The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
On April 1, 2002, a press release announced, “The Tax Policy Center, a new joint venture between the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution” was releasing a “new online resource” called “Tax Facts.” It was TPC’s first website, funded by a small grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
April Fools’ Day might be my favorite holiday, but this wasn’t a joke. Cofounders Bill Gale, Gene Steuerle, and I believed that the public needed timely, accurate, and accessible tax policy information. We hoped that clearly presented, objective data and analysis would raise the level of tax policy debates, better inform citizens, and, just maybe, result in better public policy.
Twenty years later, I think it worked out well.
In 2002, this idea was far from a sure bet. While Bill, Gene, and I were convinced the need existed, we weren’t sure that the public and funders would buy in. After all, tax policy isn’t exactly glamorous. Super smart people, dating back at least to Brookings’s Joe Pechman, had tried and failed to make the case with funders. Gene had been trying to convince Urban Institute funders for years with little success.
What changed? It helped that President George W. Bush made tax policy the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda. His 2001 tax cuts radically cut federal tax revenues and delivered most of the benefits to very high-income households. The Ford Foundation gave us the money to build a microsimulation model that made it possible to analyze the distributional, revenue, and economic incentive effects of the 2001 tax law. And we’ve used improved versions to analyze all major tax proposals since.
Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to draw support from many generous foundations and individuals. This has allowed TPC to improve its models, provide timely analysis of a much wider range of policy issues, and do cutting-edge research to support evidence-based policy making.
We also were fortunate to draw on a remarkable group of tax and budget experts at the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Congressional Budget Office directors Alice Rivlin, Bob Reischauer, Rudy Penner, Peter Orszag, and Donald Marron all were affiliated with TPC. Our staff plus Urban’s and Brookings’s reputations gave us instant credibility.
To point out just two of many: Frank Sammartino designed TPC’s first microsimulation tax model. After Frank returned to CBO, a brilliant and tireless young economist named Jeff Rohaly has presided over the model’s evolution.
Our first website was built on a database of tax statistics produced by government agencies—mostly the IRS. My research assistant Deborah Kobes created an online version of public information about federal tax programs that we called “Tax Facts” and later “Tax Statistics.” It has been one of our most popular features over the past two decades.
Five months after TPC opened for business, we showed off our tax model at a press briefing on our analysis of the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT). Our model showed that the AMT, which was originally targeted at rich tax avoiders, would raise taxes and create untold complexity for 30+ million middle class taxpayers within 10 years. Reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal wrote about our report and soon after we were mentioned in newspapers across the country.
Last year, the media mentioned TPC’s estimates and analysis more than 14,000 times. TPC’s blog was viewed 1.4 million times. It turned out that the press and public really did want to know more about tax policy.
Happy Birthday, TPC!
There will be a big celebration and look to the future later. Meanwhile, if you’d like to send TPC a birthday gift, click the donate button on our website.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.