Framework for tax reform

Posted: Feb 14, 2005 12:00 AM

In the 1980s I often said that if you tax something you get less of it, if you subsidize something you get more of it. This basic premise is at the heart of incentive-based economics. In the 1980s we had a tax system that disproportionately taxed work, savings and investment and subsidized leisure, welfare and unemployment. The incentives were so skewed that we were retarding economic growth and endangering our future standard of living. Unfortunately, with the exception of the last four years, we have been steadily exacerbating an ever-widening tax wedge between workers and incentives to work, save and invest.

The president's bipartisan Advisory Panel on Tax Reform meets for the first time this week. It is chaired by former Sens. Connie Mack, R-Fla., and John Breaux, D-La. The president could not have picked two better chairmen.

At their first meeting, the panel has chosen to hear from a diverse and distinguished group of tax specialists, one of whom is especially noteworthy, Stephen Entin, president of the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation. Entin brings to the panel a valuable perspective on tax reform. He served as deputy assistant secretary in the Reagan Treasury Department under Under Secretary Norman Ture, one of the great tax theorists of the second half of the 20th century.

After leaving Treasury, Ture founded IRET and brought Entin along with him. Together they made seminal contributions to the study of tax theory and tax policy development. Based on their work together, Entin was a valuable adviser to the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform in 1996, which I chaired at the request of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Ture was one of the unsung heroes of the supply-side economics movement, and Entin is continuing the tradition he established of devising practical policy prescriptions grounded in rigorous scholarship. Ture helped revive and elaborate a neoclassical, microeconomic-based approach to the study of macroeconomics. In the process, he provided policymakers with a persuasive alternative to Keynesian economics.

Entin's unique contribution to the president's Advisory Tax Panel this week is not any particular tax reform proposal but rather a principle-based framework for tax reform that provides a benchmark against which the panel can evaluate and compare alternative reform proposals. The framework has been published as a paper ("A Framework for Tax Reform") by the Institute for Policy Innovation (, co-authored by IPI Senior Research Fellow Lawrence Hunter.

Following in the Ture tradition, Entin and Hunter argue that a sound tax system should achieve two purposes: raise adequate revenue for government operations and "price" government so voters know how much they are being charged for public goods and services.

Further, the authors contend there are three general principles that any sound tax system should satisfy: 1) It should be economically efficient, minimizing the unavoidable economic distortion created by any system of taxation; 2) it should be technically efficient, minimizing inevitable compliance and preparation burdens on taxpayers and administrative and enforcement costs for the government; and 3) it should be politically efficient, distorting as little as possible voters' choices regarding the amount and the composition of public goods and services produced by the government.

Finally, Entin and Hunter identify four attributes of a sound tax system. The first attribute is neutrality, which means measuring income correctly and then levying taxes evenly, at equal rates, on all uses of income by all income producers. From this design principle follows several specific design implications: Multiple rates of taxation and multiple layers of taxation should be avoided; investment outlays and purchases of inventories should be deducted in the year the outlay is made (expensed) rather than depreciated; dual taxation of Schedule-C corporate income at the corporate and individual level should be eliminated; and the transfer tax on estates and gifts should be eliminated.

The second attribute of a sound tax system is visibility, which means the tax should be transparent to taxpayers so it is clear how much government costs and who is paying for it. A third attribute is fairness, which the authors define to mean "equal treatment under the law, equal treatment for those equally situated, and no discrimination among taxpayers unequally situated unless it is consistent with the purposes and principles of a sound tax system." The authors conclude that since a fundamental purpose of democratic government is to protect life and property, all people have a proportionate obligation to pay taxes to help pay for the protections afforded by government.

The fourth attribute of a sound tax system is simplicity, which means that the tax code should not be unnecessarily complicated beyond what is required of it to be consistent with the purposes and principles of a sound tax system. Finally, Entin and Hunter conclude:

Tax reform proposals should be judged on whether they will improve the functioning of the economy, raise living standards, reduce compliance and enforcement costs, and promote better government.

Reform proposals that are designed with the principles and attributes mapped out in this framework will have a far greater chance of leading to desirable outcomes than plans cobbled together with no vision and no guideposts. In my opinion, the president's Tax Advisory Panel could do no better than heed Entin and Hunter's advice and adopt their framework for tax reform as the panel's own criteria that they offer to the president.

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