The Benefit and The Burden Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take

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THE UNITED STATES TAX CODE HAS UNDERGONE NO SERIOUS REFORM SINCE 1986. Since then, loopholes, exemptions, credits, and deductions have distorted its clarity, increased its inequity, and frustrated our ability to govern ourselves. By tracing the history of our own tax system and assessing the way other countries have solved similar problems, Bruce Bartlett explores the surprising answers to all these issues, giving a sense of the tax code’s many benefits—and its inevitable burdens. From one of the most respected political and economic thinkers, advisers, and writers of our time, The Benefit and the Burden is a thoughtful and surprising argument for American tax reform.



The tax code is like a garden. Without regular attention, it grows weeds that will soon overwhelm the plants and flowers. Unfortunately, no serious weeding had been done to the tax code since 1986. In the meantime, many new plants and flowers have been added without regard to the overall aesthetic of the garden. The result today is an overgrown mess. There is a desperate need to pull the weeds, cut away the brush, and rethink some of the plantings to restore order, beauty, and functionality to the garden.

At its core, the purpose of any tax system is to raise the revenue needed to pay the government’s bills. Ideally, one would like to start with a clear philosophy of what government should do and how much it should spend, and only then decide how to raise the revenue to pay for it. The size and composition of spending are critical determinants of the nature of a proper tax system.

A small government, such as we had in the nineteenth century, could be funded almost entirely by tariffs and taxes on alcohol and tobacco. A larger government, even one as small as we had in the 1920s, required a much broader tax base. A Social Security system required a payroll tax and so on.

The problem we have today is that there has been a serious divergence between the size of government that people want and what they are willing to pay for. The idea that deficits are an irresponsible passing on of debt to future generations is no longer sufficient to support a tax system capable of raising adequate revenue to finance current spending. Nor is there the political will to cut spending to the level people are willing to pay. At the same time, no one believes this trend is sustainable.

A debate about tax reform may help clarify the role of government in the twenty-first century. The public misunderstands basic facts about the tax system. Polls show that people consistently believe the federal tax burden to be significantly higher than it actually is, and few know that close to half of all tax filers either pay no federal income taxes at all or get a refund; that is, they have a negative tax rate.

The purpose of this book is to walk readers through the fundamentals of taxation at the simplest level: What is an effective tax rate? How does that differ from the statutory rates in the 1099 form? What is a marginal tax rate? What is the tax base? Why are different forms of income taxed differently? What is a tax expenditure? Is that the same thing as a tax loophole?

To cover a vast amount of material in a small number of pages and to make the discussion comprehensible, a lot of detail has been sacrificed and many nuances have been glossed over. No one should attempt to use this book to prepare their tax returns. The questions anyone might have about how the tax system affects them personally should be directed to a tax professional.


I have tried to be fair. That is, I have attempted to cover the waterfront and present all the issues and various alternatives and options accurately and without distortion. But I haven’t tried too hard to hide my biases, either.

I believe that federal revenues will need to rise as a share of GDP in coming years to pay for the cost of an aging society and stabilize the nation’s finances. I think it is unrealistic to try to accomplish that solely by cutting spending. I also believe that should the need for higher revenues be accepted by Congress, it would be better to raise those additional revenues by taxing consumption rather than raising tax rates. But the wealthy will also have to increase their contribution. If they don’t, the rest of us will have to pay more.

I think it is irresponsible to view tax expenditures as fundamentally different from spending. Many conservatives and libertarians foolishly think every provision of the tax code that reduces revenue is per se good because it shrinks the size of government and allows people to spend their own money. This is nonsense. Any tax provision that causes economic resources to be utilized differently from their use in a free market—as all tax expenditures do by definition—cannot meaningfully be distinguished from direct spending in terms of government control over these resources. It is myopic in the extreme to view all tax cuts as good and all spending as bad, whether from a philosophical or an economic point of view.

While I do not present my own plan for tax reform, if it were up to me, I would institute a value-added tax (VAT) and use the revenue to make obvious fixes in the tax code. I would abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax and reduce the corporate tax rate, and put in place a tax that can be raised gradually over time to pay for rising entitlement spending. One idea might be to abolish the payroll tax for Medicare and earmark VAT revenues to pay for Medicare. That way, everyone will have an incentive to control Medicare costs, and at least some of the tax will be borne by its beneficiaries.


The Further Readings appended to each chapter are not intended to be comprehensive. Their purpose is twofold: first, to give those curious about researching the topic themselves a starting point to begin; second, to document a few specific points in lieu of footnotes. Hopefully, readers will have no difficulty determining from the authors and titles which publications are relevant.

I have tried to limit myself to recent publications and emphasized those that are freely available online. Growing numbers of organizations have posted all of their publications online. These include the Congressional Budget Office (www.cbo.gov), Joint Committee on Taxation (www.jct.gov), U.S. Government Accountability Office (www.gao.gov), and National Bureau of Economic Research (www.nber.org), among others. The Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Policy also makes available a number of important tax policy documents that I reference (www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/Pages/tax-reform.aspx). And many of the nation’s top law reviews now post all of their recent issues online for free. (A list is available at http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/lawreviews.)

Many of the academic articles I have listed are available with a simple search. I recommend Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com). Type the title of an article you are interested in finding into the search engine, and often you will find a free copy. It is common for university professors to post all their work on personal websites or at the Social Science Research Network (www.ssrn.com). This is especially so for economists and law professors. Google Scholar also provides lists of articles similar to the one you have searched and those that have referenced it. If you search for a known classic in a particular field, you will often find almost everything on the topic ever published in an academic journal ranked in order of importance.

If such sources don’t work, try local libraries. Almost all now have powerful databases available online that are freely accessible for anyone with a library card and an Internet connection. My personal library in Fairfax Country, Virginia, for example, provides access to a database called ProQuest that makes available hundreds of newspapers, law reviews, and academic journals. In the event that the one I am looking for isn’t available, the Virginia State Library in Richmond has additional databases.

Many universities now provide limited access to their library databases for alumni. And many of the commercial publishers of academic journals now allow people to buy copies of individual articles. The price is usually excessive, but may be worth it in some cases.


Insofar as the tax law is concerned, the resources of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are essential. It periodically publishes surveys of tax issues to inform members of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee and help them prepare for hearings. Since many members of these committees are not lawyers, JCT reports tend to be relatively accessible to nonspecialists, yet are authoritative.

I would also recommend reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Unfortunately, CRS distributes its publications only through congressional offices. However, most become publicly available and are often posted online through the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org/sgp/crs) and Open CRS (http://opencrs.com). Your representative or senator can always supply you with a CRS report if you know it exists.

On the economics of taxation, the premier research organization is the National Bureau of Economic Research. On a weekly basis, it publishes research by the top public finance economists in the United States. Its working papers are available for a modest fee, and all of its out-of-print books and journals are available free. One that I have referenced frequently is Tax Policy and the Economy, published annually.

Equally valuable is the Tax Policy Center (TPC, www.taxpolicycenter.org). It is especially useful for those researching topical tax proposals. TPC often posts revenue estimates and distribution tables for recent tax initiatives that are equal in quality to those produced by the JCT and the Treasury. There is also a wealth of historical data on the tax system that I have relied upon heavily in writing this book. Another good source is the Tax Foundation (www.taxfoundation.org). It tilts to the right side of the political spectrum, but its numbers are solid.

Regarding international tax issues, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris (OECD, www.oecd.org) is a central data source. It maintains an extensive tax database with files easily downloadable into spreadsheets. The OECD covers only major market-oriented economies, however. The best source for tax data on other countries is an annual report from the World Bank called “Paying Taxes.” The international accounting firm PWC compiles the data, which are available free to download (www.pwc.com/payingtaxes).

PWC also has a website with detailed information on the tax systems of virtually every country; this information is free except for a registration requirement (www.pwc.com/gx/en/worldwide-tax-summaries/index.jhtml). The international accounting firm KPMG produces an annual report called “Competitiveness Alternatives” that contains comparable tax data oriented more toward corporations. It is free to download (www.competitivealternatives.com).

Two indispensable journals in the field of tax policy are the National Tax Journal and Tax Notes. The former is published by the National Tax Association (http://ntanet.org). Recent issues are available only to members, but issues more than two years old are freely available back to 1988. The latter is a weekly magazine published by Tax Analysts (www.taxanalysts.com). It is expensive but invaluable. It is probably available online at any good university library. Another useful publication is the Statistics of Income Bulletin, which is published by the IRS and freely available on its website.

© 2012 Bruce Bartlett

Chapter 1
A Brief History of Federal Income Taxation

As every schoolchild knows, following the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation governed the United States from 1781 to 1789. But the government established by the Articles proved to have a fatal weakness in the area of taxation. The federal government depended on the states to provide it with revenue, and like all taxpayers, the states didn’t much enjoy paying taxes to Washington. The federal government soon had a financial crisis. It lacked the revenue to function adequately, and so a constitutional convention was assembled to write a new basic law for the nation.

The Constitution, which replaced the Articles, gave the federal government independent taxing power so that it was no longer dependent on the states for revenue. The precise terms of the government’s taxing power are surprisingly vague. It is free to tax what it likes, subject to just two constraints: exports may not be taxed, and the federal government is prohibited from levying a direct tax unless it is proportionate to the population. The main purpose of the latter clause was to limit the federal government’s ability to tax slaves—one of the many compromises made by the Founding Fathers to accommodate the South’s “peculiar institution.”

Initially there was resistance to federal taxation, especially the whiskey tax, which led to a rebellion in 1794. But after Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had the federal government assume state debts from the war, state taxes fell. On balance, the tax burden declined.


From the beginning, the federal government’s primary revenue source was the tariff. This led to continuing tensions between the northern states, where manufacturing was the dominant industry—manufacturers favored high, protective tariffs—and the southern states, where agriculture was the dominant industry and tariffs were thus unpopular. Interestingly, one argument for raising revenue through tariffs was that it was a progressive form of taxation, one that takes more, proportionately, from the rich than the poor. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1811 in a letter to Thaddeus Kociuszko, “The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied. The poor man, who uses nothing but what is made in his own farm or family, or within his own country, pays not a farthing of tax to the General Government.”

Until the Civil War, tariffs constituted about 90 percent of all federal revenues. The balance came mainly from sales of federal lands. On the eve of the war, total federal revenues were $53.5 million, of which $49.6 million came from customs duties. Federal revenues consumed about 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP); they have averaged 18.5 percent of GDP since World War II.

The war increased the need for revenue. By 1866 federal revenues were ten times greater than they had been before the war. An important innovation was the creation of the first federal income tax in 1861. As the war progressed, the government’s revenue needs increased, and it raised the income tax. By 1866 income taxes constituted 55 percent of federal revenues. But even at the end of the war, the top rate was just 10 percent on incomes over $10,000 (equivalent to $142,000 today).

The unpopularity of the income tax led to its expiration in 1872. To replace the lost revenue, the federal government expanded the taxation of alcohol and tobacco. By 1900 these taxes constituted 43 percent of federal revenue. Customs duties raised 41 percent.

In 1894, Democrats attempted to revive the income tax in order to finance a reduction in tariffs, which fell heavily on the farmers and workers who constituted their base. A 2 percent flat-rate income tax was enacted on incomes over $4,000 (about $105,000 today). However, the following year the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional in the case of Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. (1895), even though the Civil War income tax had been found to be constitutional in Springer v. United States (1880). The Court found that the income tax was a direct tax and not apportioned uniformly.

Although it was widely believed among legal scholars that the Supreme Court erred in the Pollock decision, this ruling nevertheless effectively foreclosed any further legislative efforts regarding an income tax without a change in the Constitution.

Growth of the Progressive movement and continuing agitation for tariff cuts kept up the pressure for an income tax. In 1909 President William Howard Taft, a Republican, endorsed a constitutional amendment to permit one. In part it was a delaying tactic to fend off increasing support for tariff cuts, which would have angered the GOP’s base among manufacturers.


The proposed Sixteenth Amendment passed both the House and the Senate surprisingly easily, but ratification by the states was slow. The last state, Delaware, didn’t ratify it until 1913, just days before Woodrow Wilson became only the second Democratic president since before the Civil War.

Wilson brought with him a Democratic Congress, which quickly enacted legislation reducing tariffs and creating a permanent income tax. The 1913 act imposed a 1 percent tax rate on all those with incomes above a personal exemption of $3,000 (about $66,000 today) and a top rate of 7 percent on those with incomes above $500,000 (about $11 million today). Consequently, few people paid substantial income taxes. But that changed with the outbreak of World War I. Anticipating U.S. involvement, the government raised tax rates in 1914 and 1916. The United States’ formal entry into the war in 1917 led to a further rise.

By 1918 the lowest rate of taxation was up to 6 percent on incomes over $1,000 (about $14,000 today), and the top rate was 77 percent on incomes over $1 million (about $14 million today). Although taxes were quickly reduced after the war, they were not lowered to their prewar level. By 1920 the bottom rate was down only to 4 percent, and the top rate fell to 73 percent. The thresholds were unchanged, but there was considerable inflation, which lowered the real income levels at which tax rates became effective.

The desire for significant income tax cuts helped Republican Warren Harding win the White House in 1920. He appointed the financier Andrew Mellon as his Treasury secretary, and Mellon began a decade-long effort to bring down the wartime tax rates. Kept on in his position by Calvin Coolidge, Mellon succeeded in getting the bottom tax rate down to just 0.375 percent in 1929 and the top rate down to 24 percent. However, in the process the threshold for the top rate was reduced to $100,000 (about $1.3 million today).

The Great Depression decimated federal finances. Revenues fell more than half between 1930 and 1932, while relief measures caused spending to rise 40 percent. In 1932 Herbert Hoover asked Congress to raise taxes to reduce the deficit. The bottom rate went back up to 4 percent and the top rate increased to 63 percent. In dollar terms, however, the largest increases were for excise taxes on a wide variety of goods and services, including gasoline, telephones, tires, and many others.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first major contribution to tax policy came in 1935, when he asked Congress to raise taxes on the rich. This move was driven less by revenue needs than by fairness. In a message to Congress on June 19, he said, “People know that vast personal incomes come not only through the effort or ability or luck of those who receive them, but also because of the opportunities for advantage which government itself contributes. Therefore, the duty rests upon the government to restrict such incomes by very high taxes.”


Privately Roosevelt worried about the growing political support for socialist and crackpot schemes. To keep them in check, he had to increase the perception of fairness in the capitalist system. “I want to save our system, the capitalistic system,” he told an emissary of the archconservative newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. To do so, Roosevelt said, “it may be necessary to throw to the wolves the forty-six men who are reported to have incomes in excess of one million dollars a year.”

The 1935 tax bill raised the top rate to 79 percent, but also raised the income threshold at which the top rate applied, from $1 million to $5 million (about $78 million in today’s dollars). It was reported that only one person in America, John D. Rockefeller Jr., paid taxes at the top income tax rate.

The institution of Social Security that same year also had a major impact on taxation. Roosevelt insisted that it be financed conservatively to impress upon people that it was an earned benefit, not a giveaway welfare program. People had to pay into Social Security to get benefits; it was financed with a flat-rate tax of 2 percent; and revenues went into a trust fund, not unlike a private pension fund.

Social Security taxes began being collected in 1937, but the first benefits weren’t paid out until 1940. The payroll tax constituted a significant tax increase on the working population, most of whom paid no federal income taxes. Many economists believe that this increase was a major contributor to the recession of 1937–38 after several years of double-digit real growth in the economy. For three years the payroll tax took money out of the economy before benefit payments started putting it back in again.

World War II led to a drastic expansion of federal taxation. With the top rate already at virtually a confiscatory level after 1935, there was limited scope for raising significant additional revenues from the rich. The tax base had to expand to include the middle and working classes previously exempt from income taxes. On the eve of war only about 3 percent of Americans paid any income taxes. By the end of the war the rate was up to 30 percent. There were fewer than 4 million taxable returns in 1939. By 1943 this figure was up to more than 40 million.

During the war the bottom tax rate rose from 4 percent to 23 percent on incomes over $500 (about $6,000 today). The top rate increased from 79 percent to 94 percent on incomes above $200,000 (about $2.4 million today). Although tax rates were reduced after the war, the reduction was modest due to growth in the national debt and fears of inflation, which prohibited a large cut in federal revenues that would have increased the budget deficit. By 1949 the bottom income tax rate was down to just 16.6 percent and the top rate fell to 82.1 percent.

Concerns about Soviet expansionism prevented the sort of demobilization and cuts in military spending that accompanied previous major wars. Moreover, by 1950 the United States was again involved in a shooting war, this time in Korea. Consequently there was little scope for tax reduction throughout the 1950s, reinforced by Dwight Eisenhower’s opposition to deficit spending. The bottom tax rate stayed at 20 percent throughout the 1950s, while the top rate remained above 90 percent.


By 1960 there was general agreement among economists that the economy needed a boost. Keynesian economists, who increasingly dominated economic discussions, wanted the federal government to increase federal spending and the budget deficit to increase aggregate demand and raise growth. While John F. Kennedy was sympathetic to the Keynesian argument, he worried about inflation and the precarious position of the dollar. He therefore resisted the recommendations of his economic advisers.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills convinced Kennedy that a fiscal stimulus could just as well be done on the tax side as the spending side. A big cut in tax rates could serve the dual purpose of stimulating the supply and demand sides of the economy. It was also less likely to upset financial markets and was easier to enact, politically, than an equivalent increase in spending.

In 1963 Kennedy asked Congress to reduce the top income tax rate to 65 from 91 percent, and the bottom rate to 14 from 20 percent. Unfortunately he was assassinated before congressional action could be completed. Lyndon Johnson finished the job in 1964. The final bill was close to Kennedy’s proposal, except that the top rate was reduced only to 70 percent.

By the end of the 1960s inflation was becoming the nation’s number one economic problem. Keynesian economics recommended a tax increase to reduce aggregate demand. Reluctantly Johnson supported a surtax in 1968 that temporarily raised everyone’s income taxes by 10 percent. The impact on inflation was modest and due largely to a recession that began in December 1969.

Although more and more economists concluded that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy was primarily responsible for inflation, the Keynesians had enough influence to prevent any permanent tax cuts during the 1970s. They believed that budget deficits were primarily responsible for inflation. Tax cuts would make it worse.

However, one of the most important ways that inflation harms the economy is by pushing people into higher tax brackets. This is the main reason federal revenues rose from 17.3 percent of GDP in 1971 to 19 percent in 1980. Marginal tax rates also increased for the same reason. According to the Treasury Department, for a four-person family with the median income, the marginal income tax rate—the tax on each additional dollar earned—rose from 19 to 24 percent over the same period. The marginal rate on a family with twice the median income went from 28 to 43 percent.


In the 1980 presidential campaign Ronald Reagan promised to replicate the Kennedy tax cut and reduce rates across the board. He supported the tax proposal sponsored by Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and Sen. Bill Roth of Delaware. As a member of Kemp’s staff, I had a key role in developing this legislation.

Reagan’s tax cut, enacted in 1981, reduced the top rate from 70 to 50 percent and the bottom rate from 14 to 11 percent. Reagan also supported the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which raised the bottom rate to 15 percent but reduced the top rate to just 28 percent. His successor, George H. W. Bush, agreed to a budget deal in 1990 that raised the top rate to 31 percent. Not only did this action undermine his conservative support in 1992, but it also poisoned the well for future tax reforms. The 1986 act was a deal in which the wealthy gave up their tax preferences in return for a lower top rate, but when the top rate was increased in 1990, the preferences were not restored.

Having broken the deal that underlay the 1986 reform, Bush made it easier for Bill Clinton to go back to the same well and raise the top rate to 39.6 percent in 1993. However, it is seldom noted that Clinton raised the threshold for the top rate from $86,500 to $250,000 ($500,000 for couples), equivalent to $375,000 ($750,000 for couples) today.

Although Republicans predicted an economic apocalypse from the 1993 tax increase, the opposite occurred, and a period of exceptionally rapid growth followed. Also, contrary to Republican predictions that the new revenue would be spent and not reduce the deficit, spending and the deficit both fell. Federal outlays fell from 22.1 percent of GDP in 1992 to 18.2 percent of GDP in Clinton’s last year in office; revenues rose from 17.5 percent of GDP to 20.6 percent of GDP. The deficit went from 4.7 percent of GDP to a surplus of 2.4 percent of GDP over the same period, a remarkable improvement of 7.1 percent of GDP. Thus, ironically, a liberal Democrat turned out to be America’s most fiscally conservative president since Calvin Coolidge.

In the 2000 election Republican George W. Bush campaigned on the idea that the budget surplus was dangerous because Congress might spend it. It was better, he said, to dissipate the surplus through tax cuts. True to his word, Bush supported tax cuts that caused the budget surplus to evaporate into a deficit of 3.2 percent of GDP by his last year in office, a fiscal reversal of 5.6 percent of GDP. And contrary to Republican promises that tax cuts would stimulate the economy, economic growth was sluggish throughout the early 2000s, culminating in the second worst economic slump in American history.

Barack Obama’s principal contribution to tax policy was to insist that the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire on schedule at the end of 2010—exactly as Republicans had written the legislation in the first place—for those with incomes above $250,000. At the last minute, however, he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years without change. They are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012 and will, undoubtedly, be a major issue in the presidential campaign that year.


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© 2012 Bruce Bartlett

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