Reform the U.S. Tax System
Revised 10/7/2012


Anyone could come up with a better tax system than we have in the U.S. It is - to start - horribly complicated. I suspect that it is deliberately complicated to make it difficult to see how unfair it is.

Complexity is also very costly. The Tax Foundation estimates the labor cost of complying with the current tax code at 22% of U.S. tax receipts.

Rather than trying to fix the system, we will design a new one from scratch. We will call it . . . the Income Tax. 

Taxing Income Rather than Consumption

Yes, it will be an income tax rather than a sales tax or a value-added tax, which are collected from businesses rather than individuals. The reason I am going with an income tax is that it allows us to avoid taxing people whose incomes are at or below the poverty level. We don’t want to tax people into poverty. With an income tax, we can avoid taxing the poor by using personal exemptions. For example, if the poverty level for a family of 4 is $20,000, the personal exemption would be $5000. For a family of 4, only that income in excess of $20,000 would be taxed.

Personal exemptions protect low-income people from the income tax in the current system, but they still get hit with the social security tax (FICA), which is a hefty 12.4% (6.2% paid by the employee, 6.2% paid by the employer). Roughly 80% of taxpayers pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. Young families are being forced to save for retirement when their money could be better spent on education, or to feed their children. In my system, there will be no social security tax (see Reform Social Security), so there will be no tax at all on incomes below the poverty level. And since there will be universal health care (see Guarantee Universal Health Care), there will be no reason for anyone to choose welfare over work, even at a low wage. Low-paying jobs that are turned down currently by all but immigrants will be filled by U.S. citizens who otherwise would have been on welfare. As a result, both welfare costs and illegal immigration will be reduced.

Flat Tax

Except for the income protected by personal exemptions, all income will be taxed. There will be no deductions, no loopholes, no tax shelters. All income will be taxed at the same rate.

One reason I am against a progressive tax rate is that it is more complicated. Another is that I don't think it is fair to make people pay at a higher rate just because their income is higher. They already pay more because the tax is a percentage of their income, so increasing the rate makes it increasingly unfair. Income is, after all, a measure of production, and the fact that a person produces more does not mean that he uses more government services or has an obligation to those who produce less.  

Advocates of a progressive rate might argue that people with high incomes are able to avoid taxes by hiring accountants to find tax loopholes and tax shelters. With the new tax, however, there will be no loopholes or shelters. People might also say that people with high incomes don't really deserve the money they earn because they get it by taking advantage of some privileged position, or they cheat or steal or take unfair advantage of others. If that is so, the tax system is not the way to correct the situation, because the penalty would also be applied to those who earn their high incomes legitimately. 

I think the real reason liberals like a progressive rate is the reason John Dillinger gave when asked why he robbed banks: Because that is where the money is. 

No Deductions

There will be no tax deductions. The traditional deductions for such items as mortgage interest, medical expenses, property taxes, charitable contributions and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) will no longer be allowed. In addition, contributions to employer-sponsored retirement plans will be fully taxed. This may sound cruel, but it’s not. We can have a fair tax, where everyone pays the same percentage of his income, or we can have deductions. What we lose with no deductions will be gained back with a lower tax rate, and we will all be confident that no one is getting away with paying any less than the rest. 

As a group, taxpayers never gain anything from tax deductions. To think otherwise is a delusion. In the end, we together have to come up with enough to balance the budget. The amount we have to come up with depends solely on how much the federal government spends. We can control how much government spends, but as far as taxes are concerned, we can only choose whether to come up with the money in a manner that is fair to everyone or one that forces some of us to pay extra so that others can pay less. 

To insist on a tax deduction is immoral. It is simply a way to screw your neighbor. 

While individuals benefit from tax deductions at the expense of their neighbors, certain industries also gain. They include the investment industry, banks, charities, churches, the insurance industry, and the real estate industry. More on that later. 

Tax Expenditures

From the federal government’s standpoint, tax deductions can be viewed as tax expenditures. When taxpayers are allowed to deduct an item from taxable income, they receive - in effect - a government subsidy. If my marginal tax rate is 24% and I claim a deduction for a $1000 charitable contribution, my tax is reduced by $240, which is the same as receiving a $240 payment from the government. The federal government understands tax deductions to be subsidies and actually refers to them as “tax expenditures”. As part of the federal budget process, tax expenditures are identified and listed along with their cost. My source for much of what follows is a document titled Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2010-2014 prepared in December 2010 for the House Committed on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. It can be downloaded here. It defines tax expenditures as

revenue losses attributable to provisions of the Federal tax laws which allow a special exclusion, exemption, or deduction from gross income or which provide a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of liability.

Following are the tax expenditures that are expected to result in revenues losses of over $10 billion in 2011.



Exclusion of employer contributions for health care, health insurance premiums, and long-term care insurance premiums


Deduction for mortgage interest on owner-occupied residences


Reduced rates of tax on dividends and long-term capital gains


Earned income credit


Net exclusion of pension contributions and earnings: defined benefit plans


Deduction of nonbusiness State and local government income taxes, sales taxes, and personal property taxes


Deduction for charitable contributions


Net exclusion of pension contributions and earnings: defined contribution plans


Exclusion of Medicare benefits: hospital insurance (Part A)


Exclusion of untaxed Social Security and railroad retirement benefits


Exclusion of capital gains at death


Exclusion of interest on public purpose state and local government bonds


Exclusion of benefits provided under cafeteria plans


Exclusion of investment income on life insurance and annuity contracts


Credit for children under age 17


Exclusion of Medicare benefits: supplementary medical insurance (Part B)


Deduction for property taxes on real property


Exclusion of capital gains on sales of principal residences


Individual retirement arrangements (IRAs): Traditional and Roth


Net exclusion of pension contributions and earnings: plans covering partners and sole proprietors ( "Keogh plans")


Making work pay credit


Deduction for medical expenses and long-term care expenses


Deferral of active income of controlled foreign corporations


Deduction for income attributable to domestic production activities


Getting rid of all tax deductions need not increase total tax liabilities. To keep this reform “revenue neutral”, elimination of the deductions could be offset by a decrease in tax rates, allowing us to continue enjoying budget deficits in excess of $1 trillion (at the expense of our children). It would, however, result in some huge changes. Here are a few examples: 

  • Health care ($117.2 billion). Unlike most direct government expenditures on health care, the $160.2 billion “spent” by not taxing employer contributions for health care, health insurance premiums and long term care insurance programs is not based on need. It goes to families lucky enough to include someone whose employer offers a health insurance plan. Ending this deduction should generate a little more support for universal health care.

  • Mortgage interest ($93.8 billion). Eliminating the deduction for mortgage interest is going increase the cost of owing money on one’s home. People will want to pay off that mortgage as quickly as possible. Some will have the money to do so. Without IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans, people will have less incentive to invest in stocks, bonds, CDs etc., and that will free up money that can be used to pay down the mortgage. With mortgages being paid off sooner, banks will be earning a lot less interest on home loans, and with less money tied up in mortgages, banks will have more money to loan, which means that interest rates will go down. For the homebuyer, the loss of the mortgage interest deduction will be offset by lower interest rates.

    Without the deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes, people will more frequently choose to rent a home rather than buy. Condos will be converted back to rentals. This will take business away from the real estate industry.

    The deduction  for mortgage interest helps people buy homes, and that sounds really nice, but that "help" comes out of the pockets of other taxpayers. And the money goes not just for buying a place to live. It also pays for second homes, boats (as long as they provide basic living accommodations), and anything else the homeowner might want to buy with a home equity loan.

    The mortgage interest deduction may also contribute to global warming. Subsidizing home purchases enables people to build bigger houses ("McMansions") that require more energy to heat and cool. We've been hearing lately of "tear-downs", where homes are purchased with the intention of being torn down so a bigger house can be built on the lot. Michigan congressman John Dingell has proposed - as a way to reduce global warming - a less drastic reduction in the mortgage interest subsidy. A 9/27/07 Associated Press article in the Lansing State Journal says he's suggested a

    Phaseout of the the interest tax deduction on home mortgages for homes more than 3,000 square feet. Owners would keep most of the deduction for homes at the lower end of the scale, but it would be eliminated entirely for homes of 4,200 feet or more.

  • Charitable contributions ($40.3 billion). The nature of a charitable contribution is that it is free will. You decide how much to give and to whom it goes. There may be a few charities you like and many that you wouldn’t even consider. But because your taxes are reduced when contributions are itemized on your income tax return, you don’t - in effect - pay the full amount of the contribution. So while you get to choose your charity, the deductibility of contributions forces other taxpayers to pick up part of the cost, whether they want to or not.

    Ending the deduction will make charitable contributions more costly to those givers who itemize. To keep their net outlay the same, they will have to cut back by about 24% - whatever the tax rate - and charities will have 24% less to work with. Government programs may need to be expanded to make up the difference.

    Keep in mind that contributions to churches are considered charitable contributions for tax purposes. To call a church a charity is a real stretch. A small share of contributions goes to charitable activities, but most of it is spent on facilities, the recruitment of new members and on religious and social activities for members. If your itemized deductions include contributions to your church, you are forcing non-members - atheists, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, etc. - to help support your religion. We atheists really come up short, and we don’t like it one bit.

  • Pension contributions and earnings ($83.9 billion) Without IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans, Wall Street and the entire investment industry will shrink. People will have less incentive to invest, and without the deduction for mortgage interest, they’ll want to use any extra money they might have to pay off the mortgage.

  • Interest on life insurance savings ($28.2 billion). When people have to start paying taxes on interest from life insurance savings, they will be more likely to choose other investments, and the life insurance industry will lose business. And when employers stop paying the premiums for their employees’ life insurance, many of those employees will not choose to buy life insurance at all because they either can’t afford it or don’t need it.

Floating Tax Rate

The tax rate would float. The rate would be whatever is necessary to balance the budget. Every piece of legislation would be required to include a price tag, an estimate of the change in tax rate required to keep the budget balanced. Rate adjustments would be made periodically – quarterly, maybe. Folks who want to “starve the beast” by reducing taxes would no longer be able to do so. If they want to reduce government spending, they will have to do so directly, by cutting programs. 

No Corporate Tax

There would be no corporate income tax. Taxes on business are unfair because they just get passed on to the consumer, and the amount passed on is not based on ability to pay. Corporate profits will be taxed, but only as income to the owners/shareholders. Corporations will be required to distribute all profits quarterly.

In case you didn't catch that, I said that corporations will not be allowed to keep any of their profits. They will distribute all profits to shareholders, and the shareholders will be required to pay taxes on those distributions as part of their individual income. All income will be taxed, and it will all be taxed as individual income.

If you are concerned that this required distribution of profits deprives the corporation of capital it could use to reinvest - to finance new equipment, open new plants, or do research - my answer is that the corporation will have to get that money by borrowing. It will have to convince prospective lenders that the investment is sound and that the money will be repaid - with interest.

Limiting Business Expenses

Since they must be subtracted from gross proceeds to determine a business' profit for tax purposes, business expenses must be clearly defined. Not recognizing legitimate business expenses makes profits seem higher than they really are and unfairly increases the business' tax liability. On the other hand, allowing a business to claim expenses not related to the production and delivery of its product reduces its tax liability and forces other businesses and individuals to make up the loss in tax revenue. It also has the effect of subsidizing the purchase that was claimed as a business expense. To illustrate, let's say that I am a homebuilder and my profit for the year is $100,000. The tax rate is 24%, so my taxes are $24,000. Just before the end of the year, I spend $1000 to entertain some legislators who are considering a bill that will affect the home building industry. I claim it as a business expense, so it reduces my profit to $99,000 and my tax decreases to $24,660. In effect, entertaining the legislators only costs me $660. The government pays the other $240. 

I would limit business expenses to those necessary to the production and delivery of the product, fully aware that there is going to be a lot of disagreement about what expenses are necessary. This will be a very complicated aspect of an otherwise simple income tax. A permanent agency or commission would be needed to establish guidelines, respond to inquiries and settle disputes. Decisions will be made on the basis of what is good for the country, not what’s good for business - keeping in mind that a healthy business community is good for the country. 

The big item that would no longer be allowed as a business expense is advertising, on which $290 billion is expected to be spent in 2007. It is so big that I’ve addressed it separately (see Stop Subsidizing the Advertising Industry). 


The IRS will be fair, firm and fully funded. It will be allocated all the resources it needs to make sure that everyone pays his fair share. Every taxpayer can be confident that he is paying no more than anyone else, unlike in the current system in which the IRS is under-funded and the gap between taxes owed and taxes paid is estimated at $345 billion. Also, the IRS won't be giving away $1 billion in fraudulent refunds, like they did in 2007.