Tag: tax break

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

‘Tax Cuts’ and Welfare Spending

A story in the Washington Post today is headlined: “Obama Would Keep $85 Billion in Tax Breaks for Working Poor.”

The “tax breaks” in question are expansions in the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. The Post story repeatedly calls the expansions “tax breaks” and “tax cuts.” The budget expert quoted in the story calls them “tax cuts,” and so does a House staffer and a spokesperson for the president.

But these are not tax cuts. They are expansions in the refundability of provisions in the tax code. That means that households that pay no federal income tax will receive larger welfare checks from the government under these Obama proposals.

Obama has proposed a slew of “tax cuts” that are partly welfare payments. The chart below shows the share of the 2010-2019 dollar values of these proposals that are actually increased federal spending, and not reductions in taxes. (Calculated from OMB’s May summary tables).

200909_edwards_blog

The Post reporter and the budget analyst quoted in the story are both fiscal experts, and they know that these “tax cuts” are not really tax cuts. But there is a growing problem in fiscal discussions that words are getting flipped upside down to mean the opposite of what a layman would understand them to mean. A classic example is how the dollar value of true tax cuts is nearly always referred to in news articles as a “cost” rather than a “saving.”

Steny Hoyer’s use of the phrase “paid for” in the health debate is another example of how Washington-speak is confusing the heck out of people.

I Would Rather You Just Said “Thank You, Private Schools,” and Went on Your Way…

Some well-known bloggers are being terrible bullies, beating up on private schools.

Felix Salmon kicks things off by hoping the government tightens the definition of a “charitable” organization and begins taxing private schools who don’t “do a bit more to earn it.” Matt Yglesias agrees that private schools are mooching deadbeats and ups the ante, calling them actively harmful as well. Finally, Conor Clarke at The Atlantic agrees, but makes the other two look like panty-waists by proposing the government radically narrow what is considered a charity in the first place.

Yglesias even has the temerity to indict private schools for the failure of NYC public schools:

And as best one can tell, their main impact on the common weal is negative, drawing parents with resources and social capital out of the public school system and contributing to its neglect. You’d have to believe that New York City’s public schools would be both better funded and free of this kind of nonsense if a larger portion of the city’s elite were sending their kids to them.

Really? Would we have to believe what Yglesias says? No, it’s not “the best one can tell.” According to the evidence, Yglesias’ breezy, offhand accusation is demonstrably wrong. Increased competition from private schools actually improves public school performance.

And the more kids who leave public to go private, the more money the schools have for the kids who remain.

What ingrates. They complain about the lost tax revenue while dismissing out of hand the billions of dollars that parents and donors spend every year to educate children outside the government system. They dismiss the fact that these parents and donors are saving taxpayers in the neighborhood of $60 Billion a year based on current-dollar public school spending and the number of kids in private schools.

Finally, if this is all about rich people getting a free ride, why aren’t these guys screaming about means-testing public schools? Why shouldn’t we charge rich parents tuition to attend public schools? If a charitable deduction for private schools is so bad, why isn’t a free public education even worse?

An Uneven Playing Field

Cato’s tax experts, Chris Edwards and Dan Mitchell, have written extensively on international tax competition. Their research shows that countries can help attract investment and spur economic growth by lowering their tax rates.

Could countries employ this same strategy to make their sports teams better?

Real Madrid, one of the most popular and successful soccer teams in the world, recently purchased the rights to two of the sport’s top players. They acquired Kaka, who was named the world’s best soccer player in 2007, from Italian powerhouse, AC Milan. And they lured Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s top player in 2008, away from Manchester United, the reigning champions of the English Premier League.

There are a number of reasons why Kaka and Ronaldo are moving to Spain, but it’s pretty clear that taxes played a significant role. That’s because in 2005, Spain passed a tax break for foreign workers, including soccer players. This gives Spanish teams a huge advantage in bidding wars with teams from higher-tax countries like Italy and England. To make matters worse, England recently raised its top income tax rate.

“The new tax rate in England is going to make things much harder for English clubs,” noted Jonathan Barnett, a leading sports agent whose clients include Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch. “It will hinder the [English] Premier League and help the Spanish league because Spain has big tax discounts for footballers, so there’s an enormous advantage to go there. Someone like Ronaldo could be offered the same money at Real Madrid but be 25% better off.”

Similarly, a frustrated executive from AC Milan blames Kaka’s departure on the Italian tax system: “I repeat, this is all a matter of different types of taxation. If we were a Spanish club, we would have saved €40 million.”

Policymakers and soccer fans alike should take note.

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.

On Taxing Employer Health Benefits

Democrats in Congress are reportedly considering taxing employer-provided health insurance benefits as a way to pay for their health care reform plan.  And, even though he brutally attacked John McCain for something similar (see below) during the campaign, President Obama may now go along with the idea.

Much of the media coverage around the idea has equated this tax hike with the McCain plan and other proposals by advocates of market-based health reform over the years that would shift the tax break from employer-provided insurance to individual insurance.  However, there is an important distinction.  The market-based proposals would have taxed employer-provided health benefits (treating them as taxable compensation), but would have provided workers with a deduction or credit for purchasing insurance regardless of whether they receive it through work or pay it on their own.  The result, for all but a handful of workers with the most expensive gold-plated employer plans, would have been tax neutral.  In fact, many workers would receive a net tax cut.   The shift in tax treatment was simply part of a larger strategy to move from a system of employer-provided insurance to one where health insurance was personal, portable, and owned by workers.

The plan being discussed by Congress, on the hand, is simply a tax hike.  It is not revenue neutral—it is a $1 trillion tax increase that will fall heavily on the middle-class.  It is designed not to change the system, but simply to raise revenue. 

That’s a very different thing!