Can the U.S. Economy Do Better? IV. Let’s Try Tax Reform!

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After seven straight years of anemic, sub-par growth of 2.1% annual growth, one of the most important questions in public policy today is whether or not the U.S. economy can do better. I have devoted my last three posts, here, here, and here, to this question, presenting both positive and negative points of view.
Capture7There are very definitely strong headwinds slowing down growth but there are also specific strategies that are very likely to help speed up growth. One of these is tax reform.  The nonpartisan Tax Foundation (TF) has just issued an excellent report, “Options for Reforming America’s Tax Code” with many good ideas. Here are just three of the many different examples presented.  But they show the powerful effects that would be generated by significant tax reform.

  • Replace the Corporate Income Tax with a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 5%. This would be a huge change but it would also have a hugely positive impact. TF estimates that doing this would boost the economy by 5.5% in the long run as well as boosting tax revenue by a whopping $315 billion per year on average. Furthermore, all income groups from low to high would see equal gains in income.
  • Eliminate All Itemized Deductions Except for Charitable Contributions and Mortgage Interest and Lower the Top Individual Income Tax Rate to 27%. This change would grow the economy 1.1% in the long run and also create 496,000 new jobs. It would also increase tax revenues by $26 billion per year on average. It has the defect of raising incomes more for the affluent than for low- and middle-income groups. But this defect could easily be remedied by, for example, limiting the size of the mortgage interest deduction.
  • Cap the Total Value of Itemized Deductions at $25,000. This popular proposal would not help grow the economy but would bring in almost $200 billion a year in new tax revenue.

What is the better strategy? To be pessimistic and accept the point of view that faster growth is just too difficult or to adopt specific policies which are likely to help?

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Tax Reform and Economic Growth

 

In a recent post I pointed out that both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are being unrealistic with their tax reform proposals:

  • The Republican plans would stimulate the economy but at the cost of huge increases in the national debt, even taking into account the growth effects of these plans.
  • Raising the top tax rate to 50%, a Democratic idea, would bring in an additional $100 billion per year in tax revenue, but this is neither enough to make a big dent on budget deficits or appreciably lower income inequality by redistribution.
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The nonpartisan Tax Foundation has just released a new report, “Options for Broadening the U.S. Tax Base,” describing three different ways to do this:

  • Ending the exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance
  • Removing the cap on the social security payroll tax
  • Capping itemized deductions at a fixed dollar level

Combined with marginal tax rate cuts, each of these options would lead to substantial economic growth.  However, the first option, ending the exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance, is unlikely but rather this exclusion could be turned into tax credits as part of further healthcare reform.  Likewise, removing the cap on the social security payroll tax is more likely to be used to raise additional revenue to make social security financially sound for the long run.
However, the single measure of capping itemized deductions at $25,000 per individual could be combined with

  • Lowering the corporate tax rate to 27%
  • Cutting the top three ordinary income brackets by 5%
  • Implementing a top capital gains tax rate of 20%

Such changes would be revenue neutral and would lead to a long term GDP gain of 2.7%, a long term wage rate gain of 2.2% and a ten year dynamic revenue gain of $759 billion.
Conclusion:  it is possible to cut tax rates, broaden the tax base and grow the economy all at the same time and without increasing the deficit.  This is what we should be doing!

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A Glaring Example of the Need for Tax Reform

 

Nowadays there are many advocates for both individual and corporate tax reform. I have had several posts recently on this issue. A new report from the Tax Foundation “Is the Tax Code the Proper Tool for Making Higher Education More Affordable?” make a compelling argument that it is futile to try to do this.
CaptureFor example:

  • Education tax credits have grown from a $4.5 billion program for 4.7 million taxpayers in 1998 to a $17.4 billion program claimed by over 7 million taxpayers in 2011.
  • Education tax credits are not well targeted toward low- and middle-income families; almost 50% of the benefits accrue to taxpayers earning more than $75,000, often much more. A much more sensible way to target low income students would be to increase Pell grants.
  • The overuse of tax credits by the federal government has turned the IRS into a spending agency, with refundable tax credits projected to double to nearly $200 billion in the next five years.
  • Trading the elimination of education tax credits for lower marginal tax rates would grow the economy by $19 billion per year and create 121,000 new jobs.

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The authors go on to say: “It is likely that instead of helping, tax credits may be contributing to the rising cost of college education. Colleges are what economists call price discriminators because they can maximize the price that each student can pay.  Because of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the college has intimate knowledge of each student’s (or family’s) income and if they are eligible for tax credits, loans, or other financial aid.  This information allows the college to simply adjust its financial aid package in order to capture the maximum value of the tax credit.  Instead of being a helping hand for students, tax credits have turned into a windfall for universities.”
There are many, many reasons to reform the tax code.  The education tax credit is just one very good example!