What Does the Government Shutdown Mean? That We're Not Focusing On the Real Tax Issue

Don’t you just love this time of year? The leaves are changing colors, the air is crisp, and Washington is fighting another fiscal battle. Unfortunately, the annual signs of autumn are now accompanied with the Democratic vs. Republican budget showdown. Republicans voted to defund Obamacare, the president has refused to negotiate on raising the debt limit, and our government shut down Tuesday.  How can anyone doubt that the ever-elusive “grand bargain” will never happen?

What gets lost in all this political posturing is the fact that the United States is in desperate need of deficit and tax reform. The last time Congress enacted a comprehensive tax reform, Top Gun was still in theaters. For those of us too young to remember, the year was 1986, and the president was Ronald Reagan. Democrats and Republicans in Congress worked together with President Reagan to pass the Tax Reform Act of 1986. In today’s Congress that sort of compromise and bipartisanship is unheard of. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 helped propel the American economy forward, paving the way for the boom of the 1990s. Our nation needs a tax code for a 21st century economy.

My goal is to borrow ideas from both sides of the political spectrum in order to find common areas where compromise can be made, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 will be my main reference for policy ideas.  

President Reagan and Congress raised the maximum long-term capital gains rate from 20% to 28% and lowered the maximum ordinary income tax rate from 50% to 28%. They did this based on the principle that equal incomes should pay equal taxes. This principle should play a major role in any current discussion of tax reform. Is it fair that Warren Buffet pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary?  A majority of Americans do not think so. Recall the uproar during the 2012 election over the revelation that Mitt Romney paid an effective tax rate of 14%. Since the wealthy receive most of their income from capital gains, and not ordinary income, it is only sensible they pay a similar rate. 

Today, the top capital gains rate (20%) is about 20% lower than the top income tax rate (39.6%). Many economists may argue that this is necessary to encourage investment by the wealthy. This may be true, but there is definitely room for Congress to raise capital gains taxes while still creating incentives for investment. One way to promote investing is to revive a 1985 proposal to index capital gains to inflation, which would provide a tax break to investors. For example, if inflation is 10% during the time one owned an asset, then the first 10% of capital gains would be tax-exempt.  This is just one of the numerous strategies that Congress could use to promote investment while closing the gap between capital gains and income taxes.

Increasing the capital gains tax serves as a positive step towards bringing more equality into our tax code. For those deterred by rhetoric about the battle of the 99% versus the 1%,  a higher capital gains tax is a more sensible, moderate way to reduce some of the tensions created by this perceived income inequality. Currently, the long-term capital gains rate is the same 20%, whether you make $1,000 or $1,000,000 in gains. A progressive capital gains rate (maybe one that mirrors the income tax brackets) may be another innovative policy Congress should consider.

What other policies and solutions do you think should be included in capital gains tax reform?  Leave your ideas below.