I really enjoyed reading a new take on an old subject this week at The Fiscal Times. Liz Peek takes a look at a subject which is quickly leaving the realm of policy discussion and becoming a full blown campaign theme on Team Obama. We’re speaking, of course, about the now famous Buffett Rule which the President is touting at each and every campaign stop he makes. It plays well, particularly if his assumption that Mitt Romney will still be the nominee is correct. After all, Mitt’s a very wealthy guy and we now know that he payed a less than 15% tax rate. That should be enough to tick off the plebes, or so the thinking goes inside the war rooms at the DNC.
But Peek looks over the theory behind the rhetoric and asks the question which the GOP nominee will have to answer on the campaign trail. Does the Buffett Rule actually make sense in terms of realistic, promising tax reform? Her conclusion… not so much.
The law, based on the proposed rule being introduced into both houses of Congress, provides the president with yet another reason to blast Republicans for their mule-headed attitude towards taxes. Best of all, it focuses Mr. Obama’s campaign; it’s a remedy for the resentful.
Beyond those virtues, the Buffett Rule is an empty shell. We need serious and fair-minded reform of our tax code, not another gimmicky fix. We need to analyze whether the deductions and loopholes that cost Uncle Sam nearly a trillion dollars per year in lost revenues are appropriate and effective, whether the goals of prior generations are still relevant and – yes- whether our system is fair. There is a reason why rich people sometimes end up with lower tax rates. It is not because the tax code is regressive; on the contrary, the top one percent of filers pays nearly 40 percent of the total…
The goal of encouraging entrepreneurs and risk-takers through favorable taxation was adopted in 1921; the rules have changed from time to time, but the philosophy has been nearly a constant. The question today should not be: “has this approach favored the wealthy?” This is a given. Instead, we should ask: has the policy worked? If not, is this Buffett Rule the best way to fix what is broken?
I think Peek really nails it in the final quoted paragraph. There is no sense in trying to dance around on the head of a pin during the debates and pretend that the existing tax code doesn’t offer an opportunity for the wealthy and successful to keep more of their money than they would if they had to pay 39% on every dime they took in. That’s a given. The first question to tackle is, are we – as a national economy – getting the best bang for our buck out of that investment in the form of reduced direct revenues to the federal coffers.
Second – and this may be the part which never receives any real attention – does this even qualify as “tax reform” which, like the weather, everyone talks about but nothing is ever done? She point out that rather than simplifying and broadening the tax code, which plenty of people on both sides of the aisle seem to agree is a good idea, the Buffett Rule adds on yet another layer of complications, exceptions and clauses which those with skillful tax accountants will find a way around in short order anyway.
This is not intended as a discussion of the “best” solution on taxes, and I know many of you still favor completely different approaches. (e.g. flat tax, fair tax, consumption tax) But given the difficulty in trying to completely replace the code with something new, we may have to settle for fixing what we have – at least for now. And the conclusions Peek draws should be part of that conversation.