Josh Barro wrote a really interesting article about a week ago, The Tax Code Can Be Simpler. But Not Three Pages. It leads off with Carly Fiorina’s idea that the federal tax code could be replaced with three pages. This is in reference to the Hall-Rabushka legislation which, at 1,120 words would fit on three pages. It is also a flat rate tax plan, of course.
Before getting into it, I have a question: would Americans care that the tax code just got much smaller if it meant their taxes went up? Way up?! Indeed, other than demagoguing politicians, I don’t know anyone who cares what size the tax code is. That’s something for bureaucrats to worry about. The rest of just know the small bits of the tax code that we have to know. And if our taxes are really complicated, we get a professional. No one cares if the tax code is “73,000 pages.” (In fact, the tax code itself is 3,728 pages — but anyone who listens to Carly Fiorina for facts deserves the ignorance they get.)
But the thing about the tax code is that it is as complicated as it needs to be. Barro quoted Columbia Law School tax professor Michael Graetz saying, “The minute it’s passed, I’m going to call my dean and tell her to pay me only in goods.” Because in order to keep the tax plan to 1,120 words, there are no taxes on benefits. There is nothing about bartering. There is also, of course, nothing about enforcement. What happens if you just won’t pay your taxes. Oh, detail, details!
But that’s the point. I know lots of conservatives who are outraged about the carried interest loophole. How can it be that hedge fund managers can take what is clearly earned income and have it be taxed at capital gains! Very simple: the tax code allows it. But these are the very same conservatives who rant about the number of pages in the tax code — not because they care but because demagogues like Carly Fiorina have made them think that it is a great concern. Do you really doubt that after Hall-Rabushka was passed that every CEO in the nation would see their salaries go down to $1 per year? Of course they would! They’d do everything to avoid paying taxes, just like they do now.
The rest of Barro’s article is about how the tax code could be simplified and made fairer. Hooray! That’s true. I think some of the ideas are great like having the IRS automatically fill out people’s forms and then letting the tax payer make changes. But this is the fundamental problem with the so called reformacons like him: all they do is give cover to the truly vile plans of the conservative movement. If the tax code is actually going to be made simpler, it isn’t going to be done so by Barro’s party: the Republicans. I don’t see the Democrats doing it either, but they stand a much better chance of doing so.
Tax “simplification” and tax “reform” are just euphemisms on the right for changing the tax code so the middle class pays more and the rich pay less. Fiorina is not pushing Hall-Rabushka because it is “simple”; she’s pushing it because it is a flat tax. As the Tax Policy Center put it, “The family exemptions make the flat tax progressive for low-income households. But at the high end of the income distribution, the tax is regressive, just like sales taxes and VATs.” In other words: middle class tax hike, upper class tax cut.
I’m all for discussing better ways to run the country. But I find it vaguely offensive when Josh Barro does it. The truth is that his actual policy positions put him well inside the Democratic Party. Yet he still carries the intellectual water of the Republicans. So candidates like Fionia can run around talking about how “conservatives” have all these great ideas for tax reform. Great propaganda! But they will never get into any Republican tax proposal.