Monday, 26 March 2012

Does America needs a 2-page tax code?

Emphatically, no.  I just absolutely disagree with Fareed Zakaria on this, as I do with anyone who thinks that the measure of a tax system is the shortness of its tax code.  We live in a complex and intricate world, in which transacting involves complex relationships involving the allocation of risks and rewards in seemingly endless ways, using any number of entities, structures, and contractual arrangements.  Moreover the job of a tax system is complex: it must determine a government's right to tax a person as a taxpayer, and it must assess the resources available to its taxpayers in a way that is both accurate and complete to some degree, lest its entire project be undermined by the ability of those with means to escape their obligations.

I don't disagree that the U.S. tax code, like its counterparts in Canada and I am sure all over the world, is unduly long and burdened by provisions that could or should be excised.   I am constantly exasperated by provisions that bear the distinct mark of lobbying, and would be happy to see these disappear overnight.  I am annoyed as anyone else by lengthy regulations with multi-factor tests and multi-tiered analyses.  But to suggest that the Code could be so simple as to fit on "2 pages" is preposterous.  Even if the U.S. eliminated every tax expenditure anyone could care to identify, it would still run into hundreds of pages, and that is appropriate for the social complexity we live in every day.

Zakaria says "You have to understand, complexity equals corruption."  But quite the opposite is equally true.  As Charlie Kingson once wrote, "Simplicity lumps: It disregards distinctions such as categories, and puts the wolf with the lamb. When a large corporation says it wants simplicity, it wants money."  (The article, The Great American Jobs Act Caper, 58 Tax Law Rev. 327 (2005), is well worth a read and a re-read). That is only too true.  As Kingson pointed out, taxpayers seem to have no trouble dealing with complexity when it yields a lesser tax burden.

Of course, it's also true that for many individuals, navigating the code can be tremendously difficult and we may rightly lament the rise of a tax preparation industry that benefits too much from complexity in the tax code (or even the perception thereof), but again, the solution is not to shrink the code to 2 pages.  First, there is an available solution already: it is Ready Return, an effective response to complexity that has been vigorously resisted...but not by taxpayers.

Second, we can be sure that in a 2-page code, those with the least ability to pay would be counted on to pay much, much more.  That's because what Zakaria wants, as it seems is typical of those who begin a tax policy discussion with the length of the tax code or the number of words it contains, is to get rid of income taxation all together and replace it with a consumption tax.  Bruce Bartlett has made a compelling case for why anyone contemplating reinventing the wheel might benefit from thinking about how we got the wheel we already have.   Any problem identified as problematic for the income tax will persist in a consumption tax: we will still have lobbyists and congress members, all of whom benefit mightily from their ritual dances, and it is folly to think that a change in the form of taxation will change that.  It won't.

More can be said and many have said it.  But it bears repeating that in tax policy discourse, what matters is not the length of the code but the system it describes and how that system allocates the tax burden among a society's members, as defined by their connections to each other through the mechanism of government.  That is not a simple question or a simple equation and it defies a simple answer.

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