Tag: Tax Reform

Grading the Rubio-Lee Tax Reform Plan

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system:

  1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.
  2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.
  3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

Tax Reform Error #2: Phasing-in Lower Tax Rates

Since 1981, Republican legislators have shown a strong penchant for phasing-in tax rate reductions over several years.  That tradition is maintained in Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp’s proposed 979-page “simplification” of the U.S. tax system.  The Camp draft retains a very high top tax rate of 38.8 percent on businesses that file under the individual income tax as partnerships, proprietorships, LLCs or Subchapter S corporations. For those choosing to file as C-corporations, by contrast, the Camp proposal would gradually reduce the corporate tax rate by two percentage points a year over five years, eventually reducing it from 35 to 25 percent. 

The trouble with phasing-in lower tax rates is that it creates an incentive to postpone efforts and investments until later, when tax rates will be lower.  Reducing the corporate tax rate by two percentage points a year would create an incentive to repeatedly delay reported profits, year after year, holding back the economy and tax receipts.  Sensible tax planners would write-off expenses soon as possible, including interest expenses, but defer investment until future years when the tax rate would be reduced on any resulting added earnings.  

Meanwhile, the widening gap between corporate and noncorporate tax rates (a difference of 13.8 percentage points after five years) would encourage many small businesses, farms and professionals to set up C-corporations to shelter retained earnings.  Owners of closely-held private corporations can defer double taxation indefinitely by not paying dividends and taking most compensation in the form of tax-free corporate perks. Many enterprises contemplating the new incentive to shift income from individual to corporate tax forms after five years would postpone expansion plans until after they made that switch, further depressing the economy and tax receipts.

The Republican Party’s proclivity for phased-in tax cuts may have originated with former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.  In his January 25, 2001 testimony before the Senate Budget committee, Chairman Greenspan said, “In recognition of the uncertainties in the economic and budget outlook, it is important that any long-term tax plan … be phased in.”  That was the same advice he gave in January 1981 when Greenspan and I served on President Reagan’s transition team.  Unfortunately, his advice to phase-in lower tax rates was followed both times, with disastrous results.

During the deep recession from July 1981 to November 1982, Congress opted to postpone most tax relief until the 1983-84 tax years.  Individual tax rates were ostensibly reduced by 5 percent in October 1981, but with only three months left in the year that meant just 1.25 percent.   Rates were again reduced by 10 percent in July of 1982, but that applied to only half of that year’s income.  Meanwhile, bracket creep from high inflation kept pushing people into higher tax brackets (until indexing took effect in 1985), negating much of the intended effect.  The final 10 percent reduction in July 1983 was not fully effective until calendar year 1984. 

Oddly enough, the painful blunder of phasing-in the Reagan tax cuts after a recession was repeated by the Bush administration in March 2001, three months after the economy slipped into recession.  Aside from the fiscal frivolity of adding a 10 percent tax bracket on the first $12,000 of income (cutting taxes $300-600 at all incomes), reductions in the four highest tax rates were originally scheduled to be very gradually phased-in by 2006.  Congress later came to its senses in May 2003 and reduced marginal tax rates. Yet substantial damage was already done.   University of Michigan economists Christopher House and Matthew Shapiro found, “The phased-in nature [of lower tax rates] contributed to the slow recovery from the 2001 recession, while the elimination of the phase-in helped explain the increase in economic activity in 2003.” The harmful impact of the phase-in was confirmed by Cornell University economist Karel Mertens and Morton Ravin of University College London. 

Mertens and Ravin also found that lower corporate tax rates do not reduce U.S. tax revenues, partly because lower tax rates increase domestic investment while reducing tax incentives to take on excess debt.  The Camp plan to phase-in a 25 percent corporate tax rate over many years would be as unnecessary as it would be counterproductive.  Most other countries reduced their corporate tax rates to 25 percent or less long ago – creating marginal effective rates on new investment that are commonly less than half the U.S. level – with clearly beneficial effects on their economies and tax receipts.  

The important, unlearned lesson of 1981 and 2001 is that phased-in reductions in marginal tax rates can make things worse before they make things better.

An uncompetitive U.S. corporate tax rate fosters excessive tax-deductible debt and gives a big cost advantage to foreign enterprises.  There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by improving the U.S. tax climate slowly rather than quickly.

Tax Reform Error #1: Confusing Tax Expenditures with Revenues

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has released a complex 182-page “discussion draft” called The Tax Reform Act of 2014. Rather get bogged down in details, I will take this opportunity to review several fundamental errors that repeatedly plagued most past and present efforts to reform the federal income tax, including the Camp proposal.

One of the most pernicious errors among would-be tax reformers is to assume that, as the Tax Policy Center asserts, “tax expenditures are revenue losses” attributable to various “loopholes.” On the contrary, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) clearly states that the estimated dollar value of any “tax expenditure … is not the same as a revenue estimate for the repeal of the tax expenditure provision.” As the JCT explains, “unlike revenue estimates, tax expenditure calculations do not incorporate the effects of the behavioral changes that are anticipated to occur in response to the repeal of a tax expenditure provision…. Taxpayer behavior is assumed to remain unchanged for tax expenditure estimate purposes … to simplify the calculation.”

One glaring difference between revenue estimates and tax expenditure estimates involves taxation of capital gains if those gains are realized by selling assets from a taxable account (unlike IRAs or most home sales). Estimated tax expenditures from not taxing realized capital gains at the top income tax rate of 43.4 percent is listed as a big revenue-losing tax expenditure, even though Treasury, the JCT and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) revenue estimates would rightly predict that the behavioral response to such a high tax would crush asset sales and thus lose revenue. 

Mainly because the artificially estimated “tax expenditure” from a lower capital gains tax is wrongly equated with estimated revenues, the Simpson-Bowles plan hopes to raise an extra $585 billion over ten years. In reality, investors realize fewer gains when the tax rate goes up, so the higher tax on fewer transactions means revenues fall rather than rise.

Obama’s New Budget: Burden of Government Spending Rises More than Twice as Fast as Inflation

The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

There are lots of provisions that deserve detailed attention, but I always look first at the overall trends. Most specifically, I want to see what’s happening with the burden of government spending.

And you probably won’t be surprised to see that Obama isn’t imposing any fiscal restraint. He wants spending to increase more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

What makes these numbers so disappointing is that we learned last month that even a modest bit of spending discipline is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the President also wants a $651 billion net tax hike.

That’s in addition to the big fiscal cliff tax hike from early last and the (thankfully small) tax increase in the Ryan-Murray budget that was approved late last year.

P.S. Since we’re talking about government spending, I may as well add some more bad news.

Grading the Camp Tax Reform Plan

To make fun of big efforts that produce small results, the Roman poet Horace wrote, “The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.”

That line sums up my view of the new tax reform plan introduced by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

To his credit, Chairman Camp put in a lot of work. But I can’t help but wonder why he went through the time and trouble. To understand why I’m so underwhelmed, let’s first go back in time.

Back in 1995, tax reform was a hot issue. The House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, had proposed a flat tax. Congressman Billy Tauzin was pushing a version of a national sales tax. And there were several additional proposals jockeying for attention.

To make sense of the clutter, I wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation that demonstrated how to grade the various proposals that had been proposed.

Bank Tax Is Wrong “Fix” for Too-Big-To-Fail

Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp is soon to roll out a plan for comprehensive tax reform. He is to be commended for doing so. Our tax code is an absolute mess with incentives for all sorts of bad behavior. Early reports suggest, however, that Congressman Camp will also include a “bank tax” to both raise revenue and address the “Too-Big-To-Fail” (TBTF) status of our nation’s largest banks. While the evidence overwhelmingly suggests to me that TBTF is real, with extremely harmful effects on our financial system, I fear Camp’s approach will actually make the problem worse, increasing the market perception that some entities will be rescued by the federal government.

Bloomberg reports the plan would raise “would raise $86.4 billion for the U.S. government over the next decade…would likely affect JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.” The proposal would do so by assessing a 3.5 basis-point tax on assets exceeding $500 billion.

While standard Pigouvian welfare analysis would recommend a tax to internalize any negatives externalities, TBTF is not like pollution, it isn’t something large banks create. It is something the government creates by coming to their rescue. I don’t see TBTF as a switch, but rather a dial between 100 percent chance of a rescue and zero. By turning the banks into a revenue stream for the federal government, we would likely move that dial closer to 100 percent–and that is in the wrong direction. For the same reason, I have opposed efforts to tax Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the past. The solution is not to bind large financial institutions and the government closer together, as a bank tax would, but to further separate government and the financial sector. Just over a year ago, I laid out a path for doing so in National Review. Were we to truly end bailouts, limiting government is the only way to get that dial close to zero.   

If we want to use the tax code to reduce the harm of financial crises, then we should focus on reducing the preferences for debt over equity, which drive so much of the leverage in our financial system.  I’ve suggest such here in more detail. There are also early reports that Camp’s plan will reduce some of these debt preferences. Let’s hope those remain in the plan.

Jared Bernstein’s “Tax Reform” Assault on Pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s

The bad habit of defining “tax reform” in terms of fairness or “closing loopholes” sidesteps the most essential task of effective tax policy – namely, to collect taxes in ways that do the least possible damage to incentives for productive effort, investment and entrepreneurship.

The Joint Committee on Taxation list of “tax expenditures” is arbitrary accounting, not economics, and tax expenditures are not necessarily “loopholes.” These estimates do not take taxpayer behavior into account and therefore do not estimate revenues that could be raised by closing the so-called loopholes (e.g., a higher tax on capital gains would shrink asset sales and revenues). Policies that make sense in terms of economic incentives can therefore be portrayed as useless tax subsidies in the purely static accounting of “tax expenditures.”

For example, a recent New York Times article by former vice presidential adviser Jared Bernstein complains that tax deferral for retirement savings is unfair because, “most savings subsidies go to households that would surely save anyway, while almost nothing goes to the households that need help to save.” 

These “subsidies” for high-bracket taxpayers mainly consist of deferring rather than avoiding taxes, which only partly offsets the way savings are double-taxed. Even if higher-income households would actually save the same without 401(k) accounts (which contradicts research), they would still end up with much smaller retirement savings. Dividends and capital gains would then be repeatedly taxed, year after year, rather than being continually reinvested within a tax-deferred pension, IRA or 401(k) account. 

Estimated “subsidies” from tax deferral are deceptive: Instead of having recent dividends and capital gains taxed at a 15-20 percent rate in recent years, distributions from tax-deferred accounts will later be taxed at rates up to 39.6 percent. It’s a subsidy only if you don’t live much past 70.

Bernstein presents a graph showing the top 20 percent getting a 66 percent share of these “subsidies” for pensions and defined-contribution plans while the middle fifth gets only nine percent and the poorest 20 percent just two percent. What these figures actually demonstrate is that (1) people who work full-time for many years have more income to save than those who don’t, and that (2) people who pay no income tax cannot benefit from any policy that reduces taxable income, even temporarily.

There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent. To exclude young singles and old retirees, Gerald Mayer examined the work experience of households headed by someone between the working ages of 22 and 62. Average work hours among the poorest 20 percent still amounted to just 1,415 hours a year in 2010, while those in the middle fifth worked 2,771 hours, and the top 20 percent worked 4060 hours.

If Bernstein’s “subsidies” were properly expressed as shares of income, rather than as shares of foregone tax revenue, the differences nearly vanish. The Congressional Budget Office (the undisclosed source of his estimates) shows tax benefits for retirement savings worth only about twice as much to the top 20 percent (2 percent of net income) as to the middle 20 percent (0.9 percent of income). Retirement savings incentives appear to be worth only 0.4 percent of income to the poorest 20 percent, since they rarely owe taxes, yet annual benefits are a poor guide to lifetime benefits. Those in low income groups while they are young commonly move up to higher tax brackets by the time they start saving for retirement.

The alleged unfairness of lower-income households not getting the same dollar tax break as couples earning more than $115,100 (the top 20 percent) could be alleviated by reducing marginal tax rates on two-earner families. But Bernstein instead suggests “closing loopholes that make it easy for wealthy individuals to exceed contribution limits to tax-preferred accounts (as was found to be the case with Mitt Romney), reducing contribution limits for high-income filers, or simple limiting the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest of filers (e.g. allowing them to deduct such contributions at 28 percent instead of 39.6 percent.” None of these schemes would add a dime to the savings of low or middle-income households, of course, and they wouldn’t work.

It is not legal – and therefore not “easy”– to exceed strict contribution limits for high-income taxpayers, and Mitt Romney certainly did not do so.  What Romney did was to roll over qualified retirement plans into an IRA and then earn high compounded returns on very successful investments.  Similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale, I rolled-over a lump-sum pension into an IRA in 1990 when I changed jobs, and that IRA is now 12-times larger thanks to compound interest and bold investments.  Since I never contributed another dollar after 1990, tougher or lower contribution limits would have been entirely irrelevant.  

Bernstein’s final proposal is from the Obama budget – “allowing taxpayers to deduct contributions at 28 percent instead of 38.6 percent.” But that too is irrelevant. Any alleged “loopholes” for retirement savings have nothing to do with itemized deductions for top-bracket taxpayers, who are not allowed to deduct contributions to an IRA.  Failure to include employer contributions as taxable income is not an itemized deduction to begin with, nor is the exclusion from adjusted gross income for contributions to a Keogh retirement plan for the self-employed.  

In the process of giving “tax reform” a bad name, Jared Bernstein uses a sham fairness argument to justify arbitrary and unworkable anti-affluence policies that are irrelevant to any ill-defined problems.