In the background of the legislative negotiations is our current tax system, which is powered by guilt, fear and constant low-level lawbreaking. The former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been charged with filing fraudulent tax returns and failing to report offshore accounts in an attempt to illegally reduce his tax bill. Tim Cook of Apple and his fellow chief executives regularly get called up to Capitol Hill for tongue lashings over their (legal) strategies to minimize their companies’ tax burden by keeping overseas profits overseas. And don’t get too smug: You deducted that “home office” on last year’s return when we both know it’s really your bedroom.
All of this glorious dysfunction is made possible by the complexity of the tax code. The United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates among the world’s major economies, and a relatively high effective individual tax rate. But where things get dicey is the enormous number of incentives, credits, thresholds and exceptions. Benefits go to corporations (what exactly is accelerated depreciation?), the rich (enjoying the low tax rate on those long-term capital gains?), the middle class (hello, mortgage interest rate deduction!) and the poor (nice to see you, earned-income tax credit). They favor the fertile (child tax credit) and the dead (trusts and estates). They go to the urban and suburban (state and local income tax deduction) and the rural (farm fuel tax credit).