Tag: tax credits

How to Think & Talk About Vouchers & Ed Tax Credits

School Choice Week is here, and there are a lot of people trying to spread the good word about the benefits of increasing educational freedom.

But what benefit of choice is best to focus on?

You can make at most a few points in an oped or on talk radio. On TV, and even in print reporting, you’re lucky to get one point across. And with friends and family, and even politicians, you need to keep the focus where it will do the most good.

So, should you focus on how horrible inner-city schools are, how many lives are destroyed in a failing government system? Maybe. Depends on the person, certainly.

But the evidence suggests that the best message overall is one that focuses on the financial benefits of school choice (and this is even before the financial crisis). People think about vouchers and education tax credits differently. And be careful trying to pull at Democratic heart-strings with arguments that choice will increase educational equity for poor kids … there’s evidence that it backfires!

Take a look at this slide presentation that describes how the public thinks about private school choice, what you should emphasize, and what you should be careful with … it’s not just my opinion, it’s based on evidence from a unique message experiment:

Tax Cuts vs. Government Checks … NRO Conclusion and Correction

VerBruggen signs off on the tax cut/government check debate by doubling down on the core issue; he believes that there is no meaningful difference between government spending and a tax cut.  I will quote him in full: “If some libertarians want to keep insisting that there’s a meaningful difference between (A) the government spending $500 on something and (B) a person “donating” $500 to that thing and then getting a $500 break on his taxes in return, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

In this, he has the company of the 9th Circuit and the Progressive wing of SCOTUS.

VerBruggen has also rightly asked for a correction to one of the numerous quotes I pulled from his blog posts on tax cuts vs government spending. I thank him sincerely for reading through to the end of my interminable post. The correct quote is below, with the omitted, qualifying language in italics, a new note on charitable giving and government spending, and my otherwise unchanged commentary:

He insists that “much (most?) deducted charity spending does not offset government spending in the slightest,” yet also agrees that “voucherizing the tax subsidies for charity would remove the incentive to donate” to the range of charitable and social welfare activities the government supports. [Note: There is much evidence that government spending on “charity” crowds out charitable giving. And most, not to mention much, charitable giving in the U.S. is devoted to health, educational, social welfare and religious organizations which in turn focus on assistance to the poor, health and educational activities. Needless to say, the government is deeply involved in health, education and welfare spending. See the index of Arthur Brooks’ fascinating book, Who Really Cares, for more details.]

Charity does not reduce pressure on the welfare state? The billions of dollars donated to health, education, welfare … these offset nothing in the public sector? In the absence of tax expenditures for employer-provided health care, how likely is it that the U.S. would have retained a relatively robust private medical market?

The charitable deduction allows the people who earned the money our governments spend on public “charity” to keep some portion of what the government would otherwise have spent on government “charity” or some other wasteful project.

If VerBruggen is concerned that the tax burden will marginally increase on some citizen as the result of another’s charitable deduction then the answer is to balance that lost revenue with a reduction in government “charity,” not to eliminate the deduction.

Perhaps most concerning is VerBruggen’s breezy assumption that all income belongs to the government. He insists that “taxpayer money is already allocated” in the form of deductions for charity, and therefore that “voucherizing the total amount of the deductions wouldn’t change that …”

Really? Tax credits and deductions belong to the taxpayer who earned them. They are not government funds; that is a legal and logical statement. To insist otherwise is to argue that all income is the governments, and what it does not claim is ours. The money that a taxpayer spends is HIS money, not the government’s.

And, as is noted above, voucherizing charitable deductions will convert a huge portion into direct welfare payments and eliminate the core of the charitable act; giving away one’s own money.

How Do I Overturn Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Tomorrow morning, the United States Supreme Court will hear one of the most important education cases in a generation: the appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling that would cripple or end Arizona’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program.

As you’d expect, commentators aren’t sure how the Supreme Court will ultimately rule: it may decide to overturn the 9th Circuit on the merits of the case, or it could overturn the 9th Circuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs never had standing to sue in the first place. Heck, there might even be people who think SCOTUS will uphold the lower court’s ruling… can’t actually find anyone who thinks that, but they could be out there… somewhere.

On the merits, the law and evidence are clear. Arizona’s program allows private individuals to donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship organizations and get a tax credit when they do–much as federal tax deductions are available for donations to non-profit charities. Since federal deductions for donations to religious organizations are Constitutional, the same applies to the credits in the AZ case. Respondents (those trying to kill the program) didn’t marshal a serious argument to the contrary. In fact, one of the cases they cite actually eviscerates their own argument, as I noted in Section II (b) of the Cato Institute Winn brief co-written by Ilya Shapiro and myself.

The rest of Respondents’ merits arguments are equally ineffectual, not only taking a form (relying on a moving statistical target) that has already been explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in Zelman and elsewhere, but actually being wrong on the facts as well (see Section IV of the Cato brief linked above).

But while I’ve been exclusively focused on the merits of the case, it seems that the legal experts defending Arizona’s tax credit program have been arguing that the Respondents (originally, the Plaintiffs) never had a right to sue in the first place (“standing”), because they cannot show, in the context of Supreme Court precedents, how they have been harmed.

Both the SCOTUS blog’s reporter and independent experts seem to think the Court will overturn the 9th Circuit on the standing issue before even considering the merits, and I’m confident that the Court will overturn on the merits if it ever gets that far.

If the ruling comes down in either of those ways, modern education tax credit programs will retain their perfect record of never having been overturned by a court–a record not enjoyed by any other private school choice policy. The reason that is so very important is explained in the final section (V) of our Cato brief.

Universal Charity Vouchers. A Conservative Solution?

Robert VerBruggen of NRO believes that the only difference between allowing taxpayers to direct their own funds according to their individual preferences and having the government pool all tax dollars and distribute them according its collective preference is political, not principled. A mere technicality rather than a fundamental distinction.

Moreover, VerBruggen contends that it is dishonest to use tax credits instead of direct government spending.

If that’s true, why don’t we voucherize charitable giving?

The feds should eliminate the charitable tax deduction and send out the average (tax-forgiven) amount donated per adult to every citizen in the country to donate as they wish! Would this be more honest? Is there no fundamental difference between these two approaches?

Sure, some people would complain about how their tax dollars were being redistributed to, say, support abortion clinics or the Catholic Church or PETA. They would carp about how they, as taxpayers who earned that money in the first place, should be the ones to direct their money to the charity of their choice. They would complain that pooling the money and doling it out to people who didn’t earn it to use at their own discretion, according to some criteria determined by the government, is unfair and wrong. Are these just technicalities?

Is direct government spending on universal charity vouchers really no different than giving individual taxpayers the freedom to donate to the charities of their choosing?

Would universal charity vouchers be preferable to the individual tax deductions for charitable donations that we have today, from the standpoint of minimizing compulsion and social tension? To claim that school vouchers are equal to or better than tax credits on these grounds is to claim that universal government charity vouchers would be better than the system we have today.

“By letting citizens do the government’s job of allocating tax money to the preferred area,” VerBruggen insists, “politicians can avoid controversy, claiming they’re merely enabling ‘donations.’” He therefore concedes, “so maybe there’s something to Coulson’s argument about avoiding social conflict, if only because people mistakenly think there’s a meaningful difference between the two funding mechanisms.” While VerBruggen supports direct government vouchers, using “[tax expenditures] is a dishonest way to get them.”

VerBruggen seems pre-committed to charity vouchers. It’s the only honest thing to do. Anyone else on board with that?

Homebuyer Tax Credit Complications

Most people would agree with Chris Edwards that the federal tax code is insanely complicated. The IRS Commissioner doesn’t do his own taxes, the Treasury secretary and other Washington policy experts haven’t paid what is owed, and the already overwhelmed IRS would be given an expanded role under the Democrat’s health care legislation.

A key problem is that the social engineers on Capitol Hill have run amok. Recently, they have been enamored with home-buying tax credits, and CNN.com notes how it is further overwhelming the IRS bureaucracy:

On Thursday, CNNMoney revealed that buyers who purchased their properties after Nov. 6 were unable to claim the refund because the Internal Revenue Service had yet to release a new form and instructions. But on Friday, the IRS finally posted the new form 5405.

Claiming the credit now requires sending paperwork to the IRS – no e-filing allowed:

And these new buyers can no longer file electronically. They have to mail in paper forms, including the new 5405, whether they are amending their 2008 taxes or claiming it on the 2009 taxes that are being filed this spring. That is going to dramatically slow refunds, but taxpayers can’t blame the IRS. Instead, it’s people scamming the system who are at fault. For example, in October tax preparer James Otto Price III was the first person convicted of this crime. He falsely claimed the credit for 15 clients. So buyers must now file documentation with their taxes – including proof of residency, a signed mortgage statement and drivers license – which the e-file system is not equipped to handle.

The original homebuyer tax credit, which became available in April 2008, generated a nightmare of fraud. In one case, the credit was claimed by a four-year-old. Even IRS employees filed “illegal or inappropriate” claims for the credit. As a result, when Congress extended and expanded the credit in November, the IRS began requiring extra documentation.

Thus, micromanagement through the tax code is a bureaucratic Catch-22. If the IRS streamlines the paperwork, tax breaks get riddled with fraud and abuse. If it tries to cut down on the fraud and abuse, taxpayers and federal workers get bogged down in a pile of wasteful paperwork.

The solution to the problem is for the government to get out of the social engineering business. Federal attempts to foster homeownership are a perfect example of why such attempted engineering can ultimately cause more harm than good. The homebuyer tax credit should be allowed to expire at the end of April, and the federal tax subsidies for homeownership should be ended.

Spending Our Way Into More Debt

Huge deficit spending, a supposed stimulus bill, and financial bailouts by the Bush administration failed to stave off a deep recession. President Obama continued his predecessor’s policies with an even bigger stimulus, which helped push the deficit over the unimaginable trillion dollar mark. Prosperity hasn’t returned, but the president is persistent in his interventionist beliefs. In his speech yesterday, he told the country that we must “spend our way out of this recession.”

While a dedicated segment of the intelligentsia continues to believe in simplistic Kindergarten Keynesianism, average Americans are increasingly leery. Businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to invest and hire because of the uncertainty surrounding the President’s agenda for higher taxes, higher energy costs, health care mandates, and greater regulation. The economy will eventually recover despite the government’s intervention, but as the debt mounts, today’s profligacy will more likely do long-term damage to the nation’s prosperity.

Some leaders in Congress want a new round of stimulus spending of $150 billion or more. The following are some of the ways that money might be spent from the president’s speech:

  • Extend unemployment insurance. When you subsidize something you get more it, so increasing unemployment benefits will push up the unemployment rate, as Alan Reynolds notes.”
  • “Cash for Caulkers.” This would be like Cash for Clunkers except people would get tax credits to make their homes more energy efficient. Any program modeled off “the dumbest government program ever” should be put back on the shelf. 

  • More Small Business Administration lending. A little noticed SBA program created by the stimulus bill offered banks an “unprecedented” 100 percent guarantee on loans to small businesses. The program has an anticipated default rate of 60 percent. Small businesses need lower taxes and fewer regulations, not a government program that perpetuates more moral hazard.

  • More aid to state and local governments. State and local government should be using the recession to implement reforms that will prevent them from going on another unsustainable spending spree when the economy recovers. Also, we need fewer state and local government employees – not more – as they’re becoming an increasing burden on taxpayers.

The president said his administration was “forced to take those steps largely without the help of an opposition party which, unfortunately, after having presided over the decision-making that led to the crisis, decided to hand it to others to solve.” Mr. President, nobody has forced you to do anything. You’ve chosen to embrace – and expand upon – the big spending policies that were a hallmark of your predecessor’s administration.

Vermont Could Save Millions with Private School Choice

The Ethan Allen Institute has just published a report suggesting that Vermont could save $80 million a year by voucherizing its education system. What’s most interesting is how generous the prospective vouchers would be: $10,000 for K-6, and $14,900 for grades 7-12. How could such a system save money? The main reason is that Vermont was already spending $14,000/pupil on public schools across all grades four years ago. Taking into account the inevitable increase since then and the effects of inflation to 2009 dollars, the state is no doubt spending well over $15,000 per pupil today, so EAI’s ample voucher funding would still cost far less than the status quo.

The only problem is that, as the EAI report notes (see p. 10), Vermont’s state supreme court has ruled against state funding of sectarian schools. So tax credits would be a better option for that reason, among others.