Make Government Less Taxing

Americans don’t like things that are inefficient, costly or unfair. Our federal tax code seems designed to be all three, a failing exacerbated by a patchwork of economically distorting subsidies and preferences found throughout the code and elsewhere.

In a 2009 survey by the Tax Foundation, more than 80% of respondents felt the tax code was complex and that it should be completely overhauled or needed major changes. The only surprise about this result is that 20% could think otherwise.

The federal tax code has become a morass of different rates, deductions, credits, exemptions, exceptions and phase-outs, and it changes every year. The end result is that no one understands how it all works. The Government Accountability Office once presented 19 professional tax preparers with tax-return information, and not a single one generated a return that was correct. It has been estimated that Americans spend well more than six billion hours a year simply filing out tax forms—the equivalent of more than three million people working full-time all year.

Difficulty in understanding and complying with the code is just the start. Tax rates are too high. Individuals and families face a top marginal federal income tax rate in excess of 40%, and that doesn’t include state income taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, sales taxes and any number of hidden levies. Taxes this high can only hurt economic growth.

Our individual tax code is, as it should be, progressive, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in this direction. The top 10% of taxpayers pay around 70% of federal income taxes, while the bottom half of all taxpayers pay just 2%. Is it not perhaps unfair and potentially damaging to the long-term prospects for economic growth to have such a disparity?

Looking at the corporate tax code, we also see rates that are too high, at 39% when federal and state rates are combined (the highest in the developed world). And ObamaCare imposes new costs on employers and new taxes on life-saving medical devices. Sadly, the corporate tax code is just as complicated and convoluted as the individual code.

But, our nation is hurt by more than just high rates and an unfair and complex code. We also suffer from economic distortion caused by subsidies, grants and other preferences in the code and elsewhere.

There are literally thousands of such preferences. That some are for good causes is certain. Unfortunately, just as certain is the economic inefficiency caused by taking money from one group of decision makers (taxpayers) and transferring it to constituencies favored by the White House and various members and committees in Congress. From politically protected subsidies for corn, peanuts, sorghum and the like, to wasteful tax credits, grants and loans for the flavor of the day in green energy, our federal government tries to pick winners and losers to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

Trying to “pick winners and losers” is probably not an accurate description, since governments have never been very good at picking winners. For years, well-intentioned ethanol preferences have driven up the cost of gasoline and corn, all in the interest of protecting the environment. This approach was not just costly but ineffective, as even Al Gore finally admitted.

We simply have to make some changes. We need a tax code that is flatter, fairer and simpler. Our code should retain its progressivity, but it can do so with lower rates and a wider tax base, something along the lines agreed by President Reagan and a Democratic Congress in the 1980s.

We need to cut back drastically on federal subsidies and preferences. The White House seems intent to repeatedly call for cuts in “oil and gas subsidies.” Fine, but let’s also cut back on subsidies for other industries. Let’s cut agricultural subsidies, green energy subsidies, and any corporate welfare such as loan guarantees, research grants and targeted development funds. Federal subsidies for public broadcasting should be cut, as well as subsidies for Amtrak and speculative high-speed rail projects.

Fixing the tax code to make it encourage instead of discourage economic growth is critical for our nation’s long-term success as it competes in the world economy. Cutting Washington’s wasteful counterproductive efforts to take taxpayer dollars and hand them out to favored constituencies will not fully solve our deficit problem, but it would help. Putting the two together would be a strong start in solving our nation’s economic problems and making our system efficient, cost effective, and fair.