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Unpublished Paper
Critical Tax Policy: A Pathway to Reform?
ExpressO (2013)
  • Nancy J. Knauer
The Global Recession of 2008 and ensuing austerity measures have renewed the urgency surrounding the call for fundamental tax reform. Before embarking on fundamental tax reform, this Article proposes adding a critical lens to existing US tax policy to ensure that any proposals for change are informed, transparent, and responsive to the needs (and abilities) of individual taxpayers. This Article makes the case for a specific method of inquiry – Critical Tax Policy – that is built on the articulation of difference rather than false assumptions of sameness. Critical Tax Policy incorporates the insights of a growing international tax equity movement that has shown how facially neutral tax policy can reinforce existing inequities or bias. It also incorporates the insights of critical tax scholars who write from a diverse range of outsider perspectives and acknowledges the constitutive role of tax policy in the larger “blueprint for the aims and ambitions of the nation state.” Traditional tax policy is focused primarily on distributional concerns defined by income level. Tax policy intentionally looks past the identities of individual taxpayers and is self-consciously indifferent to the impact that taxation can have on existing social, political, and economic disparities. This strong belief in “taxpayer neutrality” is even reflected in data collection practices and, as a result, it is currently impossible to “put a face on America’s tax returns.” This Article fist engages the multiple claims of neutrality in existing tax policy and then outlines the essential components of the critical lens. It also explores practical ways to integrate the key insights of Critical Tax Policy in the development of federal tax policy. These proposals all draw on long-standing institutional traditions and include: 1) enhanced information collection, 2) the creation of a “diversity expenditure budget,” and 3) the requirement of a “diversity impact statement.” An overriding goal of Critical Tax Policy is to reveal the false neutrality of tax provisions. Just as Stanley Surrey made tax expenditures visible to policymakers in the 1970s, the addition of a critical lens can show a new generation of policymakers how stated considerations of equity and uniformity can actually reify and perpetuate inequity.
  • Critical tax theory,
  • critical tax scholarship,
  • fundamental tax reform,
  • gender sensitive budgeting,
  • gender mainstreaming,
  • equity,
  • efficiency,
  • simplicity,
  • tax reform,
  • same-sex couple,
  • qualifying child,
  • marital filing provisions,
  • defense of marriage act,
  • DOMA,
  • tax equity,
  • impact statement,
  • impact assessment,
  • tax expenditure,
  • diversity expenditure budget,
  • demographic data,
  • directive 15,
  • critical lens
Publication Date
Spring April 13, 2013
Citation Information
Nancy J. Knauer. "Critical Tax Policy: A Pathway to Reform?" ExpressO (2013)
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