March 24th, 2012
03:43 PM ET

Zakaria: America needs a 2-page tax code

Editor's Note: Be sure to catch Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN every Sunday at 10am and 1pm ET.

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

We’re going to hear a lot of polarized rhetoric over the next few months. The Republicans and Democrats will seem to disagree about everything. But there is one huge and important area where there is a possibility - a possibility - of bipartisan action and that’s tax reform.

Most Americans - Republicans and Democrats - dislike the tax code. They’re right to do so. America has what is arguably the world’s most complex tax code. The federal code plus IRS rulings is now 70,000 pages long. The code itself is 16,000 pages. The statist French, for example, have a tax code of only 1,909 pages - only 12% as long as ours. And then there are countries like Russia, the Czech Republic, Estonia that have innovated and moved to a flat tax, with considerable success.

You have to understand, complexity equals corruption.

When John McCain was still a raging reformer, he used to point out that the tax code was the foundation for the corruption of American politics. Special interests pay politicians vast amounts of cash for their campaigns and in return they get favorable exemptions, credits or loopholes in the tax code.

In other countries this sort of bribery takes place underneath bridges and with cash in brown envelopes. In America it is institutionalized and legal but it is the same thing: Cash to politicians in return for favorable treatment from the government.

The U.S. tax system is not simply corrupt, it is corrupt in a deceptive manner that has degraded the entire system of American government. Congress is able to funnel vast sums of money in perpetuity to its favored funders through the tax code without anyone realizing it.

For those who despair at the role of money in politics, the simplest way to get the corruption out of Washington is to remove the prize that members of Congress give away - preferential tax treatment. A flatter tax code with almost no exemptions does that.

The simplest fix to our tax code would be would be to lower the income tax dramatically, lower the corporate tax, and instead raise revenues through a national sales tax, or a value-added tax (VAT).

The U.S. is the only rich country in the world without a national sales tax. Germany has one at 19%, Britain at 20%, Korea at 10%.

What’s the appeal of a consumption tax?

First, it is efficient. Most studies, including one by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), suggest that the federal government loses several hundred billion dollars a year to tax fraud. This is much tougher to pull off with a consumption tax. Second, it provides the government with a more stable form of revenue than income taxes. Income taxes fluctuate greatly between boom and bust years. Third, American’s consume too much, often using credit and leverage to do so. A consumption tax would moderate this behavior. Government will always get less of a behavior it taxes and more of what it subsidies.

Ironically, the heavy reliance on income taxes makes the American system more progressive than those in Europe. The federal government gets about 43% of its total tax revenue from taxes on individual incomes and profits, compared with only 29% in Germany and 22% in France. The balance for France and Germany comes from the VAT, which is highly regressive. One recent OECD study showed that the top ten percent in America pay a larger share of total taxes, 45.1%, than do the top ten percent in any of the 24 countries examined. In Germany they pay 31% of the taxes, in France 28%.

But the best thing about tax reform is that it kills corruption. So if you ask me what kind of tax code I am in favor of, I am in favor of almost any new tax code that fulfils one requirement: It should fit on two pages.


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