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The Tax Reform Act of 1986 has been widely heralded as the most important tax legislation since the income tax was converted to a tax on the masses during the Second World War. Since his favorite proposal for a constitutional amendment – the one calling for a balanced budget – was not adopted, the 1986 Tax Reform Act clearly will be the major domestic achievement of Ronald Reagan's presidency. This law even produced the new Internal Revenue Code of 1986; no more Internal Revenue Code of 1954, as amended. It took until the very end of 1987 until we were forced to add that felicitous phrase "as amended" to the 1986 Code.

The near term future of the income tax – and, perhaps, even its long-term destiny – will be shaped by the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It is, to be sure, significant legislation, some would even say unique, massive both in its scope and in its detail – at least a 9.1 if we had a Richter scale for this sort of thing. What seems most unique to me about this legislation, however, is the character of the commentary it has inspired, commentary marked by hyperbole. Hyperbole about the 1986 Act from the politicians and the press is, of course, unexceptional; hyperbole, after all, is their stock in trade. I am surprised, however, that nobody even asked President Reagan, "Are you sure?" when he described the 1986 Tax Act as ''the best anti-poverty measure, the best pro-family measure and the best job-creation measure ever to come out of the Congress of the United States." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Zero for three, Mr. President.

Even people who should know better have gotten carried away. Reading the academic literature on the 1986 Act has a quality reminiscent of watching a Tennessee Williams' play: you know there is something very wrong here, but nobody's talking about it. The Brookings Institution, for example, published an article heralding the 1986 Tax Reform Act as "The Impossible Dream Comes True.” Surely that title says more about the poor author's dreams than about the 1986 Tax Act. The 1986 Act has generated a flood of commentary and, necessarily, an enormous amount of technical analysis, but it has inspired very little real evaluation of its merits and demerits. The time has come to tell the truth about this tax reform.


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