A New, Progressive Economic Strategy, Part 3: Tax Reform

The most dispiriting feature of this year’s economic debates, apart from their fierce partisanship, is the absence of a broad and encompassing view of what the American economy needs. In this series of essays, we’re laying out a new, progressive strategy to advance the central goal of economic policy – namely, to ensure ample job opportunities, strong and widespread income gains, and upward mobility for most people. The previous two blog-essays described, first, a series of initiatives to equip businesses and workers with much of what they need to succeed economically, and second a new approach to contain the growth of federal spending so we can control long-term budget deficits. This week, in part 3, we turn to taxes. The challenge is to rethink and reconfigure the federal tax system, so we can raise the revenues we need in ways which reinforce job creation and income gains.  

Progressives should approach this challenge in three ways, covering in turn corporate taxes, personal income taxes, and energy taxes. The first step involves ending the major corporate tax subsidies for influential industries, much as our spending initiative would end large, industry-specific spending subsidies. These corporate tax entitlements range from tax breaks crafted for oil, gas and wind energy producers, and special inventory rules for certain exporters (and not for U.S. firms producing the same products for the American market), to billions of dollars in privileged treatment for insurance companies, credit unions, and housing developers. Ending these and other corporate tax breaks could not only set back influence-peddling for a while and simplify the corporate tax code; it also would raise a boatload of new revenues. Half of those new revenues should go to deficit reduction, while the other half goes to lower a corporate tax rate that’s currently one of the world’s highest. To the modest degree that the lower corporate taxes in Europe and East Asia encourage American multinationals to shift more of their operations abroad, this approach should help create more conditions for domestic job creation.  And we can amplify this effect with a measure described earlier in this series, sharp cuts in the payroll taxes of employers who expand their overall workforce and payrolls. In any case, ending tax subsidies for influential interests will make the entire economy more efficient, because companies that never qualified for special treatment would no longer have to compete at a disadvantage with tax-protected companies for capital and skilled workers.  

Next, progressives should apply a similar and more sweeping approach to the personal income tax. The current, staggeringly complicated system is unsalvageable. Nearly 43 percent of all households pay no income taxes at all; and few of the 90 million households that do pay income tax can figure out their own liability. The responsiveness and accountability of a democracy can erode quickly when government is financed by a system that doesn’t affect more than two-fifths of the people and isn’t understood by the rest. The current income tax also is plainly unfair:  Since different forms of income and spending are taxed differently, people with the same incomes, but earned or spent in different ways, bear very different tax burdens.   

Progressives should make a clean sweep of this entire mess by creating a single personal exemption of $100,000 to $150,000 that would supplant all current personal deductions, from mortgage interest and child care expenses to capital gains and employer-provided health insurance. In one swoop, between 84 percent and 95 percent of all families would owe no income taxes, and the system would return to its origins, when it affected only the very well-to-do. The affluent also would claim the $100,000 to $150,000 exemption, plus an unlimited deduction for new retirement savings. But every other dollar would be taxed at 25 percent rate, regardless of whether the taxpayer earned or received it as salary, dividends, stock options, the “carried interest” of hedge and private equity fund managers, foreign royalties, or lottery winnings. This is progressive tax simplification with a vengeance.  

Of course, a 25 percent tax on the income of only a small share of Americans will produce much lower revenues than the current system; and taking most people off the income tax could create powerful new pressures for more spending, if they know they won’t have to pay anything for it.  So a new tax has to take the place of the income tax for most people; and the best candidate is an 8 percent to 10 percent value-added tax (VAT) that would cover everything people consume, except home purchases and rent, medical care, educational costs, and energy. Since the VAT would fall only on what people consume, not on what they save, it should have the same economic effect as the unlimited deduction for new retirement saving for higher-income people.  Together, these provisions come close to eliminating taxes on new savings, enabling the country to finance more of its own investment and deficits without borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars a year from China, Japan, and Middle Eastern oil states. And the Earned Income Tax Credit can be scaled up to offset the cost of the VAT for lower-income families.  

We exempt energy from the VAT, because energy is the focus of a third major tax reform, the enactment of a carbon-based tax to address climate change. Economists have long favored this approach over a cap-and-trade program, mainly because cap-and-trade creates more volatility in energy prices, which in turn harms the overall economy and weakens the incentives to develop new climate-friendly fuels and technologies. A direct, carbon-based tax, which will adjust the prices of different forms of energy in direct proportion to their harmful effects on the climate, makes more sense economically and environmentally. The last question for progressive tax reform is what we do with the $200 billion a year in new revenues which a serious commitment to address climate change would generate. Since the point of climate policy is not to make people poorer, but only to induce everyone to use less climate-damaging forms of energy – most notably, phasing down coal – the answer is to recycle the carbon-tax revenues through other, progressive tax cuts.  One obvious candidate is payroll tax cuts, which would further reduce the costs for businesses of creating new jobs or raising the pay of existing jobs.

How much of these carbon-tax revenues could ultimately go to cutting payroll taxes, and how much might be reserved for deficit reduction, will depend on how successful we are in the other parts of this economic plan. If progressives can unwind special-interest spending and tax subsidies, contain health care costs, and put in place a broad VAT, the vast majority of carbon-tax revenues can go for tax cuts. Yet, the final results of all of these changes will also depend on how well we navigate the final issues for this plan, involving our role in the global economy. Those matters, including financial regulation, will be the focus of part four, next week.

For background on this series on a New, Progressive Economic Strategy, please read: