Fiorina’s 1448-Page Tax Code

At The Upshot today, Josh Barro makes short work of Carly Fiorina’s claim that she could reduce the federal tax code (and presumably the regulations interpreting it) to three pages.

On Tuesday, she pointed on Facebook to one way she thinks that could be done: by putting in place a tax plan proposed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, who have produced draft legislation for a single-rate income tax that runs just 1,120 words.

“Reporters said it wasn’t possible,” wrote Sarah Isgur Flores, Mrs. Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, on Twitter. “Once again, media was wrong.”

Actually, Mrs. Fiorina is wrong. The Hall-Rabushka legislation is intended to replace not the entire Internal Revenue Code but just Subtitle A, which lays out rules about how much tax is due on what income.

That would still leave Subtitles B through K, a further 1,445 pages describing taxes other than the income tax, and setting out important administrative matters like what happens if you don’t pay your taxes. Those pages would need to be retained or replaced with new law, unless Mrs. Fiorina wants the Internal Revenue Service to make up its own rules.

Barro goes on to make a very important general point about Republican “tax simplification” proposals: making tax rates “flat” does not significantly “simplify” taxes.

[T]he candidates have missed the mark in a few ways. One is by conflating tax simplicity with the number of tax rates imposed by the I.R.S.

“Simplify the income tax system to just three individual income tax rates, instead of the current six,” urges Gov. Chris Christie’s tax plan, although the actual number of tax brackets is seven. But having too many tax brackets is not why it’s hard to do taxes.

Once you know what your taxable income is, applying the right tax rates is simple arithmetic that tax software will do for you. If you make less than $100,000, you don’t even need to do arithmetic; you can read your tax liability on the convenient tax tables published by the I.R.S. What make taxes complex are all the rules that determine your taxable income in the first place.

I’ve been arguing for years that Republicans are forever trying to sell regressive tax rates in the guise of simplicity, when it’s entirely possible to have simple progressive rates or a complex “flat” rate. As Barro notes, one person’s unfair and lawyer-enriching “tax preference” is another’s “fairness” measure, and that is totally aside from the huge temptation facing pols in both political parties to use the tax code rather than federal spending to reflect their policy priorities, values, and even religious principles. A lot of times people blame cowardly Democrats for this deceptive practice, and that’s understandable and in some circumstances entirely just. But you’d have to say the bigger problem is multiple generations of conservatives demonizing the use of government to do much of anything other than killing or threatening some people overseas and punishing others at home for their unconventional behaviors.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.