Two Good New Books on Tax Reform

If you are interested in a serious but accessible look at my favorite topic—tax reform—check out two new books. One, The Benefit and the Burden  Tax Reform: Why We Need It and What It Will Take by Bruce Bartlett, focuses on individual reform. The second, Corporate Tax Reform: Taxing Profits in the 21st Century by Martin A. Sullivan, aims at…well, you’ve probably guessed by now.

Bruce’s contribution, a full–throated call for reform, has gotten a surprising amount of attention for a tax book. Even Jon Stewart had Bruce on the other night. And the notice is well-deserved. He’s written a clear, well-reasoned brief for reform.

A prolific writer who has worked for several Republican members of Congress (including Ron Paul back in the day) and in the administrations of presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Bruce makes no secret of his goal. He wants to convince you that the tax code is a mess and needs a major overhaul. As he memorably puts it, the code is a garden that hasn’t been weeded since 1986.  It is an apt image.

Bruce has made something of a second career expressing his, let us say, disappointment in the Republican Party where he made a home for so long.  And The Benefit and the Burden mercilessly skewers some loopy ideas now floating around the party such as the Fair Tax (which he calls “completely unworkable”) and the theory that lowering taxes will cut the size of  government—a claim that, while entirely discredited, won’t go away.

In the end, Bruce makes a case for phasing in a well-designed Value-Added Tax, both to help reduce the deficit and in the name of economic efficiency.

The Benefit and the Burden tackles the often-daunting topic of tax reform with short chapters, lots of suggested readings, (and– full disclosure–kind words for the Tax Policy Center). If I have a quibble, it is that while the book is aimed at general readers, it sometimes assumes a level of knowledge about economics and taxes that most Americans don’t have.

Marty Sullivan—an economist and long-time columnist and blogger for the highly-respected journals published by Tax Analysts, has written a different kind of book. Marty focuses exclusively on the corporate tax and, in about 150 pages, tells you everything you’d want to know about how we tax these firms, why we should do better, and how hard it will be to accomplish that goal.

Marty supports reform, but his book plays it straight down the middle. For a lay reader, corporate taxation can be pretty overwhelming stuff, but Marty is a terrific writer and makes the story as accessible as possible. And unlike many books on the subject, Corporate Tax Reform doesn’t ignore the often-ugly politics behind the tax laws

While politicians deal in cheap rhetoric about cutting corporate rates and closing business “loopholes” without ever identifying which tax breaks they’d kill, Marty doesn’t flinch. Corporate Tax Reform offers a clear-eyed look at many of those preferences and the price of ditching them.

These two books are important additions to the libraries of readers who want to learn more about how the tax system really works, and explore ways to fix it.