The largest problem that dogged Japan during its lost decade was a stop-and-go fiscal policy in which stimulus packages were administered in an "on again, off again" fashion and taxes were lowered and then raised. There is a risk that the U.S. could fall into this trap in an effort to strike a balance between short-term fiscal support and long-term budget integrity.
This strongly suggests that congressional leaders of both parties should embrace a pro-growth fiscal reform that would help to create long-run fiscal stability and foster certainty about future tax rates. With the 2001-2003 tax cuts set to expire at the end of 2010, the time is now to move ahead with broad-based reform.
A good starting point would be the bipartisan Wyden-Gregg tax reform bill. This bill is not incredibly bold, but is probably the best we could do in the current environment and is much better than the current tax code.
Wyden-Gregg would be revenue-neutral; it would simplify the tax code by reducing the number of personal income tax brackets to three from six and would do so without raising marginal income tax rates. The bill also would cut the top corporate tax rate to 24% from 35% in exchange for eliminating corporate tax loopholes.
This would surely be preferable to raising marginal tax rates at a time of high economic anxiety. Raising tax rates on capital, which will occur if the 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of this year, generally has not been an effective source of revenue for the Treasury and could do damage to the recent strong productivity trends the U.S. has enjoyed.
The most likely course for the U.S. economy from here is for a choppy recovery cycle to continue until households have increased their savings and reduced their financial obligations to sufficient levels and financial institutions have more confidence that loan losses have peaked.
Avoiding policy mistakes during this period will be critical. While the Fed is the ultimate source of liquidity and thus "demand," congressional leaders could help reduce uncertainty and increase confidence by embracing a bipartisan tax reform that focuses on broadening the tax base and preserving incentives for growth.