Over the past few weeks, GOP presidential hopefuls began offering their views on US tax reform. From Rubio to Cruz to Ben Carson, the idea of a flat tax, a single tax rate applied to all taxpayers, has become the rallying cry of GOP candidates. Simple, swift, fair, except for the fact that it would be an outright disaster.
In October, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column by GOP candidate Rick Santorum entitled, A Flat Tax is the Best Path to Prosperity, heralding the coming of a new, just and simplified tax system. In it, Santorum proposes a single tax rate of 20% that would be applied to all income in the US. His plan would eliminate the marriage penalty, the death tax and the alternative minimum tax, pernicious taxes paid by a great number of Americans. In its place, each taxpayer would be given a $2,750 standard deduction, as most other deductions and credits would be eliminated. Santorum estimates that his tax plan will reduce federal tax receipts by $1.1 trillion over ten years, to be paid for in part, he explains, by repealing Obamacare. Hmm.
But a flat tax ignores several important realities about the US economy and its tax base. First, among these is the fact that 43% of American taxpayers pay nothing in federal income tax. Moreover, roughly 14% of US households pay neither federal income taxes nor payroll taxes (with two-thirds of these taxpayers being elderly). The reason for the low rate of tax participation, according to the Tax Policy Center, is fairly straightforward: half simply earn too little, while the other half reduce their taxable income through the earned income and child tax credit.
Now we can argue that these individuals are not paying their fair share, but the fact is, a flat tax would devastate these households, already stressed to make ends meet on marginal incomes. Moreover, tax collections from this population, in light of their resources would make this proposal not only unfair, but also highly unlikely.
Now the question remains, if 43% of taxpayers pay no federal income taxes, who does pay? Apparently, 83% of the $1.26 trillion in total US income taxes collected in 2014 came from the top 1/5th of taxpayers. The top 20% accounted for 51% of total US personal income and 83% of total personal income taxes (the reason the latter number is higher than the first is, of course, due to the progressive tax system currently in effect).
A flat tax of 20% would greatly reduce the income collected from this higher income group, while doing little to raise tax collections from the 80% of US taxpayers that account for the remaining 17% of total federal income tax. In short, a flat tax would be a disaster. And while proponents of the flat tax will argue that lower tax rates will incentivize greater production and therefore raise the total level of income subject to tax, there's simply no reliable data to support this conclusion. As we enter the new year, the GOP needs to drop the flat tax and move on to a more sophisticated tax plan if it intends to capture the imagination of the voting public.