Brookings Institution Comments on Tax Reform

As the topic of tax reform will be heating up this year, five analysts from the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project have released a paper called "A Dozen Economic Facts About Tax Reform." It is certainly a useful primer on how the tax system has changed over time and the promise and difficulties involved in changing it.

Those dozen facts are:

  1. America collects lower revenue than other industrialized countries.
  2. Tax expenditures represent a large share of total government spending.
  3. The tax code subsidizes some activities and penalizes others.
  4. The tax system has become less progressive over time.
  5. Virtually all American families, even low-income families, pay taxes.
  6. There is a limit to what tax reform can accomplish.
  7. Individuals and the economy will feel every approach to tax reform.
  8. The benefits from tax expenditures are not equally shared.
  9. Cutting individual income tax rates would modestly increase the earnings of the typical American family while substantially increasing the federal budget deficit.
  10. Deficit-financed tax cuts do not spur economic growth in the long run.
  11. Corporate tax reform can improve U.S. competitiveness in several different ways—but not necessarily all at once.
  12. Addressing the deficit will require policy solutions equal to the size of the problem.

First, the paper provides context by showing how the size of our revenue compares to other countries and how the system has changed over time. It also talks about the size of tax expenditures in the context of the federal budget (spoiler alert: they're huge). Interestingly, they quantify what the top marginal tax rate could be if different reform options were taken with different revenue targets. For example, converting the mortgage interest deduction to a 15 percent credit, eliminating the state and local tax deduction, and capping the value of the health care exclusion would allow the top to be lowered from 39.6 percent to 38 percent while increasing revenue by $100 billion in 2015.

The paper is accompanied by an event this morning with multiple all-star panels, including former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, former CBO and OMB director (and CRFB board member) Alice Rivlin, and former Council of Economic Advisers chair Martin Feldstein. You can watch the event on C-SPAN here and read the paper here.