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Despite the demographic causes of the long-term U.S. fiscal gap, only severe dysfunction in our political system, abetted by malfunctioning and discontinuously responsive global financial markets, could lead to a U.S. budget catastrophe. Unfortunately, the risk of disaster appears to be alarmingly high. The rising danger has implications both for income tax reform and for the possible adoption of new tax instruments.

For income tax reform, the main implication is that base-broadening should be undertaken without accompanying 1986-style tax rate reduction. The threat of a fiscal catastrophe also raises concern about otherwise desirable but potentially revenue-losing reforms, such as to the rules for corporate and international taxation.

A number of tax instruments not currently used in the U.S. might be appealing even if the reform that included them was revenue-neutral overall. These include a value-added tax (VAT), a carbon tax, and a financial activities tax (FAT), although in my view a financial transactions tax (FTT) would not have comparable merit. All of these instruments potentially gain appeal if they could be used to ease the political prospects for raising overall U.S. tax revenues, and thus for reducing the risk of a budgetary catastrophe.

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