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New CRS Report Says Base Broadening Is Hard to Do

March 26th, 2012 . by economistmom

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[***REVISED 2 pm, to make correction noting that the CRS study does not assume the top 20 tax expenditures are completely "untouchable" but just that they would not likely be substantially reduced.]

The Congressional Research Service has released a new report by Jane Gravelle and Thomas Hungerford called “The Challenge of Individual Income Tax Reform: An Economic Analysis of Tax Base Broadening.”  In a nutshell, the report could be called “Base Broadening Is Hard to Do.”  The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery summarized it nicely on Friday, including getting this Republican staffer’s reaction to it:

Republican tax aides dismissed the report as unhelpful.

“Reports suggesting tax reform isn’t easy are greatly appreciated. We look forward to future reports on water being wet,” said Sage Eastman, a senior aide to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), whose panel drafted the principles for tax reform laid out in the Ryan budget.

The CRS report emphasizes that although the 200+ tax expenditures under the federal income tax are worth over $1 trillion per year, the largest 20 of them represent 90 percent of that revenue loss.  When you look closely at that “top 20″ list, copied above from the table in the CRS report, it is easy to get discouraged about the prospects for substantial tax base broadening.  As I explained last November in Tax Notes (subscription-only access here), the largest tax expenditures look a lot more like “entitlements” than “loopholes”:

Consider the biggest of the big tax expenditures: the exclusion for employer-provided healthcare and itemized deductions. Economically, there is little rationale for subsidizing those particular activities, especially for handing out the largest subsidies to people with the highest incomes. But politically they are untouchable. They clearly benefit real people, not just individuals or corporations of questionable reputation, and they are far from “loopholes” that are easy to cut.

Those individual income tax expenditures sound a lot like entitlement spending, defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law as “a government program that provides benefits to members of a group that has a statutory entitlement.” Those groups are employees with health insurance, households with mortgages, people who donate to charities, and so on.

And that’s why the CRS authors conclude that “It appears unlikely that a significant fraction of this potential revenue could be realized.” Instead of the more than $1 trillion that could be gained if all tax expenditures were eliminated–which would support substantial marginal tax rate reductions including getting the top rate down from 39.6% to 23%–they believe “it may prove difficult to gain more than $100 billion to $150 billion in additional tax revenues through base broadening.”

I think I’m slightly more optimistic than CRS, because their conclusion assumes we can’t do much to change–at least in any substantial sense–those top 20 tax expenditures.  I think we could actually do better.  For example, in his latest budget the President himself has proposed to scale back a lot of these largest tax expenditures by limiting the benefit of those tax expenditures to the richest households to the levels of benefits that would be obtained at lower marginal tax rate brackets.  It’s an ambitious amount of base broadening, although only for a narrow group of taxpayers (the familiar households with incomes above $250,000).  (The limit of the broadening to that small group results in a revenue gain of $584 billion over ten years–which is like broadening the tax base by about 1/20th the total value of tax expenditures.)  But my point is there are ways to substantially reduce the cost of the most expensive tax expenditures to both make the proposals more palatable and to raise enough revenue to support a decent amount of rate reduction or at least “rate preservation.”  It still isn’t easy to do, but that’s still mostly a political obstacle rather than an economic or administrative one.

Kent Conrad and Paul Ryan: So Close and Yet So Far

March 20th, 2012 . by economistmom

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Today House Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled the House Republican budget proposal with a lot of fanfare and his latest snazzy video.  The fundamental structure of the proposal itself is not really “news” in that Ryan has remained consistent to his word that the fiscal situation is a spending-side-only problem and that the level of revenues as a share of our economy should be maintained around its 40-year historical average.

Relating that to the story on the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Kent Conrad (D-ND) which appeared over the weekend in the Washington Post (written excellently by Lori Montgomery), I find it striking that both of the budget chairmen (from the two different houses and two different parties) now talk about tax expenditures as government spending that just happens to be done by poking holes into the income tax system.  In his own budget, Ryan refers to this “spending through the tax code” (pg. 67) and also points out how the rich benefit the most from these “tax subsidies.”  In other words, like Kent Conrad, Paul Ryan recognizes that if we reduced these tax expenditures, we would not be raising taxes as much as reducing spending.

On the other hand, Ryan stresses that his proposal to eliminate these tax subsidies would be “not for the purpose of increasing total tax revenues, but instead to lower rates.”

So, revenues relative to GDP remains the huge sticking point in what would otherwise seemingly be complete bipartisan agreement on the shape of badly-needed tax reform.  How best to break that impasse is the key to making huge progress on deficit reduction.  I think it will have to wait until after the election, however, because for now the Democrats would rather attack the Republicans for their deficit-reduction approach that implies huge, draconian cuts in direct spending and benefits than convince the Republicans to move away from that approach and more toward revenue-raising-but-by-base-broadening tax reform.  And Republicans would rather attack the Democrats for their strategy of  “soaking the rich” (and the “job creators”) than convince the Democrats that broadening the tax base by reducing tax expenditures is actually a progressive (as well as efficient) way to raise tax burdens on the rich.

The Tax Policy and the Economy Fairy Tale

March 12th, 2012 . by economistmom

My latest Tax Notes column which came out today (subscription-only access here) is basically a recap of my testimony on March 1st before the Senate Budget Committee.  It’s a written version of the script I used for my oral remarks, plus a chance to report (or vent) about the line of questioning that came from one of the Republican senators that day.

About the basic premise of the hearing, which was called “”Tax Reform to Encourage Growth, Reduce the Deficit, and Promote Fairness,” I explain that:

I recently heard the three tax reform goals listed in the hearing’s title referred to as a “fiscal trilemma,” suggesting it might not be possible to achieve them all.2 Equating the three with a dilemma suggests that working toward them will be a negative experience. Indeed, many policymakers are caught speaking of at least one of the goals with partisan disdain: “encouraging growth” (a popular Republican goal) might be labeled by some Democrats as “pandering to the rich”; “reducing the deficit” by including at least some new revenue (a popular centrist goal) might be labeled by some on both sides as “killing jobs”; and “promoting fairness” (a popular Democratic goal) might be called “class warfare” by some Republicans.

Nonpartisan economists would respond that all three goals will benefit the economy. And the good news is that it really is possible to find tax policy changes that would help achieve all three goals — and possibly help achieve simplicity. That good news is doubled by the recognition that different policymakers actually like all the goals more than they’ll admit in public, but they assign different implicit weights to the different goals — suggesting that the only way to ensure bipartisan agreement is to make sure a proposal helps achieve all three goals.

I then explain the problem with the tax policy “fairy tale” that sounds so happy and easy:

[M]any so-called tax policy experts spin a simple fairy tale when they talk about how to reform the tax system. They say that we just need to cut tax rates, which will expand the economy, which in turn will reduce the deficit. But unfortunately, in the real world, we face real budget constraints and a real scarcity of resources. Real economists know that optimizing means not just maximizing benefits but weighing benefits against costs so that benefits net of costs are maximized. In the context of the real world and our experiences with the economic effects of different tax policies, cutting tax rates to achieve all of our goals is pure fantasy.

I made three main points in my testimony regarding the goals of encouraging growth, reducing the deficit, and promoting fairness:

    1. It is impossible to expand the supply side of the economy through continued, seemingly easy, deficit-financed tax cuts.2. It is impossible to reduce the deficit without allowing, and even seeking, higher revenues as a share of our economy.

    3. It is impossible to promote fairness in the tax system without raising tax burdens on the rich.

And the only part of the Q and A where I have to admit I felt a bit “bullied” was this:

One of the more hostile exchanges at the hearing was when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questioned what we thought the maximum marginal tax rate should be. Each time [Len] Burman [of Syracuse, the other witness invited by Chairman Conrad] and I tried to respond that it depends on the breadth of and distortions within the existing tax base, Johnson interrupted and insisted on our providing a specific number without any qualifications. It was obviously a setup, as [Dan] Mitchell [the Republican witness from the Cato Institute] described in a blog post. Although I reluctantly gave a specific answer of 70 to 80 percent, I wasn’t advocating a marginal tax rate that high but only responding that a total marginal tax rate — combining taxes at all levels of government — any higher than that would be a bad idea. I tried to point out that the maximum marginal tax rate could mean the rate on the richest person in the country’s last dollar earned. I believe 70 to 80 percent is around Laffer curve levels — the highest rate possible before revenue is lost. [In the Tax Notes column I cited this NBER paper by Christina and David Romer.]

That maximum marginal tax rate is totally different, however, from the survey results Mitchell cites that show people not wanting anyone to be taxed at more than 30 percent. Mitchell understandably likes the interpretation that ordinary Americans are referring to the maximum top marginal tax rate bracket. But I really doubt that most Americans understand the difference between marginal and average tax rates, or if they do, that they are inclined to automatically think top marginal rate (on the last dollar earned) when asked about the maximum tax rate that top earners should pay. When thinking about what’s fair, I think most people have in mind the common-sense statistic of taxes paid relative to income, or the average tax rate.

In fact, if the very richest people in America faced a marginal tax rate on their millionth-plus dollar earned of 70 to 80 percent, their average tax rate would still very likely be close to 30 percent. We might contemplate such high marginal rates at the top if we had failed to achieve the best solution of broadening the tax base and we were trying to make the tax system more progressive (while raising revenue for deficit reduction) by only raising — or creating new — top marginal tax rate brackets.

[But] Let’s be clear that I spent the whole hearing advocating for base broadening that would keep rates low. But I was asked what the maximum top marginal tax rate could be that the economy could handle, regardless of how successful or not we might be with base broadening efforts…

I encourage EconomistMom readers to view the hearing video and judge for yourself whether Senator Johnson was playing nicely or not.  Either way, I don’t think his or Dan Mitchell’s view that marginal tax rates on the rich are already high enough to be worrisome has much basis in reality.  (Nor did the story that came out the very day of the hearing (March 1) about Dan Mitchell’s organization, the Cato Institute, and how much it is influenced by the Koch brothers, help Mitchell’s credibility as an objective and fact-based economist.)

Even so, I still would prefer we raise revenue by not raising marginal tax rates further and instead broadening the tax base (reducing tax expenditures) in (very easily) progressive ways.  The “trilemma” of tax reform is entirely possible to achieve and is actually the best way to succeed, politically and economically, in doing good tax reform.

Jon Bon Jovi and I Turned 50 Today

March 2nd, 2012 . by economistmom

I was born on March 2, 1962, and so was Jon Bon Jovi. He proclaims that he’s “not old, just older”–and “older” comes across in a decidedly positive way through him. I liked this Examiner story about Bon Jovi’s 50th birthday, and the perspective on his now-eligibility for membership in a certain organization:

The enduring force behind one of music’s most successful bands turns the big 5-0; Fabulous Fifty, the number that need not be named or spoken too loudly; and, the one that entitles him to membership in an organization that surely must make the man bristle: the AARP (American Association of Retired People).

Memo to the AARP and Jovi Nation fandom everywhere: this blue-eyed Adonis is nowhere near retiring, so don’t be on the lookout for his membership kit!

So let me just say I hope “ditto” applies to me, too, even though I’m obviously not a “blue-eyed Adonis.”  And it’s my birthday, so I won’t blog about fiscal policy today if I don’t want to.  ;)

Senate Budget Committee Holds Hearing on a “Trilemma”

March 1st, 2012 . by economistmom

I’ve been busy getting ready for my testimony before the Senate Budget Committee this morning, on the topic of tax reform in the broader fiscal and economic context. The question they ask via their hearing’s title: can we reform the tax system in such a way that we encourage economic growth, reduce the deficit, and promote fairness–all at the same time? My quick answer is “yes, but it won’t be easy.” The hard part is far more political than economic.

Through the Committee’s website, you might be able to catch a live stream, but if not, there will be a video up later, I’m sure.  I will be posting a post-mortem afterward (not sure how quickly).