve the problem of the alternative minimum tax by dramatically lowering the top tax rate, a step that could be financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and ending the exclusion for municipal bond interest. While a very attractive proposal, the plan has a couple of less-than-perfect features, primarily the fact that it assumes the aggregate tax burden should rise. Admittedly, this already is going to happen if the AMT is allowed to fester (which will happen if current law is not changed), but acquiescing to a higher tax burden should never be an option. Moreover, his approach to municipal bond interest also is appealing since current law creates an advantage for debt-happy state and local governments over other interest-bearing investments, but eliminating the double tax on all forms of interest is the ideal way of fixing this inequity:

…the AMT problem is easy to fix in a way that should have bipartisan appeal. The key observation is this: most of the special items, such as the state and local tax deductions, that put taxpayers on the AMT mostly benefit wealthy people. After all, most ordinary folks don’t even itemize. Thus, if Congress is raising marginal tax rates to preserve the current system, they are effectively giving rich taxpayers money with one hand, when they allow them deductions, then taking the money back with the other, by raising marginal rates. Talk about needless complexity. It is a fool’s game, and it’s not all that hard to stop. Just eliminate or cap the deductions. To illustrate how beneficial that would be, the Tax Foundation recently estimated how big a revenue-neutral tax reduction you could fund by eliminating the big-ticket deductions and exclusions in the tax code. That is, they imagined a world with no state and local income deduction and no tax exclusion for municipal bond interest. They found that eliminating those items would allow a proportional tax-rate reduction of about 31 percent. That would take the top tax rate down from 35 percent to 24 percent. They also found that eliminating the deductions took just about everyone off the AMT. That was scored to raise the same revenue as the current code. In the real world, it would surely raise more as the low rates spurred economic activity. Such a reform is too bold to be considered bipartisan, but the key observation is this: It’s not difficult to conceive of a revenue-neutral reform that eliminates the AMT, drops tax rates by almost a third, and improves the overall efficiency of the economy. In that case, it is child’s play to conceive of half- measures necessary to eliminate the AMT and leave tax rates where they are today. Instead of eliminating the state and local tax deduction, for example, you could cap it at $10,000. The revenue gained from that could help you fix the AMT, without requiring marginal tax-rate increases.