Of Tax Credits and Government Subsidies

Previously on Cato-at-Liberty, Michael Cannon (post 1, post 2) and Andrew Coulson (post 1, post 2) argued with Jason Furman (on health care) and Sara Mead (on education) about the nature of tax credits and tax breaks.

Furman and Mead claim that tax credits and breaks, because they represent forgone tax revenue, are little different than government subsidies (with a raft of implications). Cannon and Coulson (for various reasons) disagree.

The great “a-ha” moment of the discussion came when Mead pointed to Cato scholars’ criticism of ethanol tax credits as subsidies or “tax expenditures.” Even other Cato scholars agree that ‘tax credit’ equals ‘government subsidy,’ she says.

Surprisingly, up to this point, the argument has largely ignored the use of the credited money/forgone government revenue. I would argue the use of the credited money is fundamental to determining if the credit/tax break is a subsidy.

In the case of an education credit, it is true that government would lose revenue because of the credit. But government has also assumed the obligation to educate the nation’s children, and government would be released from that obligation in the case of the child whose schooling is funded by the credited money. Is the credit, thus, a subsidy?

Consider: If Joe owes his bank a $10 fee for its services and, instead of sending Joe a bill, the bank simply deducts that amount from his account, we wouldn’t describe Joe as subsidizing the bank (or the bank as subsidizing Joe). Likewise, if government has assumed the obligation to educate little Johnny, but instead Joe pays Johnny’s tuition and receives a government tax credit as a result, it seems incorrect to say that Joe has received a subsidy. Instead, just as with the bank and Joe, the education credit represents a net adjustment of Joe’s obligation to government and government’s obligation to little Johnny.

Now, there may be reasons why government should not make this adjustment, but those reasons would not include that the adjustment is a subsidy to Joe. The only subsidy in this system is government’s taking on the obligation to provide little Johnny with schooling — a subsidy that I assume Mead finds acceptable.

Parenthetical #1: I suppose there is one condition under which Joe’s education tax credit should be considered a subsidy: if government education expenditures aren’t about educating Johnny, but about providing jobs for unionized public school workers. Thus, Joe’s paying for Johnny’s tuition at a private school wouldn’t be fulfilling government’s intended obligation. But surely, no one thinks that government education policy is about benefiting unions and bureaucrats instead of educating kids, right?

Health care tax benefits (e.g., HSAs, tax deductions for medical expenses, the tax-free status of employer-provided medical coverage) are a murkier subject. There is no explicit government financial obligation to provide the entire nation with health care (though supporters of socialized medicine claim there should be such an obligation — and, I assume, they are intellectually consistent and support tax breaks and credits for the private provision of health care).

There are, however, legally established government obligations to provide health coverage to the poor (Medicaid, SCHIP, et al.), the elderly (Medicare, Medicaid, et al.) and to guarantee everyone access to care. It may be that the various medical tax credits and insurance tax breaks help government to fulfill those obligations at lower cost than other policies. If that is the case, then tax breaks and credits may be part of the optimal policy for fulfilling that obligation (and Furman would be arguing for a policy change detrimental to welfare).

Parenthetical #2: Full disclosure here — I’m of the camp that health care expenditures should be treated no differently, tax-wise, than other expenditures, and that government has no special a priori obligation to provide health care or health coverage.

Now, juxtapose the above two situations with ethanol tax credits and the other sorts of tax breaks that Cato scholars regularly decry. While there are legally established government obligations to provide schooling for children and health benefits to certain sub-groups of the population, there is (that I’m aware) no government obligation to provide American citizens with corn-based energy for transportation.

Parenthetical #3: I ignore the wacky claim that the U.S. government has an obligation to provide ”energy security” so the nation is protected from evil Canadian and Mexican oil sheiks.

This means that there is no government obligation that ethanol producers can fulfill privately, and thus receive a tax credit or tax break. The ethanol industry’s tax breaks and benefits are not simply “squaring accounts” in the manner as Joe, little Johnny, and the government. The ethanol tax benefits seem to be clear cases of government subsidy, and they should be criticized as such.

Where does this reasoning leave the discussion between Cannon and Coulson on the one hand, and Furman and Mead on the other? At the very least, it seems Coulson’s position is fully consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies. Further, given the premise that government has some special obligation to provide health care, Cannon’s position also seems consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies.

I am curious, though, whether the Left’s sudden concern over subsidies is consistent with positions they take on health care, education, and other policy areas….