Introduction: Setting the Eagle Free

“In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low, and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now…The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.”

John F. Kennedy
Economic Club of New York
December 14, 1962

These words of President Kennedy were a great inspiration to me as the tax reform movement was launched in the early 1980s with the Kemp/Roth tax cut. Kennedy’s vision and courage can serve as examples for all Americans as we struggle to make this nation better for our children and grandchildren. His remarks from the Economic Club of New York ring as true today as they did in 1962.

At the first meeting of our commission back in June, I held up a blank sheet of paper and said, “This is what we start with.” That was our charge: Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform to study the current tax code, listen to the suggestions and ideas of people from around the country, and submit to Congress our recommendations for comprehensive reform.

A very diverse and dedicated group of 14 people, with the help of an invaluable, overworked, and underpaid staff, set out to design an entirely new tax system for America’s 21st century; one which would promise a booming economy, promote job creation, and ensure the greatest possible opportunity for all Americans to work, save, invest, and reach their potential. We operated under the premise that an economic growth rate of 2.5% is unacceptable to the American people.

This commission was empowered not merely to offer superficial reforms, to trim a rate here and close a loophole there, but to begin with a tabula rasa and map out a totally new tax structure for America’s next century. We also wanted to help inform the whole world, particularly the emerging democracies, that the goal of tax policy is raising revenue, not redistribution of wealth.

Our nation has arrived at a unique moment in history. With the passing of the Cold War, we are standing at the edge of a new millennium with extraordinary possibilities. Our country is poised to help lead the world into a new era of economic growth fueled by an information-age technological revolution that can yield unparalleled expansion in jobs, productivity, innovation, and prosperity. We must embrace this opportunity and challenge. However, such an embrace will prove difficult, perhaps impossible, if we remain saddled with our current tax code. The current system is indefensible: it is riddled with special interest tax breaks, and it overtaxes both labor and capital. We must construct a tax system that reflects our highest values and unleashes our greatest potential.

The comments and concerns we heard from the American people over the last several months, coupled with a systematic review of the current tax code, helped us establish certain principles to guide us to our conclusions. Surely, a tax code which is simple and fair must generate sufficient revenue so that the federal government may carry out its legitimate tasks. Second, it must not place a tax burden on those members of society least able to bear one. And, perhaps most important of all, it must not restrict the innovative and entrepreneurial capacities of Americans upon which rising living standards and our general prosperity so greatly depend. Our proposals are in keeping with these principles.

Wildly excessive and unjust taxes have locked away access to capital and credit necessary for lower-income Americans to launch the next generation of entrepreneurship. Today, sadly, we see the American people’s sense of dynamism and hope, their ability to strive and compete diminished by a tax code which penalizes success, retards investment, and sends capital fleeing overseas. The commission is united in the belief that only a pro-growth tax code can restore America’s confidence at home and her greatness abroad. We want a tax code and an overall economy that will liberate the American dream and remove the barriers to upward social and economic mobility. The American ethos of entrepreneurship and optimism made America great once before. We believe these proposals will bolster that ethos again and help restore integrity and honesty to our system.

The author John Gardner has observed that there are many contributing factors to the rise of civilization – accidents of resources, geography, and military power. But whatever other ingredients comprise the greatness of nations, he writes, “There occurs at breathtaking moments in history an exhilarating burst of energy and motivation, of hope and zest and imagination, and a severing of the bonds that normally hold in check the full release of human possibilities. A door is opened, and the caged eagle soars.” That eagle, the symbol of our nation, represents the creative spirit, talents, and aspirations of the American people. The charge of this commission and the intent of our recommendations is to open the door and help set that eagle in all of us free.

Jack Kemp
National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform