The Taxman Cometh

Megan rightly bemoans the proliferation of deductions and credits and whatnots that push tax rates higher and make “doing your taxes” this huge pain in the ass rather than some very straightforward math: “All this useless activity is so that our politicians can look like They Care by giving tiny tax breaks to all of their favorite people — that is to say, the people who vote for them and give them money.”

That’s fair enough, but I’d add the point Kwame Anthony Appiah made in Sunday’s Washington Post, namely that people are kind of dumb vulnerable to a lot of “framing effects” that make a lot of this stuff popular when, were equivalent policies described differently, they would become unpopular. Most clearly, when you redefine most deductions as penalties for the ineligible a lot of this stuff seems a little perverse — should people who don’t have kids in college pay a special penalty? A tax penalty for renters? Probably not.

Meanwhile, just note that you could eliminate all this, thus capturing 100 percent of the flat tax’s virtues, without flattening the tax bracket structure and also that if you did flatten the bracket structure (thus capturing zero percent of the flat tax’s virtues), then all the political pressures that create the loopholes would still exist.

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