Michael Graetz's tax reform idea, which Graetz pushes at every possible juncture like a little kid trying to let the teacher know that he really, really needs to go to the bathroom, has been getting some play lately, so I thought I would address it.
On the plus side, I decided not to call it a "bad idea" in the heading of this entry, because that would be overstating things considerably. Bad compared to what? Surely better than present law. But bad, I would say, compared to some other prominently discussed tax reform ideas, such as the X-tax or the cash flow consumption tax.
Graetz's big idea is to combine the income tax with the consumption tax, having a flat-rate version of the latter apply to everyone while the income tax applies only to people with taxable income above $X (say, $100,000). In his 1997 book, in order to make the rates sound good, he very sneakily quoted estimates concerning revenue-neutral tax rates that were unrealistic because they had what tax analysts call a "cliff" like you wouldn't believe. To illustrate, suppose that his income tax rate was 25%, and that his version would only apply to people who earned $100,00 or more. He pitched rates that were based on the idea that someone with income of $99,999.99 would pay no income tax, while someone at $100,000 would pay $25,000. He realized that no sensible system could actually be designed this way, but wanted his sales pitch to sound good and evidently did not much care if this reflected trickery.
But on to the Graetz plan. Its main point is to eliminate, he says, 100,000,000 unneeded tax returns. After the gambit I described above, one is hardly inclined to trust him on this number. But yes, all else equal, it would be nice if fewer people, especially in the lower ranges, needed to worry about filing income tax returns.
Keep in mind, however, that poorer people would still have to figure out income, earnings, or some such thing for various other purposes, such as the earned income tax credit (whatever form it would now take), along with welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, rent subsidies, etc. So he's really reducing compliance burdens for the middle class, not the poor. Also, what about home mortgage interest deductions, charitable contribution deductions, etc.? Not that we necessarily need these things, the former especially, but does it really seem politically plausible that we won't still have them? So we are now probably down way below 100,000,000 fewer returns.
Thus, the benefit Graetz trumpets is being greatly oversold. How about what he doesn't do?
The really big money, in terms of administrative waste from our current system, is in business taxation and the upper income echelons, not the folks at the bottom, who may find their tax returns annoying but only spend limited resources on planning and return preparation. Think of all the billions of dollars that businesses spend on tax planning, ranging from the totally permissible to outright sheltering. A company can't even raise funds without a lot of wasteful tax planning going on in order to determine what labels to put, for federal income tax purposes, on the instruments it issues (e.g. debt, equity, options, etc.). Rich people as well as businesses spend enormous resources on tax planning and compliance, constituting waste from a societal standpoint even if it is completely above-board. All this is due far less to deliberate income tax preferences than to structural problems with the existing income tax (the realization requirement, the debt versus equity distinction in corporate tax law, etc.).
This enormous and costly mess would remain intact under Graetz's scheme, except perhaps for a minor benefit from income tax rate reduction, whereas the X-tax and the cash flow consumption tax would reduce the tax planning and compliance issues very substantially.
So Graetz's plan, which is predicated on reducing administrative and compliance costs, almost completely misses the predominant source of such costs. Good job, Michael.
Lately Graetz has been saying that the way to transition into his system politiclaly is by repealing the regular tax and letting the alternative minimum tax (AMT) take over. This suggesion is not entirely unmotivated, I would guess, by a tincture of vanity. Graetz proposed replacement of the regular tax with the AMT back in the 1980s, and thus he may think that he will look like a prophet if it actually happens now. By the way, he failed to foresee in the 1980s what a mess it would be when both systems were applying at the same time, as has been increasingly happening recently.
What he conveniently overlooks today is the fact that the AMT these days is rather a mess, and not really the system one would choose as a tax reform template. For example, it does not allow personal exemptions for dependent children, whereas family size clearly should affect tax liability. (See my recent article, posted on SSRN, entitled "Households and the Fiscal System," available here) The AMT also unreasonably denies what the Code calls "miscellaneous itemized deductions" for certain costs of earning income. And the AMT doesn't allow state and local income tax deductions to individuals. Thanks a lot, say the blue states. In truth, there is something to be said for denying these deductions, but once again this is an issue that needs to be tackled directly. We are not going to back into it just by purporting to use the AMT, and once we are adjusting the base to include elements of the regular tax it is no longer quite true, in any meaningful way, that we are keeping one tax and dropping the other.
Although I am expecting little from the Tax Reform Commission given the overall political context (otherwise I might hope for something, as there are some very good people there), I would certainly be disappointed if the Graetz plan was the best they could come up with. There are much better plans out there, and I hope they will have the good sense to say so.