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Set aside debate over Romney tax math: Is tax reform a good idea?

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Mr. Brill was aiming his comment at President Obama and his Democratic allies. Others have similar concerns about Republicans.

"Let’s all take a deep breath here," Howard Gleckman, of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, appealed on Thursday after the Romney campaign accused the center of issuing a new analysis that was "misleading and deceitful."

In fact, Mr. Gleckman argued in a blog post, the center's latest research efforts "provide evidence that a deduction cap," an idea Romney has floated, "is a pretty good ... idea."

For the record, the Tax Policy Center and the American Enterprise Institute are themselves part of the fray over Romney's tax math. The center is funded by two left-leaning think tanks, and while it has a reputation as nonpartisan, its analyses have been used heavily by critics of the Romney plan. Brill, meanwhile, made his comments within an article that also sought to rebut those critics.

Three basic issues in tax reform

But both Brill and Gleckman are right that there's much more to debate than the details, or lack of details, in Romney's plan.

Basically, the idea of tax reform revolves around three issues: how to obtain needed revenue for the federal government, how to be fair (what level of "progressivity" to have in the tax code), and how to maximize economic growth.

Romney emphasizes the goal of restraining the amount of tax revenue the government takes, and calls for big federal spending cuts to avoid big deficits. He also says he wants the code essentially to retain its current progressive structure (with the top 5 percent of households continuing to pay a 60 percent share of income taxes). And he argues that simplifying the code, with lower rates for corporations as well as individuals, will boost economic growth.

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