Progressive Consumption Taxes

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Something I’ve mentioned a few times is that it would be better to finance the government through a progressive tax levied on consumption rather than the combination of FICA and a progressive tax on income. You can understand the virtues of this idea in moralistic terms (John Rawls says he prefers it “since it imposes a levy according to how much a person takes out of the common store of goods and not according to how much he contributes”) or in economic ones as laid out by Karl Smith. But what does that mean in practice? Fortunately, Dylan Matthews did a post yesterday laying out some options.

The one that’s easiest to explain, and I tend to think best, is Robert Frank’s idea. This would work exactly like the current income tax, except instead of a crazy patchwork quilt of tax-subsidies for savings you’d just exempt all savings from taxation. That would leave you with a simpler, more efficient, but less progressive tax code that also doesn’t raise adequate revenue. You need to respond by adjusting the rate structure to restore adequacy and progressivity. The resulting scheme is more conducive to long-term economic growth than our current system, equally progressive, and also somewhat simpler. And, importantly, the added simplicity doesn’t come from heroic assumptions about congress wiping away all deductions and exemptions and never putting any new ones in. It’s just simpler because it does something our tax code already does—try to encourage saving—in a simpler way.

Unfortunately, the functioning of our political system makes it difficult to do any kind of tax reform unless you have consensus on the appropriate level of revenue and we’re miles away from that.