Fiscal reform: Now or never*


By Nicolas Delalande (Centre d’histoire at Sciences Po)

While the question of taxation was one of the major economic issues of the presidential election, it must not be forgotten that there often exists a gap between the political and media attention received by a set of campaign promises (what political scientists would call the “politics”) and their practical implications in terms of public policy (the “policies”). It is also worth asking whether any such tax reform will actually take place.

For over a year, commentators and politicians have repeatedly argued that taxation would be a key question in the presidential election. Many saw it as one of the only real issues distinguishing the outgoing majority, which with the TEPA law of August 2007 had bet on a strategy of “fiscal shock” to unleash growth (50% cap on taxes, reduction of inheritance taxes, exemption of overtime, etc.), from the Left opposition, which has been quick to denounce the injustice and inefficacy of measures that undermine progressive taxation without obtaining the expected economic benefits, while deepening the deficit. The promise of reform, or even a tax “revolution”, was high on the political agenda, particularly for the Left. However, intense conflicts and debates over taxes do not guarantee that the election of Francois Hollande will be followed by a genuine transformation of the French tax system. There may very well be a gap between the political and media attention received by campaign promises (the “politics”) and their practical implications for public policy (the “policies”). However much tax reform may be touted during the campaign, it may well be distinctly less popular when it comes time for implementation, when political will runs up against varied forms of sometimes unanticipated resistance.

There has, nevertheless, been a felt need almost everywhere in Europe to increase the taxation of the wealthy, not so much to solve the problem of government deficits as to restore a semblance of fairness and shared effort in a time of economic crisis. A number of countries have embarked on this path (the top marginal rate of income tax is 57% in Sweden, 50% in Britain, and 45% in Germany), even though some have already sounded the retreat (David Cameron’s Conservative government has proposed cutting the top marginal rate back to 45% in 2013). Even billionaires like Warren Buffett in the United States have called for raising taxes on better-off strata to put an end to the most blatant inequalities. This kind of reform actually consists of backing off the policies of the last fifteen to twenty years by reversing the trend to erode the progressivity of the tax system: strictly speaking, this is less a matter of reform than of cancelling previous reforms. Increasing tax revenue no longer results as before from creating new tax measures but from removing the tax reductions and exemptions enacted in recent years. Hence the debate, both in the US and Europe, over the real nature of the “tax increases”: the Republicans accuse the Democrats of increasing the tax burden, while the latter claim to be merely reversing exemptions that they consider unwarranted and inefficient. Reform thus amounts to nothing more than the restoration of the situation ex ante. In France, for example, the Socialists have pledged to cancel what remains of the tax package of 2007 (after having removed the tax cap in 2011), to significantly reduce tax loopholes and to establish a new income tax bracket: the reference point for these proposals is in fact the actual system as it existed only five to ten years ago, with the exception of the promise added during the campaign to create an exceptional 75% bracket on incomes of over 1 million euros.

A more ambitious structural reform, for example along the lines proposed in the recent book by Camille Landais, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, would involve an entirely different scale. Opening the “black box” of the redistribution machine actually implies a much wider debate on the missions of the tax system, its administrative organization and its relationship to social and family policy. This is where the “costs” of policy reform, such as the eventual cancellation – or modulation – of France’s “family quotient” tax-splitting system, may be felt most directly. In any case, the erosion of the belief that the only reforms that could possibly be any good involve reducing the tax burden means that the current environment has never been more favourable for initiating this debate. The political, social and financial implications of this new configuration will certainly be complex and demanding in terms of democracy, but, in light of the numerous critics of the failings of the existing system, there is little doubt that 2012 offers a unique opportunity for undertaking ambitious reform. Tax reform implies the need for an effective political coalition to overcome the various social, institutional and technical obstacles that are likely to arise and to be able to take advantage of the favourable circumstances in which ideologies and beliefs that were thought to be firmly established are now on shaky ground. From a historical standpoint, it should not seem absurd that the current economic crisis, which is often compared to the 1930s, calls for and indeed even requires a renegotiation of the fiscal pact on a scale as significant as that experienced by Europe and America in the first third of the 20th century. The process of reform will, however, inevitably be more complex than before: the systems for collection and redistribution, now more sophisticated than ever, are based on an array of measures that have arisen in different periods and in unique political, economic and social contexts.

* This text is taken from the article “The political economy of tax reform: a historical analysis”, which was published in a special Tax Reform issue of the OFCE Revue and is available on the OFCE web site.