How (and How Not to) Confront Income Inequality with Tax Reform

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Every year the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) produces reports about each of its 34 member countries’ economic prospects. The one they just published about the United States points out the “disproportionate income growth for top earners over the past two decades,” that our tax system is a global underperformer when it comes to ameliorating poverty, and recommends that progressive tax reforms should play in a key role in tackling our increasing income inequality.
According the OECD, income inequality has grown continuously over the last four decades. In fact, of the 34 countries in the OECD, the U.S. has the fourth highest level of income inequality as measured by each country’s Gini coefficient. Reinforcing this trend, our current tax-and-transfer system is 30 percent less effective in reducing income inequality than it was in 1980.

One approach that the OECD proposes to counteract U.S. income inequality through the federal tax code is to limit the tax savings from each dollar of certain deductions and exclusions in the federal income tax code. This approach was recently proposed as part of President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act. Such proposals would increase the progressivity of the tax code and reduce the economic distortions created by tax breaks.

Bad Ideas

While many of the report’s recommendations are progressive and smart, it also some recommendations that would please the most conservative policymakers (leaving us scratching our heads as to how AP could label it “left-leaning”). For example, it calls for a significant reduction in corporate tax rates and the continuation of the special low tax rates for capital income. Of course, what the U.S. needs to do is enact revenue-positive corporate tax reform and treat capital income as ordinary income because these moves would afford us the revenue to implement the OECD’s other more reasonable recommendations, such as increasing government spending on education and job training, to reduce income inequality.

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