A simpler way to pay taxes

April 15, 2009

 Diana Furchtgott-Roth— Diana Furchtgott-Roth, dfr@hudson.org, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own.  —

It’s April 15, and you’ve finished the arduous task of filing your taxes. You’ve found your W-2 form from your employer, your pennies of interest income from your checking account. If you itemize, you’ve tracked down the acknowledgement of your charitable contributions to the church, the Sierra Club, and the local anti-poverty organization.

The system is so complex that it may have contributed to the tax delinquencies of four Cabinet-level Obama appointees (or their spouses) who had to pay up to win Senate confirmation. At least two other Obama choices withdrew because of their tax problems.

President Obama recognizes the problem. Today he asked his Economic Advisory Board, under the leadership of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, to send him recommendations for tax simplification by the end of the year.

Enter Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, a member of Congress for 10 years and now the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. In H.R. 6110, entitled “Roadmap for America’s Future” (www.americanroadmap.org), he has proposed a radical simplification of the tax code.

Mr. Ryan describes the tax system as “needlessly complex and burdensome.” In contrast, he writes, “a world-class tax system should be simple, fair, and efficient. The U.S. tax code fails on all three counts.”
Under the Ryan proposal, couples would pay tax at a 10 percent rate on their first $100,000 of taxable income ($50,000 for singles), and then 25 percent on any earnings above that. They would pay a 15 percent tax on capital gains and dividends, and no tax on savings. In exchange, they would give up almost all deductions, including home mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

The only deduction allowed would be a refundable $5,000 tax credit for families and $2,500 for individuals to help with the purchase of private-sector health insurance. Health insurance could be purchased in any state, to encourage more companies and plans to participate.

Many efforts to simplify the tax code have failed because people are attached to their deductions — and because Congress seeks to use tax law to achieve social goals, such as home ownership and helping low-income parents with the earned-income tax credit, a stunningly complex provision.

Moreover, charities and universities fear, probably with good reason, that if contributions are not deductible, people will give less.

To disarm the opposition, Mr. Ryan would give taxpayers a choice. Within 10 years of the passage of the law, they could choose today’s system, with its multiple rates and deductions; or they could adopt the simplified Ryan system, giving up the deductions. To prevent people from switching every year if it would benefit them, they could change only once in a lifetime — except in the case of what Ryan calls “a life-changing event,” such as death, divorce, or marriage, when an additional change would be permitted.

Mr. Ryan’s proposal is a variant of the flat, or one-rate, tax suggested in the Reagan era by some economists and advocated in the 1980s by then House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and later by Steve Forbes in his 1996 and 2000 bids for the Republican presidential nomination.

Then, the main attack on the idea was that it is inequitable. However, Mr. Ryan’s tax contains not one but two rates, and it is progressive because it retains standard deductions and personal exemptions. A family of four would start paying tax only after earning $39,000. Further, many upper-income people benefit from existing deductions, and they would lose this benefit if they adopt Ryan’s two-rate tariff.

No tax proposal offered by a minority member of Congress of either party ever has any chance of passage. Political loyalties aside, the American public might want to take a careful look at Mr. Ryan’s proposal, while memories of filling out their tax forms are still fresh.


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How about a national sales tax to replace the current income tax? That would take the tax payer out of filling out any forms. This encourages more sound fiscal policy and judgment for both the government and the individual. The more you save, the less you pay and the more you spend the more you pay. There is a built in equity without trying to figure out a dual rate system. This would also save the government in IRS costs since the body of payers to police is dramatically reduced. Instead of every individual, the IRS would only have to police the retailers collecting the sales tax upon sale of goods or services. This ties tax revenue to GNP. It eliminates those who currently are not in the system and are not paying anything. This national sales tax collects taxes from illegal aliens and black marketers who today pay nothing on their incomes from these underground markets. In my opinion it is the best alternative. However, just about anything would be better to what we have today.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

The simplist, fairest, and most efficient tax system would be a national sales tax.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

This lady is a “dual-citizen” – Israeli firster.

She has no regard for the wishes of the American taxpayer, as she is in it for Israel her Jewish lobby.

As a member of US Department of Labor, she advocated and prevailed in dismantling protections of the American workforce against the illegal Mexican labor.

Posted by Augustine | Report as abusive

Wow. Yes. Let’s elimatinate all deductions outside of those from private health care cost. True genius!

I wonder who came up with this plan, considering that the #1 campaign contributor to this patriot, Rep. Paul Ryan, is the insurance industry. Check out his donation history on opensecrets.org.

http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/s ummary.php?cid=N00004357&cycle=2008

Follow the money in US politics, and it’s easy to understand who is running our government.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

I like that a national sales tax would penalize consumption and reward savings. My problem with it is that while the rule is simple and consistent, it doesn’t result in fairness. Let’s take two hypothetical families living in the same place, different only in income. Subsistence cost would be comparable, for simplicity let’s say $25,000 per year. The family that makes $25,000 per year spends $2,500, or 10% of income on taxes. The family making $100,000, spending the same subsistence $25,000 and saving every other penny spends $2,500 also, but it’s only 2.5% of income. A uniform flat tax on income could set the percentage lower, reducing the burden on the lower-income family, and collect more tax overall. If it were 7% of income, the 25k earners would spend $1,750 on tax and be that 3% better off, the 100k earners would spend $7,000 on tax, and the total tax collected would be $8,750 instead of $5,000.

Posted by Nathan | Report as abusive

Nathan is absolutely right. Sales taxes should be eliminated completely. They just turn into “hidden” taxes. I think Mr. Ryan’s proposal should be seriously looked at. Comments like those of Mark and Augustine do no good at all. They propose nothing. A good idea is a good idea no matter where it came from.

Posted by russ | Report as abusive

The flat income tax assumptions that unequal earners would limit both their spending patterns to subsistence spending is flatly wrong. All earners tend to spend beyond subsistence. I know this because I am witness to the details of many current bankruptcies. The high earners spend more than the low earners, and thus pay more in sales tax, period. The sales tax or its equivalent is the only “fair” tax out there. To interpret it as “unfair” one must assume the apriori status of the income tax, which is self-referentially incoherent. The Founders prohibited a capitation tax (income tax, etc.) because they knew of its horrible destructive power–as history has now proven. The US must get off the income tax regime (together with other monitary reforms) or we will not survive.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

Any reccommendations coming out of right wing “think tanks” should be regarded very skeptically.

Posted by getplaning | Report as abusive

Nathan, your point is valid, assuming that families follow your hypothisis. Some do, and for those it wouldn’t come out completely fair, but for most American households, a larger income translates into more purchases, not more savings. If it did turn out to be a burden for lower income families, it wouldn’t be hard to issue tax exempt status for those people, just like is done now with nonprofit organizations.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

Thank you, Russ, for your criticisms.

I do think that it is important to think critically about the proposals in our Congress, and the “solutions” proposed by our Representatives.

While I don’t believe I can outline a solution to the tax fairness problem in a text box of 256 characters or less, I will admit that as complicated as our tax code is, I mostly agree with the system of progressive taxation that has been in place the past 150 years, and don’t favor changing it radically, for reasons outlined by Nathan.

I don’t really see the value of eliminating all tax credits and deductions, outside of those related to health care, as it seems like it would keep a system of overpriced health care alive and well in this country. Not to mention, it would destroy a solid system of incentives that is already in place for ALL citizens to:
(a) reduce energy consumption, in the face of Global Warming
(b) buy the millions of empty homes sitting on the market
(c) give to the millions of charities that are suffering for money right now
(d) etc, etc.

Also, it appears as if those who are being taxed right now at the highest rate of 30-35%, would be able to switch to a lower tax rate with this plan, very simply. Who has a plan for how to account for this lost income at a time of unprecedented government spending?

In my opinion, any proposal to change the tax system should give serious consideration to the huge problems that we are facing right now in our government and in our world.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

Nathan, your hypothetical does not hold up statistically. In this country the more you earn the more you spend. There are wealthy people out there spending more in one day than I make in a month. I doubt you will find that those that save are going to distort the curve much at all. Yes it is possible but, the vast majority of people save for a purchase, hard times or retirement. If someone wants to be frugal and invest large amounts of his earnings and retire a wealthy person that is great. The investing helped the economy grow and after he retires he will spend that money he earned and if he dies early and someone inherits that money well, I am all for the inheritance tax in this case.

Also, Ryan’s plan does not solve the issue of illegal aliens, illegal income earners or those that have dropped off the grid. A national Sales tax solves that problem.

Ryan’s Plan continues to force citizens to file forms every year. It does nothing to shrink the IRS like a national Sale tax will. Businesses are already familiar with the process of collecting and depositing quarterly and to compensate for their efforts they get the cash to use during the quarters.

As for hidden taxes well that is like the stupid taxing of tobacco to finance child health care. I am for repealing this along with the alcohol tax and just apply the national sales tax to everything.

Capital gains will not be taxed under a national sales tax. This should spur on investment and growth. Something we really need right now.

No plan is perfect because no economy is perfect but, I believe this plan would be cost effective, easy and fair.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

The current system, proposed Ryan system, and whatever other income tax system are inherently flawed because they penalize investment and reward spending. Some, like the current system, are worse at that, some (Ryan proposal) are better, but essentially all of them tax income instead of spending.
The sales tax system does just the opposite, but its opponents call it unfair and regressive, which to some extent is true.
How about combining the 2 and tax actual spendings progressively? It would not be simpler, but at least it will reward investment and remain fair (as much as tax can be fair at all). That’s how the thing should look like – oversimplified schema, without accounting for capital gain/loss in investment accounts. You sum up year’s income and year beginning’s bank account balances, deduct year end’s balances, the result is your spending during the year. Then this amount can be taxed as progressively as the Congress wishes, and whatever deductions they’d want to allow can be taken.
If we take into account investments that fluctuate, or savings accounts that bear interest, we still can get the balance of deposits and withdrawals to add to the overall balance above. And it’s not difficult to make these balances reportable to IRS, banks and financial institutions already report interest and security sales.
I see no problem taxing personal expenses over, let’s say, $10M/year at 90%+ rates. If someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett spends on his personal needs and pleasures less than some hypothetical idiot that gets a windfall and spends a huge chunk of it on fast cars, bling, and $5k/hr call girls, it’s only fair that this idiot were taxed more even though his absolute income is just a rounding error comparing to that of Gates. And if that idiot didn’t care to keep a part of the windfall to cover the taxes, let IRS auction off his fast cars and bling.
This way investment is not taxed until it is actually withdrawn and spent. Even inheritance, if it’s immediately invested, is not taxed. And as long as investment is fueling the economy, everyone wins.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Anonymous, you idea is not bad but, it still requires the tax payer to file documents, it leaves open deductions and expenses and that will lead to a similar mess we have today. Also, your plan does not get any tax from the illegal alien, black marketer or those that have dropped off the grid. If I live on an unreported cash income and do not use a bank how do you collect? This is how most of the illegal aliens, drug dealers and other black marketers and those that have dropped off the grid live. With a direct sales tax you tap into this so far untapped tax source. The hybrid plan you mention does little to reduce the cost of the IRS.

I still think the national sales tax is the solution. As new industry or old underground industry comes into the free market new tax is generated. As the GNP grows so, does the tax revenue. It would promote healthy growth and help avoid these “Bubbles” in our economy.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

As much as we all would like to see successful revision of the current tax code, I think we are out of luck. I don’t think we can reasonably expect progressive change considering those who stand to benefit most from the current tax code hold particular sway over the leadership charged with its reform.

Posted by JB | Report as abusive

Proposal in article has merit but has flaws. I think having more tax bands provides for a more progressive system; say, first $15K of earnings is tax free.

A national sales tax would be highly problematic. It would be regressive, causing low income people to pay a high proportion of their income in taxes (poor people typically spend a greater proportion of their income that rich people do).
It would also incentivize the creation of an enormous black economy. I imagine a sales tax rate of at least %20 would be required on top of state sales taxes to replace income tax revenue. People would seek to buy goods/services on the black economy due to the enormous discount through tax not being charged on it. Such sales tax evasion would require an increase in sales tax rate to make up for lost revenue, increasing the size of the black economy, etc ad infinitum. The IRS would not be eliminated as some suggest; they would be retasked to clamp down on the increasing black economy and patrolling the Canadian/Mexican border to eliminate the now-enormously-profitable smuggling of goods across the border by people for individual use or for sale in the black economy.

A simple and progressive tax system with no deductions/credits is the least bad form of tax system.

Posted by ST | Report as abusive

The best way to streamline tax payment is to have no taxes at all since those who work under the radar don’t pay them anyway but receive their little bundle once every year from those who do, and the wealthy have good accountants to hide their profits.
When it’s all said and done right now, the local county and city taxes, added to states sales tax and federal are a little too much to bear. There are too many little and big taxes going around, like little bleedings they add up to a pint of blood rather quickly.

Posted by The Ikea Dan | Report as abusive

I disagree with a national sales tax. I feel that all tax should be income based. There should be no corporate tax or sales tax. If the unemployment rate is 100 percent, the government would have no revenue. The government must feel an urgent need to help people when they are unemployed. Also if people are ill and cannot work, the government should likewise feel the pain. If companies keep growing but do not hire people, the government should not be rewarded with revenue. This will cause companies with few employees to be receive little or no public support.

Further we should abolish municipal governments and implement a simple pay-for-service system. People should not pay more tax just because they have a large house. They should pay more fo service if their large house requires more service. Also we can replace most politicians with laptop computers. I can write a program to do their jobs. It will be open-source.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

Why not tax everyone (key word: EVERYONE, including the people that aren’t paying any right now) the same percentage? Percentages already scale, so why do we have to have different tax brackets? If we taxed everyone, we could tax less overall because the additional people doing their DUTY would balance out the percent loss on the high end of the scale. Sure, income tax isn’t perfect, but COMPLETELY moving away from the system all at once would be too much of a shock for Uncle Sam.

Posted by PCDude2143 | Report as abusive

Like I said above, just about anything would be better than what we have today. But, I do not believe income is the best gauge of one’s economic status. My point is that someone making 100K in Denver or San Francisco may not be as well off as someone making 100K in Gary, Indiana. Local cost of living makes a big difference. Housing makes up a big chunk of it. However, under a national sales tax this would only be a one time tax that is spread out over the life of the loan. Under an Income tax the effect of the higher payments eating up that income month after month coupled with the tax that is eating up your pay check, check after check causes this inequity to be exacerbated. On the other side if I was making 100K in Gary, Indiana I would be paying the same income tax as the guy in Denver but living much better. Here the guy in Denver would be buying less while the guy in Gary would be buying more paying more in taxes under the national sales tax. The national Sales tax tends to smooth out these differences in cost of living. For this reason, even if you do set up a rate scale, income tax is unfair. A national sales tax smoothes this inequity out.

And I am going to repeat my self and say that an income tax does not collect tax from people who are paid under the table or earn income in a black market. However, those people buy goods and services.

To address unemployment from a national sales tax perspective: I see no problem with an individual who is receiving unemployment compensation to be given a card which exempts him from paying the national sales tax. In fact they should be exempt from all taxation on basic goods and services, not luxury sales. As for the government feeling the pain look at what has been happening for the last 12 months. Sales have been dropping as people lose their jobs or just fear losing their jobs. Sales have slumped. Under a national sales tax the government would directly feel the pain, no sales, no tax. Under an income tax just what do you think the IRS is going to be doing to those people who lost their job last year? If the unemployed owe any tax on what the earned last year and it was not all collected in the W4 payroll deductions the IRS will be going after them and as soon as they get employment. The IRS will be right there harassing them and taking their unfair share of this income that is probably needed to catch up on bills and pay debts. All of this would be avoided with a national sales tax.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

National sales tax for everyone, then flat income tax for anyone earning over a minimum amount (probably kicking in around 100-200k). This taxes all of the illegals and black marketers with the sales tax, and allows a progressive tax over the whole system. Low income families only pay the sales tax, while higher income pays the sales tax and the income tax.

Posted by Brendan | Report as abusive

With all due respect, no sales tax would collect anything from off-the-books cash only transactions. Can you imagine a street drug dealer collecting extra money on behalf of IRS (OK, collection may be plausible :-) ) and actually submitting the collected amount to IRS as official crack cocaine sales tax?
Tax exemption cards for unemployed/poor will only help to game the system in more ways. How about this scenario: the poor would accompany the rich to a supermarket, and then split the tax savings?
One more thing that may happen – shifting of business from brick and mortar stores to Internet. This way at least the state portion of sales tax would be eliminated. Both states and malls will suffer.
Multiple scale taxation (food/medicine/basic goods/”regular” goods/luxury items) leaves too much for the IRS/Congress to decide. For instance, is caviar food or luxury? An apartment/house is rented for $1500/month – is it a luxury mansion (could be in TX) or a basic housing (NYC)? Breast implant – is it a luxury item, or a necessity (think of breast cancer victim disfigured by mastectomy)? And again complications in accounting.
The only way to tax black, gray, and whatever other color market is to eliminate cash and make the economy electronic transaction only. Will also eliminate illegal immigration (no legal status, no money card), robberies, drug dealing, and whatever other crimes committed to obtain cash or by means of cash operations. Technically it’s already possible. But doesn’t it smell much like Big Brother?

Posted by anonymous | Report as abusive

The sales tax wouldn’t collect anything directly from a drug or off the book transaction, but that money will eventually be spent on something legal, where it will be taxed. With the income tax system, it never gets taxed.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Anonymous that is not what I meant. Of course black market sales will not be taxed but, the profits from those sales will be spent and taxed at that time under a national sales tax. What I am trying to say is that the income from black markets is not taxed now but, under a national sales tax, it would be taxed as that income is spent.

No, black market sales cannot be taxed. This is why our nation should make every effort to ensure there are few and small black markets.

If you don’t like the card you can go with Ron Paul and have the lower income population file for the return of the sales tax. I like the card idea myself but am open to ideas. I like the card because the only way it can be gamed is through counterfeiting. Today we have the technology to track whose card is being used and how much it is being used. Every credit card and even your grocery store use this technology to track what you buy and how much you buy.

I have to admit I am confused about your multiple scale taxation statement. The federal government today has established qualified purchases with their credit cards. For example, if I work for the government and travel, I cannot use a federal credit card to buy a stereo or furniture because this type of purchase falls outside of the type a federal traveler would incur. This would be no different I am sure there would be some credit card company who would be eager to get this federal contract.

As for Big Brother, that is something a National Sales Tax would help to prevent. It is one thing if I am asking for federal assistance. If I am on the dole, than the government has a valid reason to be in my business. If not, then what business is it of theirs what I make or spend or save? A national sales tax would put some distance between you and the government.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

“I am confused about your multiple scale taxation statement.”
But this is what you wrote in your previous post: “In fact they should be exempt from all taxation on basic goods and services, not luxury sales.” 0% tax for “basic goods and services” vs. X% tax for “luxury sales”. That’s an example of 2 tier taxation, isn’t it? And it will not take long to make 2-tier system into n-tier – something along the lines of basic/regular/luxury/ultra-luxury.
Worse yet, if it’s determined in Washington what goods/services belong to what tier, there will be a lot of confusion and complication, especially if the states also move from income to sales tax. Add to that “green” discounts” and “carbon surcharges” that were suggested in other discussions – and the simple sales tax system mutates into a monster.
Now try to follow this: This item is taxed federally as “luxury”, but by the state as “regular”, and tax exempt to exemption card bearers, but only on federal portion, with manufacturer’s coupons applied to aftertax amount – did I succeed to make you confused? If you let the bureaucrats decide what goods and services taxed at what rates and to whom, they’ll manage to make it even more confusing. And that’s what we should expect when we move to sales tax from current income tax system. As soon as it happens, the “social justice” proponents will yell and scream that it’s not fair to tax bread the same as diamonds, and Hyundai compact the same as Rolls Royce – and the Congress will listen.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

except that there aren’t any such divides for a state sales tax. An item is either taxable, or not. Why would it be different on a national scale? Your example of Hyundai compact vs Rolls Royce doesn’t make much sense, because the buyer of a Rolls is going to pay more in tax than the Hyundai owner.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

Taxation has to be turned upside down. Capital gains taxes should be entirely abolished. For instance, a level of government should only collect tax for something once. Currently if I buy a car, I pay tax. The person buying the car from me should not pay tax. The government did not contribute anything new. Why in the world are they trying to get more cash. Why do they expect more. When tax rates go up although nothing has changed, that should be illegal. It should be a criminal offence. In fact we should find out who came up with the idea originally and jail all of their offspring until they pay us all back. Plus people who go to jail should be forced to work at minimum wage to pay for the guards and facilities.

I’m not even sure why we are bothering with tax. We keep talking about stimulating the economy. Just don’t collect tax. What is all of this shuffling around taking money and then sending people a check. I know it is just to keep bureaucrats, pencil pushers, clerks and bean counters employed. Do we have time for that sort of rubbish anymore.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

Anonymous, this is not a new idea. The use of a preloaded card is currently being reviewed in many states. The cards would replace food stamps. It would provide better control with better feed back on who is buying what with purchase restrictions built into the card. This card would be similar to the Federal Travel Credit Card program which restricts purchases to travel essential purchases. All I suggest is that under Federal Sales Tax individuals on unemployment and welfare would be exempt from the tax and the card would be an easy way to implement this. This is really just a side issue to the current topic.

The Issue is that an income tax is neither fair, effective or cost efficient. Even the two tier rate system suggested in this article fails to consider the real issues with an income tax. A national sales tax would be cost efficient to both the individual and the government by reducing the cost and time needed to execute the program. It is effective because it directly ties tax revenue to GNP and brings a large part of our society who is currently not paying taxes into the fold automatically. It is fair because those who earn more disposable income spend more than those that don’t hence they pay more taxes and while smoothing out the cost of living variances it encourages investment and saving.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

Let’s say I am a mob kingpin. I lend Dick $100,000. But on paper I buy a $100,000 worth of motors from him. These motors are defective. So I will write them off. Dick pays me back $150,000. But on paper he buys a $10,000 piece of property from me for $150,000. I make $140,000 on the property but lose $100,000 on the motors. So I gain $40,000 legally as a mob kingpin on the deal. But do you really think I can’t find $40,000 worth of fluff to put against the gains. With all of this capital being slung around, of course I can find $40,000 worth of fluff. It is too easy to hide capital gains. There is no point taxing it. We just create an industry of backoffice doctors and magicians.

Now if we apply a flat tax on an employee, her ability to pay increases the greater her income. Her ability to buy stuff is likewise preserved if the tax rate is flat, so she has no disincentive to spend a lot. The cost of a new computer is much greater for a person in a high tax bracket than a low-income person. Plus the government is actually earning its pay. It should get a cut of what I get. Even an unemployed person has to spend. The government should get a cut just because I have to buy stuff to survive.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

This is a nice idea, possibly slightly better than the current system, but it is still an income tax and therefore nothing to get excited about. This proposal does nothing to quell the rampant exploitation of our tax code by the political majority of the day to punish and reward whichever demographic best complements their particular agenda. In addition, it does not address the most insidious bait-and-switch scam in history – payroll deductions. Maybe some reform is better than none; just don’t expect anyone to get excited about this one.

Posted by Matthew L. | Report as abusive

The current Tax Code acknowledges social and economic differences in the population at large. Many with low income do not pay anything like 10% in Federal Taxes and therefore would be penalised with a flat tax.

Posted by Wilson | Report as abusive

An excellent proposal! One suggestion though, there should be no taxes on any earned income up to the poverty level. This will accommodate the people who spend all their earnings on food and other necessities, and will overcome the criticism of being regressive.

Posted by mool shekhawat | Report as abusive