The heat index soared past 100 degrees last week in Washington, caused in part by the hot air coming from Congress and the White House over taxes. But a whisper of a cold front was felt in a Wall Street Journal article by magazine publisher and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes in which he likened the tax code to the Berlin Wall and called for the code to be torn down.
In the last presidential election cycle, Mr. Forbes seemed to some like a gadfly-a Ross Perot with a better haircut and without the weirdness. While Mr. Perot has faded politically, Mr. Forbes continues to write and speak in ways that should command more serious attention.
In his Journal column and in Forbes magazine, he lays out the case for abandoning the current tax code and creating a innovative one for a new century. He chastises the Republican congressional leadership and the White House for making the tax code more complicated than it already is, noting the "layman's overview" of tax cuts proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee runs 215 pages, the outline of the "tax-simplification provisions" runs 78 pages, and a description of the bill's "technical correction provisions" is 31 pages. That's 324 pages of explanation before you get to the proposed tax bill.
Under the agreement between Congress and the White House, notes Mr. Forbes, the tax code will become "more complex, more confusing, and more corrupt." The Clinton-Gore proposal is "pure social engineering."
Inexplicably, he writes, Republicans are going along: "The House and Senate tax bills will make the 7.5 million-word tax code more complicated than ever." He notes that even the Russians are doing better at tax reform than we are, abolishing 47 different types of taxes and reducing from five to two the number of tax rates on personal income.
The average American family, writes Mr. Forbes, pays more in federal, state, and local taxes than for food, clothing, transportation, and housing combined. Many families are forced to work two jobs just to pay their taxes. Mr. Forbes asks for reconsideration of his flat-tax proposal of 17 percent with exemptions of $13,000 for each adult, $5,000 for each child and $17,000 for a single parent. A family of four earning $36,000 would pay nothing under a federal flat tax.
The challenge for Mr. Forbes and anyone else desiring real tax reform is to change the way Americans think about taxes and government. He must shift the focus so that people realize it's their money, not the government's. And he should indicate what we could do with that money if we were allowed to keep more of it, rather than having it garnisheed by an increasingly bloated and unresponsive government.
A flat tax would mean a real choice for people who would prefer to stay at home with their children while their spouse works; money to underwrite private education for those who don't have the resources, like the Clintons, to send their children to private schools; increased retirement savings and investment, allowing people to take better care of themselves and rely less on government; a real economic boom fueled with a huge influx of more capital that would produce more jobs and higher tax revenue for government; a fairer tax system requiring you to pay more only if you made more; and the elimination of one of the most hated bureaucracies-the IRS.
Mr. Forbes has tried to broaden his appeal by reaching out to social conservatives. He paid for a series of radio ads in support of legislation that would have banned partial-birth abortions.
Congressional Republicans are making their case for tax reform based on a "best we can get with this president" strategy. What is needed is someone to speak to the heart of the problem, which is the tax code itself. With no one else emerging to claim leadership of the dispirited and directionless Republican Party, Mr. Forbes is positioning himself for that role. He deserves another look.
c 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate