07/31/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

The Challenge of Tax Reform: A Price Without a Product

I see the peeps over at Wonkbook were struck by the same quote I was this morning from a New York Times pieceon tax reform.

"Get rid of the deductions that don't affect me." That's what Debbie Schaeffer, the owner of Mrs. G TV and Appliances, told Max Baucus and Dave Camp, the chairmen of the Senate and House committees charged with tax reform, when they asked for her advice.

The Wonkbookers quite reasonably think the problem is that actual tax reform -- the type that involves changes to real people's tax liabilities -- is less inviting than the awesome ideas that politicians like Rep. Camp and Sen. Baucus kvell about.

To see why, Compare two sentences:

By the end of this year, we're going to pass revenue neutral tax reform that gets rids of wasteful loopholes and deductions and lowers your rates!

And the translated version:

By the end of this year, we're going to pass a tax-reform plan that doesn't save Americans any money but cuts things like the state and local tax deduction and the home-mortgage interest deduction and the depreciation rules for businesses in order to lower some of your rates!

I think that's right but I also believe there's a significantly deeper problem here. Selling tax reform is selling a price without a product. Let me explain.

Taxes are not just a matter of rates, schedules, and deductions. They're a means to an end, the "end" being the funding of government. Yet the presentation by reformers like Camp, Hatch, Baucus, and so on, deal only with the means, not the end. It's all a discussion about how their going to jigger the price in ways that you should like, even though as Ezra and co. point out, some of you will pay more. It's never a discussion about what you're getting for your money.

Actually, it's worse. While the reformers are running around trying to get folks excited about tax expenditures (the price), government (the product) is increasingly dysfunctional. I don't mean to be overly critical of the would-be reformers. I agree with some of their motivation and I appreciate their openness to ideas like the one the president unveiled yesterday (Hatch was one of the few Republicans who sounded at least slightly open to the deal).

But their sequencing is off. Without getting into a meaningful, substantive, convincing discussion and commitment to improve the functioning of government in ways that really matter to the majority -- meeting market failures, ensuring retirement security, protecting the environment, providing real economic opportunity, affordable health care), they're like Monte-Hall-style salesmen trying to engage customers in a Let's-Make-a-Deal negotiation about what's behind the curtain.

I mean, really, guys. I very much appreciate your getting out there to talk to the people, but explain to me why any constituent should engage with you in a conversation about funding a government wherein one chamber is about to take its 40th vote on repealing Obamacare.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.