Tag: Tax Reform

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABBA and the Story of the Most-Inane-Ever Tax Controversy

The tax code is a complicated nightmare, particularly for businesses.

Some people may think this is because of multiple tax rates, which definitely is an issue for all the non-corporate businesses that file “Schedule C” forms using the personal income tax.

A discriminatory rate structure adds to complexity, to be sure, but the main reason for a convoluted business tax system (for large and small companies) is that politicians don’t allow firms to use the simple and logical (and theoretically sound) approach of cash-flow taxation.

Here’s how a sensible business tax would work.

Total Revenue - Total Cost = Profit

And it would be wonderful if our tax system was this simple, and that’s basically how the business portion of the flat tax operates, but that’s not how the current tax code works.

We have about 76,000 pages of tax rules in large part because politicians and bureaucrats have decided that the “cash flow” approach doesn’t give them enough money.

So they’ve created all sorts of rules that in many cases prevent businesses from properly subtracting (or deducting) their costs when calculating their profits.

One of the worst examples is depreciation, which deals with the tax treatment of business investment expenses. You might think lawmakers would like investment since that boosts productivity, wage, and competitiveness, but you would be wrong. The tax code rarely allows companies to fully deduct investment expenses (factories, machines, etc) in the year they occur. Instead, they have to deduct (or depreciate) those costs over many years. In some cases, even decades.

But rather than write about the boring topic of depreciation to make my point about legitimate tax deductions, I’m going to venture into the world of popular culture.

Though since I’m a middle-aged curmudgeon, my example of popular culture is a band that was big about 30 years ago.

Boost Worker Pay - and Make the United States More Competitive - by Gutting the Corporate Income Tax

The business pages are reporting that Chrysler will be fully owned by Fiat after that Italian company buys up remaining shares.

I don’t know what this means about the long-term viability of Chrysler, but we can say with great confidence that the company will be better off now that the parent company is headquartered outside the United States.

This is because Chrysler presumably no longer will be obliged to pay an extra layer of tax to the IRS on any foreign-source income.

Italy, unlike the United States, has a territorial tax system. This means companies are taxed only on income earned in Italy but there’s no effort to impose tax on income earned - and already subject to tax - in other nations.

Under America’s worldwide tax regime, by contrast, U.S.-domiciled companies must pay all applicable foreign taxes when earning money outside the United States - and then also put that income on their tax returns to the IRS!

And since the United States imposes the highest corporate income tax in the developed world and also ranks a dismal 94 out of 100 on a broader measure of corporate tax competitiveness, this obviously is not good for jobs and growth.

No wonder many American companies are re-domiciling in other countries!

Maybe the time has come to scrap the entire corporate income tax. That’s certainly a logical policy to follow based on a new study entitled, “Simulating the Elimination of the U.S. Corporate Income Tax.”

Written by Hans Fehr, Sabine Jokisch, Ashwin Kambhampati, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, the paper looks at whether it makes sense to have a burdensome tax that doesn’t even generate much revenue.

The U.S. Corporate Income Tax…produces remarkably little revenue - only 1.8 percent of GDP in 2013, but entails major compliance and collection costs. The IRS regulations detailing corporate tax provisions are tome length and occupy small armies of accountants and lawyers. …many economists…have suggested that the tax may actually fall on workers, not capitalists.

Another Misguided Plan to Burden America with a Value-Added Tax

It’s no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.

But this isn’t because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax. And that’s a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America’s corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.

But not all roads lead to Rome. Proponents of the flat tax and sales tax want to replace the income tax. That would be a very positive step.

Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That’s a catastrophically bad idea.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.

There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. …a 1986-style tax reform – broadening the base and lowering the rates – isn’t politically achievable today. …the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.

I agree with everything in those excerpts.

So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?

Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we’re very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he’s talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.

If There’s a Grand Bargain, Taxpayers Should Get a Tax Cut Rather than a Tax Hike

The Washington metropolitan area has become America’s wealthiest region because trillions of dollars are taken every year from the productive sector of the economy and then divvied up by the politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and interest groups that benefit from federal largess.

But there’s always an appetite in Washington for even more money. Former senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) just wrote in the Washington Post that “Our country needs more revenue to help us get back on track.”

I guess that means back on track to becoming Greece, though I suspect he would have an alternative explanation. All I can say for sure is that he probably wasn’t paying attention when I testified to his committee last year about pro-growth tax policy.

But it’s not just Democrats who are greedy for more of our money. Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma joined the Charlie Brown Club by stating, “we’re willing to put more revenue on the table.”

If you ask politician why they want more revenue in Washington, they invariably state that America’s long-term fiscal challenges are so large that you need a “balanced” package.

But why should there be “balance” between tax hikes and spending cuts (which would merely be reductions in planned increases) when more than 100 percent of America’s long-run fiscal problem is because of a rising burden of government spending?

Does that sound like an exaggeration? Well, check out this data from the Congressional Budget Office’s 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook.

The Baucus-Hatch “Blank Slate” Approach to Tax Reform Isn’t Blank

I’m a big proponent of tax reform, so at first I was very excited to learn that Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were launching an effort to clean up the tax code.

But on closer inspection, I don’t think this will lead to a simple and fair system like the flat tax. Or even a national sales tax (assuming we could trust politicians not to pull a bait-and-switch, adding a new tax and never getting rid of the income tax).

But judge for yourself. Here’s some of what’s contained in a letter they sent to their colleagues, starting with some language about the growing complexity of the tax code and the compliance cost for taxpayers.

…since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits. In addition, each year, it costs individuals and businesses more than $160 billion to comply with the tax code. The complexity, inefficiency and unfairness of the tax code are acting as a brake on our economy. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Sounds good, though they also could have mentioned other indicators of nightmarish complexity, such as the number of pages in the tax code, the number of special tax provisions, or the number of pages in the 1040 instruction manual.

I’m a bit mystified, however, at the low-ball estimate of $160 billion of compliance costs. As explained in this video, there are far higher estimates that are based on very sound methodology.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking. Let’s see with Senators Baucus and Hatch want to do.

In order to make sure that we end up with a simpler, more efficient and fairer tax code, we believe it is important to start with a “blank slate”—that is, a tax code without all of the special provisions in the form of exclusions, deductions and credits and other preferences that some refer to as “tax expenditures.”

I don’t like the term “tax expenditure” since it implies that the government taking money from person A and giving it to person B is equivalent to the government simply letting person B keep their own money. These two approaches may be economically equivalent in certain cases, but they’re not morally equivalent.

Once again, however, I may be guilty of nit-picking.

That being said, there is a feature of the “blank slate” approach which does generate legitimate angst. There’s a footnote in the letter that states that the Joint Committee on Taxation is in charge of determining so-called tax expenditures.

A complete list of these special tax provisions as defined by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

This is very troubling. The JCT may be non-partisan, but it’s definitely not non-ideological. These are the bureaucrats, for instance, who assume that the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 100 percent! Moreover, the JCT uses the “Haig-Simons” tax system as a benchmark, which means they start with the assumption that there should be pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

This is not nit-picking. The definition of “tax expenditure” is a critical policy decision, not something to be ceded to the other side before the debate even begins.

As illustrated by this chart, the tax code is very biased against saving and investment.

Between the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the double tax on dividends, and the death tax, it’s possible for a single dollar of income to be taxed as many as four different times.

This is a very foolish policy, particularly since every school of thought in the economics profession agrees that capital formation is a key to long-run growth. Even the Marxists and socialists!

CBO’s Tax Expenditure Report Uses Wrong Benchmark, Overstates Loopholes

As a long-time advocate of tax reform, I’m not a fan of distortionary loopholes in the tax code. Ideally, we would junk the 74,000-page internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax - meaning one low rate, no double taxation, and no favoritism.*

The right kind of tax reform would generate more growth and also reduce corruption in Washington. Politicians no longer would have the ability to create special tax breaks for well-connected contributors.

But we won’t get to the right destination if we have the wrong map, and this is why a new report about “tax expenditures” from the Congressional Budget Office is so disappointing.

As you can see from this excerpted table, CBO makes the same mistake as the Tax Policy Center and assumes that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, they list IRAs and 401(k)s as tax expenditures, even though those provisions merely enable people to avoid being double-taxed.

Likewise, the CBO report assumes that there should be double taxation of dividends and capital gains, so provisions to guard against such destructive policies also are listed as tax expenditures.

CBO Tax Expenditure List