Sunday, April 15, 2012

230 Million Unnecessary Returns

This tax day, April 17, about 230 million American taxpayers will file a federal income tax return if last year's numbers are any indication.  The federal income tax has been with us for nearly a full century, having been started in 1913.  It started out simple enough.  In the first few years, it was fairly straightforward, and only the wealthy really had to pay a significant amount.  Since then, our nation's tax code has grown into a convoluted 60,000 page mess filled with numerous loopholes and deductions.  Up until 1980, Americans typically believed that the income tax was the fairest of all taxes, but since then, most people now rate it as the least fair tax of all.  Originally intended to be progressive, it remains as such up to a point, but then actually becomes regressive above that point especially when other taxes are taken into account.  Just ask Warren Buffett.  And for corporations, 2/3 of them get away with paying zero federal income taxes (and sometimes even negative rates!) because of all the ridiculous special-interest loopholes and subsidies in our tax code.

Several thinkers believe that our tax code is in need of a major overhaul and thus have tried to come up with alternatives.  Americans for Fair Taxation, for example, believes that all our federal taxes can be replaces with one national sales tax of 30%.  Michael Graetz, on the other hand, believes that we can and should replace all income taxes for households earning below $100,000 and single individuals earning below $50,000 (i.e. 90% of the population) with a 10-15% value-added tax (VAT) and a 25% flat income tax for those earning above $50,000 or $100,000 as well as all corporations.  Others believe in a purely flat tax, and still others (such as the TSAP) believe we can and should retain a steeply graduated income tax with a generous personal exemption and no loopholes.  For the record, the TSAP would also support a plan similar to Graetz's if an additional 50% bracket were added for incomes north of $1 million or so and the VAT did not exceeed 10%.

However, we have recently discovered an even better way forward for the 21st century.  Enter the Automated Payment Transaction (APT) Tax.  The APT is a novel idea proposed in 2005 by economist Dr. Edgar Feige.   Basically, it would replace all of our current federal and state taxes (and possibly even some local ones) with one tiny little tax (say, 0.3%) on all automated transactions. This would essentially be the lowest possible rate on the broadest possible base, with no loopholes or finagling. It would actually be quite progressive in practice since the rich make a disproportionally large volume of transactions, and it is literally impossible to evade it or game the system. It is based on simple math, not half-baked voodoo economic theories. And the benefits to replacing the current messy, 60,000 page tax code with something so simple and easy are painfully obvious.  Finally, something most liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can actually agree upon!

Unlike Dr. Feige, however, the TSAP supports retaining an income tax on all individual incomes in excess of $1 million. The first million would be tax-free, while the amount over $1 million would be taxed, preferably at a rate of 50% or higher. Thus, 99.9% of Americans would pay any income taxes at all.  The TSAP also supports various luxury and vice taxes as well.  And to pay down our ludicrously high national debt, we support what should be called the Donald Trump Tax--a one-time wealth tax of 15% on individuals and trusts with net worths above $10 million.

However, if the APT does not come to fruition, the TSAP still supports a graduated, progressive income tax with no loopholes.  The TSAP would consider the following graduated scheme of marginal tax rates (loosely adapted from Robert Reich) to be fair:

Under $20,000: no income tax
$20,000 to $50,000: 5%
$50,000 to $90,000: 10%
$90,000 to $150,000: 20%
$150,000 to $250,000, 30%
$250,000 to $1,000,000, 40%
$1,000,000 to $10 million, 50%
over $10 million, 70%

Unlike the current Byzantine tax code, there would be no loopholes or any deductions other than for state and/or local income taxes paid, and a limited amount (up to 10% of income) for charitable donations. Also, all forms of income (wages, interest, dividends, and capital gains) would be taxed equally, unlike the status quo.   And a top marginal rate of 50% or even 70% is actually pretty tame compared to what it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, which hovered around 90%.   For those worried about the Laffer Curve, rest assured that the most recent study on the matter found that revenue peaks at a top rate of about 76%. 

For corporations, a 20% income tax with no loopholes would be infinitely better than the one we have now, with 2/3 or large corporations (including ExxonMobil, GE, B of A, and BP) currently paying zero income taxes while numerous unfortunate small businesses get hit with up to a 35% tax. Even better would be if the first $1,000,000 per year was tax-free, and only the amount of profit left over after dividends are paid out would be taxable if the company is publicly traded.

And as long as we have a FICA tax for Social Security and Medicare, the wage cap needs to be eliminated completely or set at a very high level such as $10 million or so.

At the very least, though, we definitely need something like the Buffett Rule for as long as we retain our 60,000 page mess of a tax code.  Of course, that doesn't go far enough, but at least it makes the tax code non-regressive at the very top.  50% for every dollar above $1 million with no exceptions would clearly be better, but the proposed 30% is a step in the right direction.

Those who oppose this idea can call us pinkos all they want, but they might just want to listen to Adam Smith, the man who is often considered to be the father of capitalism:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.  (Emphasis added)
And there you have it.  Even the father of capitalism himself essentially agrees with us, which really says something.

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