Should simplicity be a primary goal of tax reform?

by Linda Beale

Should simplicity be a primary goal of tax reform?

I was at a housewarming party last Saturday and talked to quite a few people I didn’t know.  One was an economics professor at a regional school.  Naturally, economists and tax professors gravitate towards talk about the economy and tax policies, so it isn’t surprising that our talk got there fairly quickly.   I will add that his views were not too surprising, either: he suggested that corporate inversions and other forms of corporate tax planning and abusive transactions would disappear if only we made the tax code “simpler.”  Not surprisingly, that is the issue I hear most insistently from many of the economists that I talk to– especially those who have bought into Milt Friedman’s free marketarianism:  they suggest that the entire problem of the tax code–or the problem of the unprecedentedly low percentage of GDP we raise from corporate taxes in particular–could be solved if only we made the tax code simpler.

One thing they don’t seem to realize is that the neoliberal approach has led to corporations treating their employees as just another number to be crunched for the benefit of the bottom line,  their obligation to community and people as just another PR element, and their obligation to pay a fair share of their income to support the many levels of legal stability and benefits that they receive from government –including the benefits from basic research supported by government funding–as just another expense to get rid of in any way possible.  If the statutory rate is 35% even though the ACTUAL EFFECTIVE RATE is near zero for 75% of corporations and no higher than 20-26% for many corporations, they will still argue that the statutory rate should be 25%.  If it is lowered to 25% (and the effective rate for almost all corporations is near zero with a few paying around 10%), they will argue for a statutory rate of 10%.  And so on.

The argument from simplicity is, these days, mostly another example of class warfare being waged on behalf of the wealthy, corporatist elite against ordinary American workers.

And Congress today–controlled as it is by a majority in both the Senate and House that is generally much farther right than the nation’s people–tends to use the complexity of the tax code exactly in that way–as a flag waver to fool ordinary Americans into thinking that the corporatist, wealth-favoring tax changes the right wants to enact are “reforms” that will aid economic growth and ordinary Americans.

See, for example, the Joint Economic Committee (JEC)’s hearings today (April 20, 2016) on the topic of tax code complexity (and note the presupposition about complexity and the “taxing” problems in the wording of the title): Is Our Complex Code Too Taxing on the Economy? The title alone tells a lot about the JEC’s implicit bias against taxes and against “complexity”.  But if anyone thinks this was likely to be a useful discussion of complexity, just look at the first three speakers.  OnlyJared Bernstein comes from a Center that has recognized some of the fairness issues that most of the push for “simplicity” pushes under the rug.

  • Art Laffer, Mr. RightWing TaxCut Spokesperson personified and the person who has made a reputation (and I bet great wealth) out of arguing that tax cuts pay for themselves after drawing a graph on a dinner napkin and proclaiming it to be a theoretically supportable description of how human behavior responds to tax rates, testifies about “The Economic Burden Caused by Tax Code Complexity (written in 2011 but presented in 2016 anyway–if it’s propaganda, ya don’t need to update?).

A lot of these numbers about the “cost” of complexity are speculative, one-sided in that they overlook the huge costs of a simple tax code that permits enormous sums to be lost through tax evasion, and based on theoretical assumptions far removed from actual experience to project trillions of economic gain essentially from reducing the tax rates on corporations and the wealthy.  Consider one of the “complaints” in the Laffer ‘study’–the requirement that businesses file forms reflecting business-to-business payments in excess of $600.  It is clear that many small businesses evade taxes by using cash outlays where possible for those kinds of transactions.  Reporting has proven to be an efficient way to capture those kinds of tax evasion.  The same kinds of complaints are registered, of course, whenever any reporting requirement is created, whether it be an employer withholding and reporting requirement or a business reporting requirement.  In a digitalized business world, creating and filing appropriate reports can increasingly be automated and almost costless.  Compliance costs without such reporting are much greater because they require people and audit time at the business and at the IRS enforcement end.  Those issues are disregarded entirely by Laffer.

Laffer also claims that “the more complex a tax system is, the higher the compliance costs will be.”  It is not clear that such a statement is empirically true.  Note that he claims to be talking about “the tax system.”  It is worth noting that an entire system may have simple areas and complex areas, and complexity tends to reside in specific areas in which there are highly technical issues that require a complex system of rules to arrive at a reasonable answer or where Congress has acted rather hastily to add ‘bolt-ons’ to the tax system rather than systematically working through how provisions should work.  Could the code benefit from a 1986-style revamping to remove the bolt-ons and re-integrate the system?  Yes.  Should that revamping be based on a “let’s “simplify everything and make the taxes of the rich and powerful even less” philosophy? NO.  Our current system is more complicated than it needs to be, but at the same time, not as complicated as it needs to be to prevent many of the tax avoidance schemes that tax planners dream up. Once a system of rules is in place and operative, it is not necessarily true that there will be higher compliance costs, even if there are changes every few years in the specifics of how the system works to address new issues.

Laffer also states as fact that IRS administration costs are higher when the tax code itself is more complex.  However, a “simpler” tax code that nonetheless intended to capture a share of the profits to fund government could well result in much higher administration costs, as it would require considerably more agency interpretive rulings and interaction with taxpayers and audit/enforcement actions to prevent sham transactions designed around “simple” language.  It makes you wonder, of course, if by “simpler” Laffer doesn’t really mean–one that collects less tax, period, by having fewer brackets and lower rates.  That sounds simpler to the unknowing and naive, but ask any tax professor and he or shee will tell you that determining the income to which the tax applies is the complex part, not the rates.   What that kind of “simplicity” does is disguise from ordinary Americans yet another tax break for the wealthy as a move for a “better” tax system “because” it is “simpler”.

Note that Laffer also talks about the “teams of accountants” and others that businesses track and measure taxes, as though they could all be done without if only we had a “simpler” tax system.  Fact is, even without taxes, those teams of accountants would be part of the business world, because for most businesses, much of their business information and their tax information goes hand in hand.

So while Laffer claims to want a “fair” tax system, what he means by simple would be a tax system that shifts the burden from rich to poor even more than we already do and that eliminates the critical use of the tax system as one of the few levers that can operate to reduce the gaping inequality that has resulted from decades of tax cuts primarily benefiting the rich.  So while I claim that the costs of complexity are mostly problematic if they fall on the poor or near poor, Laffer values the cost to the rich as much higher, because he looks at time used to comply (of course, that will be hired time) and the wealth of the rich to conclude that the burden is greater because their time is more valuable.  He complains that the top pay more and pay proportionately more than the bottom, but of course that is exactly what a system designed around ability to pay will do: since the marginal utility of the last dollar is less to a wealthy man, one should tax them proportionately more than one should tax a poor man who perhaps already cannot satisfy the necessities of life using every one of his dollars.

For my earlier analysis of the Laffer Curve, see, e.g.The Laffer Curve Part II (March 2008) and other posts linked therein.

  • Scott Hodge, the President of the Tax Foundation, a right wing organization that calls itself nonpartisan and wants to be considered a “think tank” (it is a propaganda tank) that drums up an annual piece about “tax freedom day” full of specious arguments to bolster ordinary Americans views that taxes are too high about how long a typical worker works to pay his taxes.

I’m not surprised that he starts his testimony with the increasingly meaningless statement that the Code was 409 thousand words in length in 1955 and now is 2.4 million words in length.  OF COURSE the code is longer in 2016 than it was in 1955 when it was still an embryonic text.  It took a while for Congress to realize the lengths to which wealthy taxpayers and corporations would go to invent pathways through loopholes in the code to avoid taxes, and then to put the appropriate blockade up.

There is of course the same thing about billions of hours spent complying with tax requirements, coupled with costs estimates claiming this is all “wasted” effort.  Think about that.  Complying with our tax obligations is actually a privilege of citizenship, and at least a good part of the compliance “burden” is something we should be proud to do as a way to pay our fair share.  This constant talk of tax compliance as though it is inherently evil also misses the point that the tax accountants and return preparers and legal advisers (especially of course for the more sophisticated and wealthy taxpayers amongst us) are also people who are earning a living by helping their fellow citizens navigate one of their citizenship duties.  This is not “wasted” per se; much of this effort adds to GDP and is a viable part of a complex economy. You wouldn’t guess that from reading Hodge.

Even worse is Hodge’s first item of “complexity” for the income tax system that the Tax Foundation would like to see eliminated–progressive tax rates.  Please note.  The number of rates and the number of brackets has almost nothing to do with complexity.  See Jared Bernstein’s discussion of this issue, please, as well as numerous posts here on A Taxing Matter.  This is a figleaf to cover the propagandizing of the Tax Foundation on behalf of the wealthy. It is the same as their push to ensure that “everybody” (even the poor and near poor) should pay some income tax, and the wealthy should pay less.  Of course Hodge also quotes the economic theoretical “truth” that at some point “when the “tax price” of earning the next dollar of income gets too high, people will stop working to earn that extra dollar.”  However, that idea is very hard to prove, especially with our very low-rate tax system and given the different forces at play besides taxes in determining whether and how and for how much we work.  After all, while the average paycheck in the country may be in the $50,000 range for a year’s work, there are many CEOs willing to take ordinary paychecks of obscenely high amounts from $70 million a year to $700 million a year to in the billions per year.  They pay such a small percentage of that paycheck in income taxes that it doesn’t affect their willingness to hold that CEO seat one bit.  Yet on the flimsy assumptions (supported by Laffer economics that claim tax cuts create economic growth) about getting more work if taxes are less and if progressive rates are eliminated, Hodge claims a boost of GDP of 1.4 percent and 1.1 million jobs.  Quite speculative and without empirical foundation.  Certainly didn’t happen when Reagan cut taxes in his first year (and then increased them every year of his presidency thereafter).  Nor when George W. Bush’s administration put in place gigantic tax cuts for the wealthy.  (In fact, we entered the Great Recession…..)

Hodge also wants to eliminate the phaseouts on some of the tax expenditures that limit their benefit to high income taxpayers (not terribly complicated to do–tax software calculates it automatically) and claims giving rich people that money will result in .1% GDP growth.  This is, quite simply, pie in the sky made-up numbers, which any economist can do by tweaking their hypothesis to get the results they want.

Now Hodge is right about one of the individual items he mentions–the Earned Income Tax Credit phases out in a “jerky” way that is especially hard on low income workers.  Many Americans in or near poverty don’t claim the EITC, and others make errors claiming it.  This is the kind of complexity that should be reduced, and it is even possible that a uniform phase-out rate–at a much higher income level than currently used or than recommended by Hodge–would be a good solution to that complexity.

Hodge goes on to claim that we should not eliminate itemized deductions (i.e., they are quite valuable for the upper class), but that we should instead lower every single tax rate by 10%!  I heartily disagree.  Most people should use and do use the standard deduction–around 70% of taxpayers.  The only people who generally take itemized deductions are those with complex real-life economic situations (rental properties, business investments, unusually hefty medical expenses, or significant charitable contributions perhaps) and most of those are from the upper end of the income distribution.  Further, the operation of the Alternative Minimum Tax was designed to counter, in part, the ability of affluent taxpayers to amass quite a few itemized deductions (charitable contributions that are in many way quid pro quos for those taxpayers whose name is in bold letters over the building they funded or in the bulletin of the opera they made possible, etc.):  the AMT’s effectiveness has been undercut by Congressional responsiveness to lobbying from higher income taxpayers but does still act to ensure that those who aren’t in the richest group pay a more reasonable share of taxes than otherwise (It theoretically doesn’t apply to the wealthiest taxpayers because their regular tax rates should be above the rate for the AMT).   For more information on the AMT, see the series I wrote earlier on this blog, at the following post (and the links to earlier Parts therein):  What Should Congress Do About the AMT (Part 5).   It might be reasonable to say that the standard deduction should be increased to ensure that we are ensuring a sustainable living allowance for lower-income workers (which is the reason the standard deduction and personal exemption are in the code).  But we should not reduce “each rate” by 10% and thus provide a significant benefit to wealthier taxpayers.  That is most certainly not a reasonable “simplification” solution.

Of course, Hodge argues for elimination of the estate and gift tax, claiming that eliminating estate and gift taxes would raise GDP by 0.8 percent and create 159,000 new jobs while repeating the mantra that the estate tax makes it “harder to pass family businesses and farms to the next generation.”  This is hogwash, put simply.  The estate tax as currently set is a ridiculous subsidy for wealthy families: coupled with the low rate of tax on capital gains and the step-up in basis at death, it allows them to live off the income of their wealth during their lives at low tax rates (zero if the Republicans like Paul Ryan have their way); pass their estate to their heirs with very little tax due (more than 10 million dollar exemption for a couple, and all kinds of planning schemes to get around taxes on the rest); and give their heirs a step up in basis so that they will never pay tax on the appreciation on the estate from the deceased person’s lifetime.  In other words, these arguments support analmost tax-free existence for the wealthy who already have hogged an unfair share of the gains from workers’ productivity.  The claims that benefiting the wealthy in this way will result in  better economic growth and trickle down to the middle and lower class are, quite simply, unfounded and unsubstantiable.  These ideas will simply aggravate the already grievous inequality in this country that has one in four children going to bed hungry at night while do-nothing heirs inherit enormous wealth, privilege and the hubris that goes with it.

Oh, and of course he repeats the statement that “the U.S. has the highest corporate income tax”.  that is misleading, since while it has a high statutory tax rate, it does NOT college anywhere near that tax rate.  three quarters of U.S. corporations pay ZERO tax.  Many of the rest pay very little tax.  Very few pay a rate of tax that is significantly higher than our industrialized peers.  The claim that GDP would be boosted 2.3% by eliminating the corporate tax, or that wages would increase by 1.9% or that 443,000 jobs would be created are pure salesmanship.  When workers increase productivity and corporate profits grow, their wages have not grown.  That money has gone into the corporate manager/shareholder pockets instead.  Any tax cut would likely be viewed as just more gravy for the already rich owners and managers.

I could make similar counter arguments to every one of the “reforms” Hodge promotes:  corporate integration is just another tax cut for the mainly upper income distribution elite who are the managers and shareholders of corporations.  It makes no sense at all in the current economic context of this country.

Hodge also argues for keeping the “expensing of R&D costs”.  Economically, these costs should be capitalized.  A business that wants to thrive will invest in R&D because it needs to do so for business reasons, not because there is expensing.  Of course, expensing something that should be capitalized is exactly one of those distortive tax provisions that the Tax Foundation tends to argue are problematic in other contexts……

Not surprisingly, Hodge pushes the ridiculous consumption tax plans from Republicans like Ben Carson –a regressive “flat” tax that would favor wealth and put  the tax burden on workers by exempting taxes on capital gains, dividend and interest (the kinds of income wealthy people live off), Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.  All of these plans shift the burden of taxation to the middle and lower classes (from capital to labor) while protecting the wealth of wealthy people.

  • Of course they would have a Joseph Grossbauer, CEO of small business and spokesperson on behalf of the National Federation of Independent Business, to claim the taxing requirements for small businesses of making determinations based on tax rules.  Note that he complains at least as much about the frequency of changes to tax provisions–That is not an element of the tax system itself but a result of the way that Congress has grafted on policy that should be handled by spending into the tax system, in part as a way to fool the public about what it is doing, when it enacts one tax expenditure after another in favor of one corporatist interest after another.  And while I don’t doubt that some of these complaints about complexity are real, I do doubt the time claimed spent complying and the difficulty claimed for regular determinations about depreciation, employee status, and other items. Note, for example, that the reason for the confusion of what “counts” as real property for tax purposes lies with business owners who push for various tax expenditure provisions in their favor, which result in increased categories that must be examined to determine appropriate classification!   If business owners and their lobbyists would focus more on doing the right thing and less on wringing the last theoretically (aggressively speaking) possible penny out of their potential tax liabilities, tax time wouldn’t be as “taxing” as they claim.

“Complexity has nothing to do with the number of tax brackets and rates.  If taxable income were easy to define, it wouldn’t matter how many rates existed in the code; all taxpayers would have to do is look up their liabilities in a table or online calculator.”

“What makes our system so complex are the exemptions, deductions, other tax subsidies, and privileges for one type of income, industry, or activity over another. On the corporate side, these include “transfer pricing” opportunities (the ability to book income in low-tax countries and deductible expenses in high-tax countries), deferral of foreign earnings, inversions, and the many other loopholes that explain why the effective corporate rate is at least 10 percentage points below the top statutory rate (about 25 percent versus 35 percent). To be clear, not all subsidies in the tax code are poorly targeted and inefficient. Research shows the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, for example, encourage work and prevent millions of people from falling into or deeper into poverty, and children in families receiving the tax credits do better in school, are likelier to attend college, and can be expected to earn more as adults. But well-targeted, effective subsidies like the EITC and CTC are unfortunately more the exception than the rule.”

Needless to say (for anyone who has read much of this blog in the past), I don’t agree with the JEC and Laffer/Tax Foundation’s simplistic approach to tax reform of pushing for a “simpler” tax system based on fewer brackets, fewer and lower rates, exemptions of income mostly earned by the wealthy, and correspondingly less progressivity.

The taxpayers for whom a simpler tax code does make sense are the poor and the nearly poor.  They usually have much less access to sophisticated tools for tracking their income and expenses and while they often have less income and most or all of it is wage compensation from which taxes are withheld, they need easily understandable rules without “gotcha” complexities that they can apply straightforwardly.  Note that many of the poor and nearly poor in this country are also “unbanked”–meaning they don’t have enough assets to maintain bank accounts or pay the fees on accounts with low balances, and they even have trouble cashing checks when they are paid with checks.  They should be taking advantage of various provisions put in the code to help ensure that every American is able to provide for necessities–things like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and various other credits for child care and education expenses, etc.  Simplicity counts here, because simpler provisions help to ensure that those in or near poverty are more able to take advantage of all the provisions that have been put in the code for their benefit.

But the people who do not need a simpler tax code are those at the top of the income distribution and, generally speaking, corporations and businesses.  Simplicity is one of the ideas flogged by those on the right who want to eliminate corporate taxes (a benefit primarily for shareholders, which consist primarily of the wealthy and wealthier elites),  eliminate estate taxes (which would give an even greater windfall to those who inherit through no merit but merely luck of birth and add even more to the worrisome growth of inequality), or legislate a complete exclusion from tax for capital gains (which would give an even greater windfall to those who live off inherited investments or even off investments that started with some personal effort, compared to those who live off the sweat of their brows, while providing the “simplest” returns (zero taxation) to those who need it the least in order to survive and contribute to the economy).  The fact is that the wealthy are well able to make their way through the tax code with sophisticated advisers, seeking every loophole those sophisticated advisers can find.  The simpler you make the code, the more loopholes you create.  The more you cut funding for the IRS and tax enforcement generally, the harder you make it for the government to discover the loopholes or catch those who exploit them on audit.  The reason the tax provisions of most concern to big businesses and those with international investments and those with multiple types of investments (CDOs, hedge funds, private equity, partnerships of one kind or another, S Corporations, etc.) are complex is that new, detailed, specific language has to be developed to counter the loophole exploitation by those who apply hyperliteralism and avoid contextual meaning and purpose of the laws in order to have an arguable defense for a tax planning transaction designed to exploit loopholes.

That’s too many words in one sentence. The tax code is complex and can’t be put on a post card for most complex entities or wealthy individuals with many different business and money making interests because (among many more reasons, I’m sure):

  1. It must cover, in one way or another, all human and enterprise activities that could in any way involve the exchange of valuable goods or money for the benefit or one or more persons.
  2. It must do so in a way that achieves at least roughly a set of laws that can be consistently applied, with exceptions explicitly set forth, to a wide variety of taxpayers (single, married, divorced, widowed, with or without children, poor, wealthy, filthy rich, corporate owner, manager and corporate owner, controlling owner of a group of affiliated corporations or businesses, partners in various kinds of partnerships doing business–the list could go on and on) who are trusted to voluntarily comply by providing a true and accurate report of their income and expenses and taxes due
  3. It must take into account that the more sophisticated, powerful, and monied a taxpayer is the more likely that taxpayer has resources sufficient to game the system by exploiting any verbal loophole and, as evident by historical trends, will be likely to do so if the penalty is sufficiently light and the reward sufficiently great.
  4. It must respond when a loophole is exploited by closing the loophole.
  5. It must do so in a way that permits the voluntary compliance system to function as well as can be given resources available.
  6. It must make fairness–based on a principled view of what that means, such as ability to pay and benefits received–a key linchpin of the way the tax system works.  Progressivity and reduction of complexity for the poor and near poor should be high priorities. Transparency and reduction of redistributive subsidies for the rich should be significant attributes of a reformed tax code.

Of course, for years our tax system has also been burdened by the partisan obstructionism that considers it silly to think “Tea Party” or “progressive” might be indicators that a group applying for tax exempt status actually intends to engage in political activity and similar right-wing witch-hunts that affect morale at the Treasury and IRS among employees struggling to handle an ever-expanding job function.

If we wanted to make the tax code work better, we would fund the IRS sufficiently to have employees who can provide service to taxpayers more readily, and we would enact legislation to ensure that those who get paid for preparing tax returns actually know the law they are claiming to apply.  And, in fact, there are a few key provisions that we could eliminate to “simplify” the tax code and make it better across the board while ensuring that we act to protect the Earth’s future

  1. eliminate all of those tax expenditure provisions that have been in the code for decades that provide harmful subsidies to “old” fossil fuel energy (oil, gas and coal) that contribute significantly to global warming.
  2. eliminate the capital gains preferential rate, treating all income as of the same character and taxable at the current ordinary income rates  (and eliminate thereby as well the advantage of “carried interest” in private equity partnerships to those money managers who have gotten wealthy off of other people’s money)
  3. sharply restrict the number of nontaxable reorganizations (both acquisitive and divisive) by requiring at least an 80% continuity of interest in all reorganization forms for tax-free treatment (and thereby also increase the forces against growth of megalithic multinational conglomerates)
  4. limit the number of new tax expenditures ladled into the code to those that have gone through a lengthy process of consideration and review to ensure that they are targeted to the desired objective and eliminated promptly if evidence shows that they have not succeeded in their objective. Generally speaking, the complexity that is least justifiable in the code stems from addition of tax expenditures that favor one or another congressional constituency and are enacted in the tax code in ways that would be hard to do if enacted as a spending provision targeted to the favored constituency.  As Bernstein shows:

[T]he extensive set of legal subsidies to individuals or businesses through exemptions, deductions, and other tax subsidies, generally referred to as tax expenditures, cut federal income tax revenue by over $1.2 trillion last year — more than the cost of Social Security or the combined cost of Medicare and Medicaid. Moreover, as shown in the figure below, these tax breaks disproportionately benefit higher-income households, often wastefully subsidizing behavior that would occur anyway.

cross posted with ataxingmatter