“…Progressive taxes make it hard to raise money because they distort people’s behavior. They encourage taxpayers to reduce their tax liability rather than to increase their pretax income. High corporate taxes encourage companies to avoid them. High taxes on capital income also encourage avoidance and capital flight. High income tax rates on top earners can discourage work and investment, too. So trying to raise a lot of money with our progressive tax code would probably not achieve the goal and could damage economic growth.
Big-government social democracies, by contrast, rely on flatter taxes to finance their public spending, like gas taxes and value-added taxes on consumption. The Nordic countries, for instance, have very low tax rates on capital income relative to income from work. And they have relatively high taxes on consumption. In Denmark, consumption tax revenue amounts to about 11 percent of the nation’s economy. In the United States, sales taxes and excise taxes on cigarettes and other items amount to roughly 4 percent.
Liberal Democrats have long opposed them because they fall much more heavily on the poor, who spend a larger share of their incomes than the rich. But these taxes have one big positive feature: they are difficult to avoid and produce fewer disincentives to work or invest. That means they can be used to raise much more revenue.
Public finances are under strain today on both sides of the Atlantic, as governments struggle to cope with our long global recession and the aging of the baby boom generation. In Southern Europe, the pressure to pare back universal welfare systems is intense. In the United States, political leaders on both sides of the partisan divide have realized that even our relatively meager package of social goods cannot be sustained with our slim tax take.
But the United States has one option that most of Europe’s flailing economies do not. Its tax revenue is so low, comparatively, that it has more space to raise it. A more efficient, flatter tax schedule would allow us to do so without hindering economic activity.
Bruce Bartlett, a tax expert who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, told me last week that he thought federal tax revenue could increase to 22 percent of the nation’s economic output, well above its historical average of 18.5 percent, without causing economic harm. If President Obama tries to go down this road, however, he may have to build a flatter tax code.
“We should reform the tax system, no question,” William Gale, a tax policy expert at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, wrote in an e-mail. “We are going to need to move beyond the current set of tax instruments to raise the needed revenues — a VAT and or a carbon tax seem like the obvious ways to go.” And Mr. Bartlett, who writes a column for The New York Times’s Economix blog, also pointed out: “We can’t get all the revenue we need from the rich. Eventually, everyone will have to pay more.” “