Back-Door Tax Increases Are a Recipe for Bigger Government

Martin Feldstein’s on a roll, but not in a good way. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, he advocated throwing in the towel on reforming Social Security into a system of personal retirement accounts. Today, in the New York Times, he endorses big tax increases.

Rather odd positions for someone who served as Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Gipper must be rolling in his grave.

To be fair, when compared to Obama’s tax-hike plan, Feldstein wants to raise taxes in ways that impose much less damage on the economy. Obama wants to raise tax rate on productive behavior, thus discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Feldstein, by contrast, wants to cap various tax preferences.

Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue… But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates. …tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name. …such tax expenditures create incentives for wasteful borrowing and spending; they have been factors in the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of health care. …here is a way to curb this loss of revenue without eliminating any individual deduction: limit the total tax saving for any individual to a maximum percentage of his total income. …What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more. The cap would affect more than 80 percent of taxpayers. Although they would continue to benefit from the mortgage deduction, the health insurance exclusion and other tax expenditures, their tax savings would not increase if they took out a larger mortgage or a more expensive insurance policy. … a 2 percent cap on tax expenditures in 2011 would raise tax revenue by $278 billion — nearly 30 percent of total projected income tax revenue for this year. The extra revenue would increase over time, reaching nearly half of the projected future fiscal deficits.

I’m not a fan of tax preferences. I agree with much of Professor Feldstein’s argument about the inefficiency and distortions that are created when government plays industrial policy with the tax code.

But there are good ways and bad ways of addressing the problem. If Professor Feldstein was proposing to cap or eliminate tax preferences as part of a plan that also lowered tax rates, that would be great news.

Unfortunately, Feldstein is proposing to cap tax preferences in order to funnel more money to Washington. But giving more tax revenue to politicians and bureaucrats, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, would be like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

The big problem with Feldstein’s approach is that any source of additional revenue will ease up the pressure to restrain government spending. There are several budget plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s proposal and the House Study Committee plan, that would significantly improve America’s fiscal position by restraining the growth of federal spending. But these pro-growth initiatives will have zero chance of getting enacted if politicians think more revenue is forthcoming.

America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not insufficient revenue.

Yes, the tax code is riddled with terrible provisions that are both corrupt and economically inefficient. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of tax reform - not as part of a plan to give politicians an excuse to prop up big government.