South-Western College Publishing - Economics  

Policy Debate: How should we reform the current tax system?

Issues and Background

That the power to tax involves the power to destroy ...[is] not to be denied.
~ U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland, March 6, 1819.

Arguments for tax reform have existed as long as governments have collected taxes. The current U.S. federal tax structure is criticized because it is perceived as:

  • being excessively complex,
  • providing too little incentive to save,
  • generating labor supply disincentive effects, and as
  • being unfair.
While virtually everyone agrees the the current tax system is excessively complex, there is no tax simplification plan that is universally accepted. The major problem is that most proposed changes in the tax structure will benefit some taxpayers and harm others.

In constructing a system of taxes, an "equity-efficiency" tradeoff often appears. Attempts to make economic outcomes more equitable through the use of taxes often provides disincentive effects that reduce the overall level of economic efficiency. A classroom analogy is often used to illustrate this tradeoff. Suppose that all students in a class of 300 students are told that they will all receive a test grade equal to the average grade on the test. This outcome is "equitable" in the sense that everyone receives the same grade. It is not an efficient outcome, however, in that it provides an incentive structure that encourages students to study less (since each student realizes that their individual performance has little substantial effect on their test grade). Attempts to provide more equal incomes through a tax system will typically reduce the incentive to work or save.

Societies want both increased equity and increased efficiency. Unfortunately, many tax reforms designed to improve equity reduce efficiency, and vice versa.

In reading through the tax reform proposals listed below, consider the effects of each on equity and economic efficiency.


Primary Resources and Data

  • Congressional Budget Office, "The Economic Effects of Comprehensive Tax Reform," July 1997
    This document, provided by the Congressional Budget Office provides an overview of the economic consequences of alternative tax reform proposals.

  • Internal Revenue Service
    The U.S. Internal Revenue Service home page contains extensive information about the U.S. federal income tax system. Included at this site are recent and historical tax statistics that can be downloaded in standard spreadsheet formats. Information on the tax code may be found here as well as downloadable tax forms and publications.

  • U.S. Tax Code
    This site, provided by John Walker, provides an online searchable version of the U.S. Tax Code. Walker converted the January 1994 version of the U.S. tax code into a hypertext document. If nothing else, this site is worth visiting to understand the complexity of the U.S. federal tax structure. A text version of the U.S. Tax Code is over 21 megabytes in size!

  • The Tax History Museum
    This site contains a wealth of information on the evolution of the U.S. federal tax system. Tables and graphs are provided that illustrate the evolution of the federal tax system. Copies of cartoons and World War II propaganda posters relating to federal taxes are also available at this location.

  • Adam Smith's Recommendations on Taxation
    Nadia Weiner, the Director of the Adam Smith Club of Sydney, Australia, contains excerpts from Adam Smith's writings on tax policy.

  • Dr. Quiggly's Museum of Tax Oddities
    This site provides an interesting collection of examples of the effect of taxes on behavior. Examples from earlier time periods appear in The Hall of Ancient Relics.


Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Shahira ElBogdady, "The Inefficiency of Targeted Tax Policies"
    In this conservative critique of President Clinton's 1998 budget proposal, Shahira ElBogdady argues that targeted tax cuts distort relative prices and interfere with the efficient operation of markets. It is suggested that broad-based tax reductions that minimize loopholes would be preferable.

  • James K. Glassman, "Sales Tax"
    James K. Glassman, in this May 8, 2000 Reason Online article, argues that Congress should abandon efforts to tax online sales. He notes that such taxes would be relatively easy to avoid and costly to enforce, while hindering the development of e-commerce. Such taxes are also highly regressive. Glassman argues further that state sales taxes should be eliminated on all sales.

  • House Majority Leader Dick Armey, "Flat Tax - Not Just a Distant Dream"
    Congressman Dick Armey is an author of one of the flat tax bills that have been proposed during the past few years. In this online document, Armey presents several arguments in favor of replacing the current income tax system with a flat tax.

  • National Center for Policy Analysis, "Flat Tax and Alternative Tax Systems"
    This site contains a descriptions of several flat tax proposals. (Many of the links are broken on this web site.)

  • Americans for Tax Reform
    This web site, provided by Americans for Tax Reform, provides a variety of arguments in support of the introduction of a flat tax. They also argue for a general reduction in the level of taxes.

  • American Enterprise Institute, "Debating the Flat Tax"
    This page contains a summary of a February 29, 1996 debate between Richard A. Gephardt and Jack Kemp at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Robert S. McIntyre, "Flat Wrong"
    In this liberal response to the flat-tax proposal, Robert S. McIntyre argues that the Republican proposals for a flat tax would reduce the tax burden on wealthy households while increasing taxes on the middle class. As McIntyre states this, "virtually any flat-rate tax plan that adds up must, by simple arithmetic, produce huge tax cuts for those with the highest incomes and therefore big tax increases on almost everyone else."

  • Robert J. Shapiro, "Why Fairness Matters: Progressive Versus Flat Taxes"
    In this article, Robert J. Shapiro, the vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, contrasts some of the major recent proposals for tax reform. Shapiro suggests that tax reform proposals should be evaluated according to three criteria: simplicity, equality, and growth. He argues that the flat-tax proposals do not meet these criteria. (To view this document, the Adobe acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • American Council for Capital Formation, "ACCF Tax Policy"
    The American Council for Capital Formation's web page contains links to numerous online articles related to tax reforms. This nonpartisan, nonprofit agency advocates policies that are designed to encourage savings and investment. Click on the links on the menu on the left to see relevant articles by area of tax reform.

  • David Altig, Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Kent A. Smetters, and Jan Walliser, "Assessing Fundamental Tax Reform"
    Altig et al. note that reforming the tax code results in a tradeoff among competing objectives. They note that flat-tax and consumption tax proposals would encourage economic growth but would result in a higher tax burden on middle class taxpayers. (To view this document, the Adobe acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • David R. Burton and Dan R. Mastromarco, "Emancipating America from the Income Tax: How a National Sales Tax Would Work"
    David R. Burton and Dan R. Mastromarco argue that the existing federal tax structure should be replaced by a national sales tax. They argue that this approach would reduce economic distortions, encourage economic growth, and reduce compliance and enforcement costs.

  • William G. Gale, "Tax Reform is Dead, Long Live Tax Reform"
    In this Brookings Institution Policy Brief, William G. Gale provides a liberal's view of tax reform. He argues that the basic income tax structure should be preserved, but simplified.

  • William G. Gale, "Don't Buy The Sales Tax"
    In this Brookings Institution Policy Brief, William G. Gale argues that recent proposals for a national sales tax would be unenforceable and may have an undesirable effect on tax equity. He suggests that reforms of the existing income tax structure and some flat-tax systems should be the focus of the current discussion.

  • OECD, "Total Tax Revenue as Percentage of GDP, 1965 - 2003"
    This page contains information about tax levels as a share of GDP in OECD countries. As compared to other industrialized countries, the share of taxes in GDP is relatively low in the U.S. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • For Better or for Worse: Marriage and the Federal Income Tax
    This comprehensive study, conducted by the Congressional Budget Office, examines the conditions under which a pair of married partners will pay more or less than they would have paid if they were single. A "marriage tax" occurs when total taxes are higher for individuals who are married than they would have been if the individuals were single. This article contains a number of suggestions for reforming the tax structure to reduce the amount of this marriage tax.

  • Quicken, "Marriage Penalty Calculator"
    This page, provided by Quicken, provides an online calculator that allows visitors to input their own and their spouse's earnings (for 2002) to determine whether they would have paid more or less as single individuals.

  • Center for American Progress, "Creating a Fairer Tax Code"
    In this November 22, 2006 online document, the Center for American Progress argues that recent changes in the tax code have exacerbated income inquality. They argue for increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit to help reduce the degree of income inequality.

  • President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform, "Final Report"
    The President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform was created by President George W. Bush to make recommendations on simplifying the federal tax code. In its November 1, 2005 report, it provides a series of recommendations:
    • simplify the tax code,
    • lower tax rates for families and business,
    • expand the deduction for homeownership and charitable giving to all taxpapers, not just those that itemize their expenses),
    • reduce or eliminate taxes on investment income, and
    • eliminate the alternative minimum tax.

  • John Podesta and John Irons, "Letter to the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform"
    John Podesta and John Irons (from the Center for American Progress) argue that the existing tax structure (and the reforms proposed above) creates distortions by raising the rate of return to investment in physical capital relative to investments in human capital. Since labor income is taxes, the preferential tax treatment given to the returns to physical capital would result in overinvestment in physical capital and underinvestment in human capital. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

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