Politicians in Washington have come up with something far more impressive than turning lead into gold or water into wine. Using self-serving budget rules, they can increase the burden of government spending and say they are cutting taxes instead.
This bit of legerdemain is made possible, thanks to the convolutions of the personal income tax, by adopting or expanding refundable tax credits. But in this case, “refundable” does not mean the government is returning money to taxpayers. Instead, it means that money is being redistributed to people who do not earn enough to be subject to the income tax.
This is hardly a trivial issue. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of income redistribution being laundered through the tax code is now so large that the bottom 40 percent of the population has a negative “effective” income tax rate. In simple terms (though perhaps with profound political implications), the income tax is a revenue generator for a big share of the population.
And the problem is going to get worse if the President’s budget is approved. Buried in the fine print, on pages 188-189 of the Analytical Perspective of the Budget, you will see that the President is proposing to increase this hidden form of spending by more than $152 billion over the next ten years.
It is worth noting that proponents argue that it is okay to classify this new spending as tax cuts because it somehow offsets other tax payments, especially the payroll tax. I’m sympathetic to lower taxes on everybody, including the poor, but surely it is better to be honest and simply cut the taxes that people pay. The current methodology, by contrast, is open to abuse. Heck, I’m surprised politicians don’t classify other forms of spending as tax cuts. Maybe corporate welfare can be reclassified as a corporate tax cut (I better stop lest I give the political class any ideas).
Defenders also assert that some so-called refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, are designed to encourage work. That is partly true, but credits like the EITC are withdrawn as income climbs, and this means poor people face punitive marginal tax rates, so the overall effect on hours worked may be negligible.
The right approach, of course, is to get the federal government out of the racket of redistributing income.