One of the few issues on which Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree is the need for tax reform. Since the last overhaul in 1986, loophole after loophole has been added, producing a tax system that is complex, unfair, inefficient and detrimental to growth. Today, tax reform must also address three major challenges: escalating federal debt, rising income inequality and intensifying global competition.
Addressing the long-run deficit and stabilising the debt will require more revenue. Even after the economy recovers, current tax policies will not generate enough revenue to cover future spending on social security, health, defence and debt interest, let alone basic government operations and investments. In 2012, federal tax revenues are likely to be less than 16 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with an average of more than 18 per cent in the 20 years before the crisis hit in 2008.
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When the US economy is operating near capacity, total tax revenues – federal, state and local – are much smaller as a share of GDP than in other developed countries. And there is scant evidence that taxes as a share of GDP and economic growth are negatively correlated. Indeed, there is a small positive correlation between income per capita and tax revenue as a share of GDP.
Special tax rates and allowances are a major reason why tax revenues are comparatively low in the US. So-called tax expenditures amount to about 7 per cent of GDP; more than what the federal government spends individually on defence, health and social security. Reducing the number and limiting the size of tax expenditures would simplify the tax code, remove distorting incentives and raise revenue. Mr Obama proposes to use some of the revenue from reforming tax expenditures for deficit reduction; Mr Romney would use all of it to cut tax rates, with disproportionate benefits to high-income taxpayers.
But tax reform should not come at the expense of progressivity. Income inequality is greater in the US than in the other developed countries of the OECD. The US tax system is considerably less progressive than it was a few decades ago and it does less to counteract pre-tax income inequality than other OECD systems.
Widening inequality is reflected in opportunity gaps between children born into different income groups and a decline in intergenerational mobility: an American child’s future income is more dependent on his or her parents’ income than in most other OECD nations. Mr Obama’s plan counters these trends. The Romney-Ryan plan exacerbates them.
Proponents of greater progressivity often call for an increase in corporate taxes but this would lead to slower growth and fewer jobs. The US has the highest statutory corporate tax rate in the developed world. Even after tax expenditures are included, its effective marginal corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world. Business decisions about where to locate investments are responsive to differences in taxes and have become more sensitive over time. Of all taxes, corporate income taxes do the most harm to economic growth.
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Both Mr Obama and Mr Romney advocate corporate tax reform that lowers the rate and broadens the base. The economic benefits could be significant. The current system has large unjustifiable differences in effective tax rates that influence business choices about what to invest in, how to finance an investment, where to produce and even what form of organisation to adopt. These differences distort capital allocation, add complexity, increase compliance costs and reduce corporate tax revenues.
A lower rate would stimulate investment, narrow the tax preference for debt over equity financing and weaken the incentives for international companies to move production to lower-tax locations. But lowering the corporate tax rate is expensive – each percentage point reduction would cut revenues by about $120bn over 10 years. Scaling back the three largest corporate tax expenditures to pay for a cut could increase the cost of capital, thereby reducing investment and growth.
A more efficient and progressive way to pay for a lower corporate tax rate would be to increase taxes on dividends and capital gains. This would shift more of the burden towards capital owners and away from labour, which bears the burden in the form of fewer jobs and lower wages. Mr Obama proposes to raise rates on capital gains and dividends for the top 2 per cent of taxpayers. Most capital gains and dividends go to this group. Mr Romney would leave these rates unchanged for this group.
The US economy needs efficient and progressive tax reform and it needs more revenues for deficit reduction. Revenue increases have been a significant component of all major deficit-reduction packages enacted over the past 30 years. This must be the case now, too. Additional revenues as part of a credible long-run deficit-reduction plan and supported by progressive tax reforms will boost economic growth and job creation.
The writer is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton