"Cutting taxes" has been the political snake oil, the magic elixir, sold to the American people by a generation of politicians as a way to promote everything from prosperity to family values. Sadly, tax cuts are being argued even in the current crisis. Yet, recent tax cuts have been saved rather than spent, and recent research suggests that despite past tax cuts the average tax burden is not lower than elsewhere in the OECD, given the services taxes pay for (or fail to).  On net, the combined state, local, and federal system is also more regressive than we like to believe. In the real world of politics, lobbying, and the rhetoric of class conflict, income tax-based systems, even if progressively structured in theory, tend toward regressive structures in fact once set adrift on the sea of lobbying, exemptions, and special interest. This appears to be a stylized political fact in representative systems -- perhaps even a law of political economy. The 30-year focus on tax cuts has served as a deliberate distraction from hard choices and uncomfortable debate. At the same time, the "cut taxes" mantra at the state and local level, where government and public services are closer to the people, has led to an increasingly regressive public system -- held together by a combination of duct tape, the municipal bond market, a wobbly property tax base, and a tax on hope (also known as the lottery) -- to fund schools, local police, and other essential services. (My sister maintains that the lottery is a tax on people who cannot do math. Either way, given the state of American education, a bad math tax and a hope tax both hit the poor disproportionately hard).  Once we admit to the effective use of Federal trust fund money (social security, gasoline excise taxes, etc...) to offset the otherwise even bleaker Federal budget picture, the system is also drifting markedly toward regressive features at the Federal level.
The American voter has been a ready mark in this game, willing to believe many things: that public services are free or otherwise unnecessary; roads were created and are apparently maintained by our divine creator; bridges and tunnels last forever without maintenance; an innovative economy does not hinge on broad merit-based access to a world class science and education system; markets do not need regulators; and a functional representative democracy does not need to invest in the basic education of its voters. Apparently, it is also morally OK to borrow heavily against the incomes of our grandchildren at unsustainable rates, even if we are not quite sure how the money is being used.
Public finance in the United States needs to be overhauled. This is a critical housecleaning issue if America is to move ahead. It took Nixon -- a conservative Republican -- to normalize relations with Communist China, and it may take Obama -- a liberal Democrat -- to overhaul taxes and forge a pro-growth, pro-business system suitable for the post-Crisis 21st Century.  Unless this is done, whatever the rhetoric from the ascendant political class in Washington, the scope for substantive initiatives in the present crisis will remain greatly hindered. As it stands, the current system is complicated, multi-layered, and opaque, with features (like the alternative minimum tax) the middle class does not understand and temporary tax cuts that cannot politically be allowed to expire. Altogether, this set of features makes members of the general public feel the system treats them unfairly. It has even caught appointees who, like the middle class they aim to represent, made good faith efforts to pay taxes yet stillwere tripped up by the system. While the situation has provided a convenient whipping boy at election time, it has also fostered a sense of fiscal persecution and injustice in entrepreneurs and middle class alike, eroding the collective sense of being vested in what is supposed to be a system of self-governance. Taxes need to be defanged as a political stalking tool. Since the system in America actually does rest on its citizens, the result is that America's innate tenacity in the face of tough issues -- public health, care for our elderly parents, global responsibility, managing foreign threats, responding to natural disasters at home -- is also eroded. Also important, the system needs to be made transparent and simple, to both ensure that the snake oil salesmen still lurking about do not again distract from real economic policy debate, and to ensure that the people feel vested in the policy decisions to be made. To be blunt, America needs a relatively (politically) neutral mechanism to raise revenue. If Obamam wants to focus on positive programs, he has to take the class-conflict and otherwise distracting debates over tax cuts off the table. This is best done if taxes are made neutral and transparent. Public works programs, income support, health care initiatives, national defense, education programs, national highways, and the like represent alternative uses for the national treasure. This is how the choices should be framed for discussion. "How do we invest what resources we have?" is an appropriate approach to the challenges ahead, not "how do we avoid paying for what is necessary?"
How did we get here ? The inflation of the 1970s escalated middle income Americans into punitive high income tax brackets. This led to high growth in the tax dodging and tax planning industry. In the voter revolt that followed, Ronald Reagan was elected with a mandate to simplify the system. At the Federal level, the system was indeed streamlined. However, because the system relies on personal and corporate income tax, lobbying by those same persons and corporations has led again to an increasingly complex system of exemptions, diversions into debate over capital gains taxation, and the making of "Joe the Plumber" as a household name during the 2008 election. Adding to the Rube Goldberg nature of public finance in America is the problem of global taxation of income. America's major trading partners rely, to a great extent, on value added taxes that tax economic activity targeting the domestic market (including U.S. companies selling in those markets) while not taxing economic activity destined for foreign markets. U.S. companies do not get this same treatment, and so are at a disadvantage in foreign markets. The extension of income tax abroad also makes multinationals reluctant to rely on American scientists, engineers, and management overseas, further eroding the competitiveness of American firms abroad and the scope for export of high value-added services. The result is a politically poisonous mix: a suspicion about off-shoring of U.S. activity; a reality of U.S. firms keeping their income abroad; a perceived loss of competitiveness; a relatively soft market for U.S. expertise; and a complicated system of corporate tax credits that repeatedly violates U.S. treaty obligations and further erodes the sustainability of current public finance structures. Given the last point, there is also the risk that, at some point, U.S. trade partners will respond to the current U.S. corporate tax "offsets" with punitive tariffs on American exports. (This is sometimes known as the "nuclear option" in trade policy circles.)
Just as a lark, imagine that American voters had the collective brass kahunas needed to demand that their elected leaders dump the system of personal and corporate taxes -- duct tape and all -- and engineer a shift to a straightforward and fully transparent value added system. Such a move has the potential to broaden the tax base substantially, exorcise failed mantras from the policy debate, make possible a deep, full, and permanent income tax cut for all households, level the playing field for U.S. goods and services sold abroad and competing at home, and provide scope for a big short-run injection of capital into the U.S. economy. The left and right could still fight -- over how much to raise in tax and how to spend it, not how to raise it operationally. In practice, this means income and related capital taxes could be eliminated at the household level. They could also be eliminated for firms, replaced by the VAT system. (VAT requirements could also be relaxed for small businesses and the self-employed.) With such a switch, the risk of off-shoring to escape taxes is also cut out, as the full value of foreign labor used by American firms abroad to produce goods and services at home would be taxed. In addition, like European nations, the United States would then impose VAT on goods and services entering and sold in the U.S., while exempting goods and services produced in the U.S. for export. This has the potential to broaden the tax base in an un-distorting way (the same tax rate would apply to domestic and foreign goods and services sold in the United States). Debate over equity polices could focus on how money is spent -- education, health care, job creation, community revitalization, science and energy research programs, infrastructure, defense -- rather than on how it is raised. Subsidy schemes might even be somewhat more transparent. (Admittedly, any system can be gamed). In addition, when Washington mandates programs to be provided at the state and local level, VAT collected centrally could be shifted (or even required to be shifted) to the sub-Federal (i.e. State) level. With the system already operationally in place nationally, it could also help wean the other half of the public finance system -- the non-Federal one -- off of regressive funding structures and put state and local governments on a more stable fiscal foundation. There is even scope for a short-run bonus in the current crisis. According to rumor, corporate America has money parked abroad because of the current system. By some accounts, they have quite a lot of it. This may or may not be the case. There is one way to find out, though. With the logic of the current system suspended, they could be invited to bring it back without penalty, but with the stipulation that perhaps half be invested for 15 years in Federal or municipal debt obligations, helping ease short-run public policy constraints. As a bonus, the incentive is gone for them to keep such funds abroad in the future. In contrast, "the current U.S. tax system appears to discourage companies from returning foreign earnings to the United States." 
Of course, such musings are highly unrealistic. On the political economy front, huge rents (meaning money taken indirectly from the public in general and given to a more narrow set of recipients from across the political spectrum) rest on the current system. Short of a mix of outright bribery and thuggery, it may be well nigh impossible to overcome the influence these rents buy. My academic colleagues are also right to point out that value added systems can also be distorting and regressive (though certainly in more subtle and gentler ways than what we have now). There is also a myth in the United States that somehow, like the metric system, value added tax systems are a foreign idea not to be trusted. Yet America is itself a synthesis of brilliantly re-spun "foreign" culture and ideas. President Eisenhower built a modern Federal highway system based on the "foreign" autobahn system (actually the Nazi-built system, for goodness sake) he saw in Germany, Benjamin Franklin and party built the constitution in Philadelphia around ideas born of the Enlightenment in France and England, and it was a Prussian who whipped Washington's troops into shape over the bleak winter at Valley Forge. The information technology revolution was also fueled by fresh immigrants with bright ideas from Europe and Asia. Americans are a practical people. They see problems, they adopt solutions, and when necessary they change their minds and listen to the ideas of others. If the country is to emerge from the current economic crisis with a stronger and more robust economic foundation, the one horse shay that is the current public finance system needs a complete overhaul.  More duct tape is not going to do it.
 "Did Reagan Rule In Vain? A Closer Look at True Expenditure Levels in the United States and Europe."
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, Peterson Institute for International Economics, POLICY BRIEF 09-1, 2009.
 Many state/local tax systems are regressive, and this is important to keep in mind when contemplating potential regressive bias in a VA system. See "Washington State Has Low Average Taxes... But Also the Most Regressive Tax Structure in America," The Tax Justice Digest 2007, http://www.ctj.org/taxjusticedigest/2007/06/washington-state-has-low-avera.html, and also "Florida Tax System is Nation’s Second Most Regressive," Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (2003) http://www.itepnet.org/wp2000/fl%20pr.pdf. Also see "STATE TAX SYSTEMS ARE BECOMING INCREASINGLY INEQUITABLE," Senate on Budget and Policy Priorities (2002), http://www.cbpp.org/1-15-02sfp-pr.htm.
 After World War II, the conservative stream of American politics forged an identity around the twin poles of fighting communism and assigning blame for those who "lost China." This identity provided ideological underpinnings for a political witch-hunt in the 1950s, and framed the culture wars that echoed from the 1960s until the election of 2002, finally crashing on the rocks of generational shift in the 2008 election. During this period, as it became obvious that America had to normalize relations with China, it proved necessary for Richard Nixon, a leader with impeccable anti-Communist credentials,to be the one to sit down with the Communists. To quote Spock in the movie The Undiscovered Country, "We have a saying on Vulcan: Only Nixon can go to China." See Wikipedia, "The phrase "Nixon going to China" is thus an analogy that refers to the unique ability that hardline politicians have to challenge political taboos and third-rail issues. Only a proven hardline right-wing politician can succeed in challenging a conservative sacred cow and vice versa for left-wingers." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixon_in_China_(phrase)
 "United States — Tax Treatment for 'Foreign Sales Corporations',” WTO (as of May 2008), http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds108_e.htm, "US-FTC," DS 108, http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/1pagesum_e/ds108sum_e.pdf.
 "Is it Always a Good Time for a Holiday?" by Rosanne Altshuler on Mon 12 Jan 2009 02:29 PM EST
 See "Value Added Tax," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value-added_tax. Also see "Is A Value Added Tax Progressive? Annual Versus Lifetime Incidence Measures," E. Caspersen and G. Metcal, National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper 4387, http://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/4387.html. The latter states "Using two different measures of lifetime income, we find that a VAT in the United States would be proportional to slightly progressive over the lifetime."
 Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), " The Deacon's Masterpiece or, the Wonderful "One-hoss Shay": A Logica.
Labels: class conflict and taxes, economic crisis, economic recovery plans, tax cuts, tax reform, U.S: fiscal deficits, value added tax