Tag: Tax Reform

House Republican Tax Plan

House Republicans have released a proposal for major tax reform. Kudos to Ways and Means chairman Kevin Brady for stepping up to the plate and planning ahead for 2017. Brady and his staff did extensive outreach to think tank experts and the GOP caucus, and they have come up with a blueprint that focuses on savings, investment, simplification, and economic growth.  

The GOP plan would cut the top personal income tax rate from 40 percent to 33 percent, while consolidating the bracket structure from 7 rates to 3. The plan would reduce the top tax rate on small businesses to 25 percent, and it would repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35 percent to 20 percent. That would be the single most important thing that the next Congress could do for the U.S. economy. Corporations build factories, buy equipment, and hire workers to earn after-tax profits. Slashing the marginal tax rate by 15 points would substantially increase the after-tax profits companies could earn on new investments, and they would respond accordingly. More capital investment would mean more job opportunities and higher wages for American workers.

We’ll Never Improve the Tax System by Clinging to Partisan Folklore

top marginal tax rates over time

A stubborn myth of the pro-tax left (exemplified by Bernie Sanders) is that the Reagan tax cuts merely benefitted the rich (aka Top 1%), so it would be both harmless and fair to roll back the top tax rates to 70% or 91%.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Between the cyclical peaks of 1979 and 2007, average individual income tax rates fell most dramatically for the bottom 80%  of taxpayers, with the bottom 40 percent receiving more in refundable tax credits than paid in taxes.  By 2008 (with the 2003 tax cuts in place), the OECD found the U.S. had the most progressive tax system among OECD countries while taxes in Sweden and France were among the least progressive.

What is commonly forgotten is that before two across-the-board tax rate reductions of 30% in 1964 and 23% in 1983, families with very modest incomes faced astonishingly high marginal tax rates on every increase in income from extra work or saving (there were no tax-favored saving plans for retirement or college).

From 1954 to 1963 there were 24 tax brackets and 19 of those brackets were higher than 35%.  The lowest rate was 20% -double what it is now.  The highest was 91%.

High and steeply progressive marginal tax rates were terrible for the economy but terrific for tax avoidance. Revenues from the individual income tax were only 7.5% from 1954 to 1963 when the highest tax rate was 91%, which compares poorly with revenues of 7.9% of GDP from 1988 to 1990 when the highest tax rate was 28%. 

Tax Reform at Ways and Means

A number of House Republicans have testified to the Ways and Means Committee about their ideas for overhauling the tax code. Rep. Roger Williams testified about his plan this week. And Reps. Michael Burgess, Devin Nunes, and Robert Woodall presented their plans a couple weeks ago.

Here are a few notes:

Michael Burgess Flat Tax. Rep. Burgess testified in favor of a classic Hall-Rabushka flat tax, which is the plan that has been supported by Steve Forbes and Dick Armey. The tax is named after economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, who is an adjunct scholar at Cato.

The Burgess plan would have a 19 percent rate (dropping to 17 percent), a large standard deduction ($32,000 for a married couple), and large child deductions ($7,000 per child). My preference would be for a lower rate with a smaller standard deduction, but the Burgess plan is generally excellent.

The flat tax would vastly simplify the tax code. Individuals would be able to file their tax return on a postcard because the plan would abolish nearly all deductions, exemptions, and credits, and individuals would be generally only taxed on their labor income. All capital income would be taxed at the business level at the same 19 or 17 percent rate.

Business taxation would have a simplified cash-flow structure, and companies would immediately write-off capital investment. Complex income tax concepts such as depreciation, amortization, and capital gains would be abolished.

The Burgess tax would eliminate the current tax code bias against savings and investment, which is a key weakness of income taxation. With an economically neutral base and a low rate, the Burgess flat tax would be very pro-growth.

Devin Nunes Business Tax. The Nunes proposal is essentially the business part of the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, but with a 25 percent rate. This is a cash-flow tax, meaning that accrual accounting and noncash concepts such as depreciation would be scrapped. Business investment would be expensed.

More Evidence That Lower Marginal Tax Rates Speed Up Economic Growth

An important and timely paper from Columbia University economist Karl Mertens finds that amount of income reported on tax returns is highly sensitive to marginal tax rates, and that the effect is mainly from changes in real activity not tax avoidance.

Mertens estimates “elasticities of taxable income of around 1.2 based on time series from 1946 to 2012. Elasticities are larger in the top 1% of the income distribution but are also positive and statistically significant for other income groups… . Marginal rate cuts lead to increases in real GDP and declines in unemployment.”  Other recent research also shows that “higher marginal tax rates reduce income mobility” while eliminating higher tax brackets improves upward mobility.

Both Democratic candidates for the presidency, Sanders and Clinton, want to greatly increase marginal tax rates on high incomes and on realized capital gains. By contrast, all Republican candidates propose to reduce marginal tax rates.

Mertens’ research unambiguously predicets that economic growth would slow or stop under the Democrats’ proposed tax increases, but accelerate under Republicans’ tax reforms.

Ben Carson’s Tax Plan

Presidential candidate Ben Carson released a three-page tax plan yesterday. Based on the limited information the plan includes, it looks like the best GOP plan so far.

Individuals and businesses would be subject to a simple 14.9 percent flat tax. The tax base appears to be of the Hall-Rabushka (HR) design, which is the gold standard of simple and pro-growth tax structures. I say “appears to be” because the Carson three-pager gives some hints, but not full details.

The defining feature of HR is that income is taxed once and only once. The current double taxation of savings and investment would be ended. Capital income would be taxed at the business level under HR, while labor income would be taxed at the individual level. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka proposed the HR tax structure back in 1981, as I discuss here. Rabushka, by the way, is a Cato adjunct scholar.

Ben Carson seems to have avoided the dangerous business VAT structure of the Ted Cruz and Rand Paul tax plans. He appears to be critiquing Cruz and Paul in this passage:

Unlike proposals advanced by other candidates, my tax plan does not compromise with special interests on deductions or waffle on tax shelters and loopholes.

Nor does it falsely claim to be a flat tax while still deriving the bulk of its revenues through higher business flat taxes that amount to a European-style value-added tax (VAT).

Adding a VAT on top of the income tax would not only impose an immense tax increase on the American people, but also become a burdensome drag on the U.S. economy.

Everything You Need to Know about Deductions, Loopholes, and Special-Interest Tax Provisions

Why does the tax code require more than 10,000,000 words and more than 75,000 pages?

There are several reasons and none of them are good. But if you had to pick one cause for all the mess, it would be the fact that politicians have worked with interest groups and lobbyists to create myriad deductions, credits, exclusions, preferences, exemptions, and other loopholes.

This is a great deal for the lobbyists, who get big fees. It’s a great scam for politicians, who get lots of contributions. And it’s a great outcome for interest groups, who benefit from back-door industrial policy that distorts the economy.

But it’s not great for the American people or the American economy.

Debunking Fiscal Myths: There Is No Loophole for “Carried Interest”

I’m a big fan of the flat tax because a low tax rate and no double taxation will result in faster growth and more upward mobility.

I also like the flat tax because it gets rid of all deductions, credits, exemptions, preferences, exclusions, and other distortions. And a loophole-free tax code would be a great way of reducing Washington corruption and promoting simplicity.

Moreover, keep in mind that eliminating all favors from the internal revenue code also would be good for growth because people then will make decisions on the basis of what makes economic sense rather than because of peculiar quirks of the tax system.

Sounds great, right?

Well, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds because there’s a debate about how to measure loopholes. Sensible people want a tax code that’s neutral, which means the government doesn’t tilt the playing field. And one of the main implications of this benchmark is that the tax code shouldn’t create a bias against income that is saved and invested. In the world of public finance, this means they favor a neutral “consumption-base” tax system, but that’s simply another way of saying they want income taxed only one time.

Folks on the left, however, are advocates of a “Haig-Simons” tax system, which means they believe that there should be double taxation of all income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even sometimes see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

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