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Archive for the ‘Tax Reform’ Category

Guided by the principles of a simple and fair flat tax, I’ve been toiling for decades in the vineyard of tax reform. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I usually feel like Don Quixote, engaged in a futile quest. Convincing politicians to reduce their power is not an easy task, after all.

But it is possible to make incremental progress. I’ve argued, ad nauseam, about the need to lower the corporate tax rate and the benefits of ending the state and local tax deduction, and we actually took big steps in the right direction last year.

Indeed, while the final legislation was far from perfect, it was certainly better than I expected.

But there’s no such thing as a permanent victory in Washington. The debate has now shifted from “is the tax plan a good idea?” to “is the tax plan working?” And that was the focus of my recent CNBC debate with Austan Goolsbee, the former Chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Interestingly, Austan and I agreed on several issues.

At the risk of digressing, I should have mentioned that Trump’s corporate rate cut, while a big step in the right direction, should be viewed as a first step. As illustrated by this chart, the overall US corporate rate is still higher than the average for other advanced nations.

Let’s now get back to the interview. Goolsbee and I didn’t agree on everything.

  • Austan is fixated on class warfare, which I think is very bad economics because it means high marginal tax rates and/or a heavier tax bias against saving and investment.
  • He also frets about deficits, which is rather ironic since he didn’t seem to worry about red ink when Obama was pushing his failed stimulus scheme. In any event, I pointed out that there is no long-run tax cut.

Last but not least, here are some additional points from the interview

  • I repeatedly expressed concern that good tax policy won’t be very sustainable unless politicians restrain the excessive growth of government spending, both in the short run and long run.
  • I also pointed out that the restriction on the state and local tax deduction will help the national economy if it deters some big states from raising taxes (though that reform certainly isn’t slowing down the big spenders in New Jersey).
  • Even small differences in economic growth, if sustained over time, can make a big difference in living standards.
  • We should be worried that Trump will sabotage his tax cut with protectionism.

The bottom line is that last year’s tax plan resulted in a less-destructive tax code. That doesn’t guarantee fast growth since we also have to look at other policies, but it will help.

P.S. I indirectly tangled with Goolsbee in about taxes in 2010 and about spending in 2012.

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Better economic performance is the most important reason to adopt pro-growth reforms such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Even small increases in economic growth – especially if sustained over time – can translate into meaningful improvements in living standards.

But there are several reasons why it won’t be easy to “prove” that last year’s tax reform boosted the economy.

And there are probably other factors to mention as well.

The takeaway is that the nation will enjoy good results from the 2017 tax changes, but I fully expect that the class-warfare crowd will claim that any good news is for reasons other than tax reform. And if there isn’t good news, they’ll assert this is evidence against “supply-side economics” and totally ignore the harmful effect of offsetting policies such as Trump’s protectionism.

That being said, some of the benefits of tax reform are already evident and difficult to dispute.

Let’s start by looking at what’s happening Down Under, largely driven by American tax reform.

The Australian government announced Monday that the Senate will vote in June on cutting corporate tax rates after an opinion poll suggested the contentious reform had popular public support. …Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition wants to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent to 25 percent by 2026-27… Cormann said the need to reduce the tax burden on businesses had become more pressing for future Australian jobs and investment since the 2016 election because the United States had reduced its top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. “Putting businesses in Australia at an ongoing competitive disadvantage deliberately by imposing higher taxes in Australia … puts Australian workers at an oncoming disadvantage and that is clearly the point that more and more Australians are starting to fully appreciate,” Cormann told reporters. Cormann was referring to a poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday that showed 63 percent of respondents supported company tax cuts.

Wow.

What’s remarkable is not that Australian lawmakers are moving to lower their corporate rate. The government, after all, has known for quite some time that this reform was necessary to boost wages and improve competitiveness.

The amazing takeaway from this article is that ordinary people understand and support the need to engage in tax competition and other nations feel compelled to also cut business tax burdens.

All last year, I kept arguing that this was one of the main reasons to support Trump’s proposal for a lower corporate rate. And now we’re seeing the benefits materializing.

Now let’s look at a positive domestic effect of tax reform, with a feel-good story from New Jersey. It appears that the avarice-driven governor may not get his huge proposed tax hike, even though Democrats dominate the state legislature.

Why? Because the state and local tax deduction has been curtailed, which means the federal government is no longer aiding and abetting bad fiscal policy.

New Jersey’s new Democratic governor is finding that, even with his party in full control of Trenton, raising taxes in one of the country’s highest-taxed states is no day at the beach. Gov. Phil Murphy…has proposed a $37.4 billion budget. He wants to raise $1.7 billion in new taxes and other revenue… But some of his fellow Democrats, who control the state legislature, have balked at the governor’s proposals to raise the state’s sales tax and impose a millionaires tax. State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been particularly vocal. …Mr. Sweeney previously voted for a millionaire’s tax, but said he changed his mind after the federal tax law was passed in December. The law capped previously unlimited annual state and local tax deductions at $10,000 for individual and married filers, and Mr. Sweeney said he is concerned an additional millionaire’s tax could drive people out of the state. “I think that people that have the ability to leave are leaving,” he said.

Of course they’re leaving. New Jersey taxes a lot and it’s the understatement of the century to point out that there’s not a correspondingly high level of quality services from government.

So why not move to Florida or Texas, where you’ll pay much less and government actually works better?

The bottom line is that tax-motivated migration already was occurring and it’s going to become even more important now that federal tax reform is no longer providing a huge de facto subsidy to high-tax states. And that’s going to have a positive effect. New Jersey is just an early example.

This doesn’t mean states won’t ever again impose bad policy. New Jersey probably will adopt some sort of tax hike before the dust settles. But it won’t be as bad as Governor Murphy wanted.

We also may see Illinois undo its flat tax after this November’s election, which would mean the elimination of the only decent feature of the state’s tax system. But I also don’t doubt that there will be some Democrats in the Illinois capital who warn (at least privately) that such a change will hasten the state’s collapse.

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I had mixed feeling when I spoke yesterday in Bratislava, Slovakia, as part of the 2018 Free Market Road Show.

Last decade, Slovakia was a reform superstar, shaking off the vestiges of communism with a plethora of very attractive policies – including a flat tax, personal retirement accounts, and spending restraint.

As Marian Tupy explained last year, “…in 1998, Slovaks kicked out the nationalists and elected a reformist government, which proceeded to liberalise the economy, privatise loss-making state-owned enterprises and massively improve the country’s business environment. …In 2005, the World Bank declared Slovakia the “most reformist” country in the world.”

And these policies paid off. According to research from both Europe and the United States, Slovakia has enjoyed reasonably strong growth that has resulted in considerable “convergence” to western living standards.

But in recent years, Slovakia has gradually moved in the wrong direction, which means I have good and bad memories of my visits.

The nation’s strong rise and subsequent slippage can be seen in the data from Economic Freedom of the World.

The drop may not seem that dramatic. And in terms of Slovakia’s absolute score, it “only” fell from 7.63 to 7.31.

But what really matters (as I explained last year when writing about Italy) is the relative score. And if you take a closer look at the data, Slovakia has dropped in the rankings from #20 in 2005 to #53 in 2015.

This relative decline is not good news for a nation that wants to compete for jobs and investment. Moreover, I’m not the only one to be worried about slippage in Slovakia.

Jan Oravec is similarly concerned about a gradual erosion of competitiveness in his country.

…the World Economic forum, which compares the competitiveness of 140 countries around the world, Slovakia ranked 67th. …If we…look at the long-term evolution of the Slovak economy’s competitiveness not only in this, but in other rankings, we realize…a tragic story of a dramatic decline in our competitiveness. Let us start by looking back at our previous scores: In 2000, we ranked 38th, while in 2010 we painfully fell to 60th – today we hold the aforementioned 67th place. …If we take a look at the evolution of Slovakia’s situation from the last 10 years, we come to the conclusion that there has been a significant drop in the ranking of our competitiveness. While 10 years ago we usually ranked in the top third or quarter of the ranked countries, today we usually rank in the bottom half… An explanation to this negative trend is twofold: Other countries have been improving while our business environment has been worsening, or stagnating at best.

There are three glaring examples of slippage in Slovakia.

  • The first is that the flat tax was undone in 2012.
  • The second is that the private social security system was weakened.
  • The third is an erosion of fiscal discipline.

To be sure, it’s not as if Slovakia went hard left. The top tax rate under the new “progressive” system is 25 percent. And as I noted last month, that means high-income workers in Slovakia are still treated rather well compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

And the leftist government in Slovakia weakened – but did not completely reverse – personal retirement accounts.

Jan Oravec explains the good reform that was adopted last decade.

During 2003 two main legislative acts – the Social Insurance Act and the Old-Age Pension Savings Act – were prepared by the reform team. …Prior to reform Slovaks were obliged to pay to the PAYGO system contributions of 28.75 % of their gross wages, and the system promised in exchange to pay an average old-age benefit amounting to 50 % of gross wages. The reform allowed workers to redirect a significant part of their contributions, 9 % of gross wage, to their personal retirement accounts.

Under current law, however, the amount that workers are allowed to place in private accounts has been reduced. Moreover, the government is forcing the accounts to invest in government bonds, which means workers will earn sub-par returns. These are bad changes, but at least personal accounts still exist.

Even the bad news on government spending isn’t horrible news. As you can see from this OECD data, the spending burden (measured as a share of GDP) has climbed to a higher plateau in recent years, wiping out some of the gains that were achieved thanks to a period of strong restraint early last decade. That being said, Slovakia is still in better shape than many other industrialized nations.

So where does Slovakia go from here?

That’s not clear. The Prime Minister that imposed some of the bad policies recently was forced out of office by scandal, but his replacement isn’t any better and there’s not another election scheduled until 2020.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Slovakia has one of Europe’s best pro-market think tanks, the Institute of Economic and Social Studies. Which hopefully means another wave of reform may happen. Hopefully including some of my favorite policies, such as a pure flat tax as well as some constitutional spending restraint.

P.S. Like other nations in Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia faces demographic decline. To avert long-term crisis, reform is a necessity, not a luxury.

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California is a lot like France. They’re both wonderful places to visit.

And they’re both great places to live if you already have a lot of money.

But neither jurisdiction is very friendly to people who want to get rich. And, thanks to tax competition, that’s having a meaningful impact on migration patterns.

I’ve previously written about the exodus of successful and/or aspirational people from France.

Today we’re going to examine the same process inside the United States.

It’s a process that is about to get more intense thanks to federal tax reform, as Art Laffer and Steve Moore explain in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

In the years to come, millions of people, thousands of businesses, and tens of billions of dollars of net income will flee high-tax blue states for low-tax red states. This migration has been happening for years. But the Trump tax bill’s cap on the deduction for state and local taxes, or SALT, will accelerate the pace. …Consider what this means if you’re a high-income earner in Silicon Valley or Hollywood. The top tax rate that you actually pay just jumped from about 8.5% to 13%. Similar figures hold if you live in Manhattan, once New York City’s income tax is factored in. If you earn $10 million or more, your taxes might increase a whopping 50%. …high earners in places with hefty income taxes—not just California and New York, but also Minnesota and New Jersey—will bear more of the true cost of their state government. Also in big trouble are Connecticut and Illinois, where the overall state and local tax burden (especially property taxes) is so onerous that high-income residents will feel the burn now that they can’t deduct these costs on their federal returns. On the other side are nine states—including Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington—that impose no tax at all on earned income.

Art and Steve put together projections on what this will mean.

Over the past decade, about 3.5 million Americans on net have relocated from the highest-tax states to the lowest-tax ones. …Our analysis of IRS data on tax returns shows that in the past three years alone, Texas and Florida have gained a net $50 billion in income and purchasing power from other states, while California and New York have surrendered a net $23 billion. Now that the SALT subsidy is gone, how bad will it get for high-tax blue states? Very bad. We estimate, based on the historical relationship between tax rates and migration patterns, that both California and New York will lose on net about 800,000 residents over the next three years—roughly twice the number that left from 2014-16. Our calculations suggest that Connecticut, New Jersey and Minnesota combined will hemorrhage another roughly 500,000 people in the same period. …the exodus could puncture large and unexpected holes in blue-state budgets. Lawmakers in Hartford and Trenton have gotten a small taste of this in recent years as billionaire financiers have flown the coop and relocated to Florida. …Progressives should do the math: A 13% tax rate generates zero revenue from someone who leaves the state for friendlier climes.

I don’t know if their estimate is too high or too low, but there’s no question that they are correct about the direction of migration.

And every time a net taxpayer moves out, that further erodes the fiscal position of the high-tax states. Which is why I think one of the interesting questions is which state will be the first to suffer fiscal collapse.

In large part, taxpayers are making a rational cost-benefit analysis. Some states have dramatically increased the burden of government spending. Yet does anyone think that those states are providing better services than states with smaller public sectors? Or that those services are worth all the taxes they have to pay?

Consider, for instance, the difference between New York and Tennessee.

New York spends nearly twice as much on state and local government per person ($16,000) as does economically booming Tennessee ($9,000).

Anyhow, I’m guessing the new restriction on the state and local tax deduction is going to change the behavior of state politicians. At least I hope so.

But nobody ever said politicians were sensible. Ross Marchand of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance explains that Massachusetts and New Jersey are still thinking about more class-warfare taxation.

Massachusetts and New Jersey are currently considering “millionaires’ taxes,” which would significantly increase top rates and spark a “race to the top” for revenue… Instead of helping out the middle class, a millionaires’ tax will result in an exodus from the state, squeezing out opportunities for working Americans. …Prominent millionaires respond to these proposals by threatening to leave, and research shows that the well-to-do regularly follow through on these promises.  …nearly all of the migration that does happen in top brackets has to do with tax changes. Researchers at Stanford University and the Treasury Department estimate that a 10 percent increase in taxes causes a 1 percent bump in migration, assuming no change in any other policy. …If New Jersey and Massachusetts approve new millionaires’ taxes, it is difficult to predict how much will be raised and where these funds will ultimately wind up. But if New York and California are any guide, income surtaxes will be destructive. When it comes to higher taxation, interstate migration is just the tip of the iceberg. Higher-tax states, for instance, see less innovative activity and scientific research according to an analysis by economists at the Federal Reserve and UC Berkeley.

My suggestion is that politicians in Massachusetts and New Jersey should look at what’s happening to California.

CNBC reports on the growing exodus from the Golden State.

Californians may still love the beautiful weather and beaches, but more and more they are fed up with the high housing costs and taxes and deciding to flee to lower-cost states such as Nevada, Arizona and Texas. …said Dave Senser, who lives on a fixed income near San Luis Obispo, California, and now plans to move to Las Vegas. “Rents here are crazy, if you can find a place, and they’re going to tax us to death. That’s what it feels like. At least in Nevada they don’t have a state income tax. And every little bit helps.” …Data from United Van Lines show some of the most popular moving destinations for Californians from 2015 to 2017 were Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Other experts also said Nevada remains a top destination. …Internal Revenue Service data would appear to show that the middle-class and middle-age residents are the ones leaving, according to Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. …Furthermore, Kotkin believes the outmigration from California may start to rise among higher-income people, given that the GOP’s federal tax overhaul will result in certain California taxpayers losing from the state and local tax deduction cap.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office for the California legislature has warned the state’s lawmakers about this trend.

For many years, more people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here. According to data from the American Community Survey, from 2007 to 2016, about 5 million people moved to California from other states, while about 6 million left California. On net, the state lost 1 million residents to domestic migration—about 2.5 percent of its total population. …Although California generally has been losing residents to the rest of the country, movement between California and some states deviates from this pattern. The figure below shows net migration between California and individual states between 2007 and 2016. California gained, on net, residents from about one-third of states, led by New York, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Here’s the chart showing where Californians are moving. Unsurprisingly, Texas is the main destination.

By the way, state-to-state migration isn’t solely a function of income taxes.

A Market Watch column looks at the impact of property taxes on migration patterns.

Harty’s clients range from first-time buyers with sticker shock to people who’ve lived in and around Chicago all their lives. Each has a different story, but they share a common theme: many believe that Chicago-area property taxes are too high, and relief is just an hour away over the state line. …if all real estate is local, all real estate taxes may be even more so. …Attom’s data show that the average tax burden ranges from $10,612 in the most expensive metro area, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, to $525 in Montgomery, Alabama. And those are just averages. …taxes are “the icing on the cake” in areas that are seeing strong population inflows… Among the counties that saw the biggest percentage of in-migration in 2017, according to Census data, all are in Texas, Florida, Georgia, or the Carolinas. (Texas doesn’t have particularly low property taxes, but it has no personal income tax, making the overall tax burden much more manageable.) Cook County, where Chicago is located, had the biggest number of people leaving… Blomquist’s analysis of Census data showed that among all counties that had at least a 1% population increase, the average tax bill was $2,706, while in all counties with a least a 1% decline in population, the average was $3,900.

The key sentence in that excerpt is the part about Texas having relatively high property taxes, but making up for that by having no state income tax.

The same thing is true about New Hampshire.

But just imagine what it must be like to live in a state with high income taxes and high property taxes. If this map is any indication, places such as New York and Illinois are particularly awful for taxpayers.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at factors that drive state competitiveness.

Mark Perry takes an up-close look at the characteristics of the five states with the most in-migration and out-migration.

…four of the top five outbound states (Illinois ranked No. 46, Connecticut at No. 49, New Jersey at No. 48, and California at No. 47) were among the five US states with the highest tax burden — New York was No. 50 (highest tax burden). The average tax burden of the top five outbound states was 11.2%, with an average rank of 43.2 out of 50. In contrast, the top five inbound states have an average tax burden of 8.7% and an average rank of 16.6 out of 50. As would be expected, Americans are leaving states with some of the country’s highest overall tax burdens (IL, CT, CA and NJ) and moving to states with lower tax burdens (TN, SC and AZ). …that there are significant differences between the top five inbound and top five outbound US states when they are compared on a variety of measures of economic performance, business climate, tax burdens for businesses and individuals, fiscal health, and labor market dynamism. There is empirical evidence that Americans do “vote with their feet” when they relocate from one state to another, and the evidence suggests that Americans are moving from states that are relatively more economically stagnant, Democratic-controlled fiscally unhealthy states with higher tax burdens, more regulations and with fewer economic and job opportunities to Republican-controlled, fiscally sound states that are relatively more economically vibrant, dynamic and business-friendly, with lower tax and regulatory burdens and more economic and job opportunities.

Here’s Mark’s table, based on 2017 migration data.

As Mark said, people do “vote with their feet” for smaller government.

Which is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of federalism. When there’s decentralization, people can escape bad policy. And that helps to discipline profligate governments.

P.S. I’m writing today’s column from Switzerland, which is a very successful example of genuine federalism.

P.P.S. Americans are free to move from one state to another, and the uncompetitive states can’t stop the process. Unfortunately, the IRS has laws that penalize people who want to move to other nations. In this regard, the U.S. is worse than France.

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For the past 30 years, I’ve been criticizing both the tax code and the IRS. Which raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question about who should be blamed for our nightmarish tax system.

Should we blame IRS bureaucrats, who have a dismal track record of abusing taxpayers? Or should we blame politicians, who have been making the tax code more onerous ever since that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted?

In this exchange with Stuart Varney, I take an ecumenical approach and blame both.

As you can see, I am slightly conflicted on this debate.

There are plenty of reasons to condemn the IRS, and not just because of what I mentioned in the interview about its deplorable campaign to suppress political speech by Tea Party organizations.

Yet there is an equally strong case to be made that politicians are the real problem. They are the ones who created the tax system. They are the ones who make it more complex with each passing year.

And they are the ones who constantly give more power and money to the IRS in hopes of generating more cash that can be used to buy votes.

Indeed, the most important thing I said in the interview is that the IRS budget has dramatically increased over the past few decades. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So while I’m surely not a fan of the IRS, I’m probably even more critical of politicians since they’re the ones responsible for the bad laws that empower bureaucrats.

But that doesn’t really matter because the solution is the same regardless of whether one blames politicians or the IRS. Throw the tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax (or, if there are ever sufficient votes to undo the 16th Amendment, replace the internal revenue code with a national consumption tax).*

Let’s close with some humor. First, here’s a painful reminder (h/t: Reddit‘s libertarian page) of the relationship between taxpayers and politicians, though it’s worth noting that they want to grab your income regardless of whether there’s a lot or a little. In other words, the taxpayer could be holding a minnow and nothing would change.

Maybe I should add this image to my archive of IRS humor, which already features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

*In my libertarian fantasy world, we would return to the limited government created by the Founding Fathers, thus eliminating the need for any broad-based tax.

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I strongly applauded the tax reform plan that was enacted in December, especially the lower corporate tax rate and the limit on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But I’m not satisfied. Our long-run goal should be fundamental tax reform. And that means replacing the current system with a simple and fair flat tax.

And the recent tax plan only took a small step in that direction. How small? Well, the Tax Foundation just calculated that it only improved the United States from #30 to #25 in their International Tax Competitiveness Ranking. In other words, we have a long way to go before we catch up to Estonia.

 

It’s possible, of course, to apply different weights and come up with a different list. I think the Tax Foundation’s numbers could be improved, for instance, by including a measure of the aggregate tax burden. And that presumably would boost the U.S. score.

But the fact would remain that the U.S. score would be depressingly low. In other words, the internal revenue code is still a self-imposed wound and huge improvements are still necessary.

That’s why we need another round of tax reform, based on the three core principles of good tax policy.

  1. Lower tax rates
  2. Less double taxation
  3. Fewer loopholes

But how is tax reform possible in a fiscal environment of big government and rising deficits?

This is a challenge. In an ideal world, there would be accompanying budget reforms to save money, thus creating leeway for tax reform to be a net tax cut.

But even in the current fiscal environment, tax reform is possible if policy makers finance pro-growth reforms by closing undesirable loopholes.

Indeed, that’s basically what happened in the recent tax plan. The lower corporate rate was financed by restricting the state and local tax deduction and a few other changes. The budget rules did allow for a modest short-run tax cut, but the overall package was revenue neutral in the long run (i.e., starting in 2027).

It’s now time to repeat this exercise.

The Congressional Budget Office periodically issues a report on Budget Options, which lists all sort of spending reforms and tax increases, along with numbers showing what those changes would mean to the budget over the next 10 years.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this report because it is too limited on the spending side. You won’t find fleshed-out options to shut down departments, for instance, which is unfortunate given the target-rich environment (including TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture).

And on the tax side, it has a lengthy list of tax hikes, generally presented as ways to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending. The list must be akin to porn for statists like Bernie Sanders.

It includes new taxes.

And it includes increases in existing taxes.

But the CBO report also includes some tax preferences that could be used to finance good tax reforms.

Here are four provisions of the tax code that should be the “pay-fors” in a new tax reform plan.

We’ll start with two that are described in the CBO document.

Further reductions in itemized deductions – The limit on the state and local tax deduction should be the first step. The entire deduction could be repealed as part of a second wave of tax reform. And the same is true for the home mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contributions deduction.

Green-energy pork – The House version of tax reform gutted many of the corrupt tax preferences for green energy. Unfortunately, those changes were not included in the final bill. But the silver lining to that bad decision is that those provisions can be used to finance good reforms in a new bill.

Surprisingly, the CBO report overlooks or only gives cursory treatment to a couple of major tax preferences that each could finance $1 trillion or more of pro-growth changes over the next 10 years.

Municipal bond interest – Under current law, there is no federal tax on the interest paid to owners of bonds issued by state and local governments. This “muni-bond” loophole is very bad tax policy since it creates an incentive that diverts capital from private business investment to subsidizing the profligacy of cities like Chicago and states like California.

Healthcare exclusion – Current law also allows a giant tax break for fringe benefits. When companies purchase health insurance plans for employees, that compensation escapes both payroll taxes and income taxes. Repealing – or at least capping – this exclusion could raise a lot of money for pro-growth reforms (and it would be good healthcare policy as well).

What’s potentially interesting about the four loopholes listed above is that they all disproportionately benefit rich people. This means that if they are curtailed or repealed and the money as part of tax reform, the left won’t be able to argue that upper-income taxpayers are getting unfair benefits.

Actually, they’ll probably still make their usual class-warfare arguments, but they will be laughably wrong.

The bottom line is that we should have smaller government and less taxation. But even if that’s not immediately possible, we can at least figure out revenue-neutral reforms that will produce a tax system that does less damage to growth, jobs, and competitiveness.

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Judged by the amount of attention various provisions produced, last year’s fight over tax reform was about reducing the corporate tax rate and limiting the deduction for state and local taxes.

But there were many other important changes, including a a big increase in the standard deduction (i.e., the amount households can protect from the IRS), a shift that will reduce the number of people who utilize itemized deductions.

A report in the Washington Post suggests that this reform could hurt charities.

Many U.S. charities are worried the tax overhaul bill signed by President Trump…could spur a landmark shift in philanthropy, speeding along the decline of middle-class donors… The source of concern is how the tax bill is expected to sharply reduce the number of taxpayers who qualify for the charitable tax deduction — a big driver of gifts to nonprofits. …the number of people who qualify for the charitable deduction is projected to plummet next year from about 30 percent of tax filers to as low as 5 percent. That’s because the new tax bill nearly doubles the standard deduction and limits the value of other deductions, such as for state and local taxes.

Many charities opposed this change.

One study predicts that donations will fall by at least $13 billion, about 4.5 percent, next year. …“The tax code is now poised to de-incentivize the heart of civic action in America,” said Dan Cardinali, president of Independent Sector, a public-policy group for charities, foundations and corporate giving programs. “It’s deeply disturbing.”  The tax bill’s treatment of charities led the Salvation Army to express serious concerns, and it’s why United Way opposed the legislation, as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinali’s group turned its home page — normally a place for a feel-good story — into a call to protest, with the banner headline: “KILL THE TAX REFORM BILL.” …Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the main tax bill writer in the House…argued that people would soon have more money to donate because of the economic growth driven by the bill’s tax cuts

As an aside, here’s the part of the story that most irked me.

“The government has always seen fit to reward the goodness of Americans with a tax incentive,” said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, development secretary at the Salvation Army.

Huh, how is it goodness if people are only doing it because they’re being bribed by the tax code?

But let’s stick with our main topic of whether the tax bill will hurt the non-profit sector.

A Bloomberg column also hypothesized that the GOP tax reform will be bad news for charities.

Will Americans give as generously now that the incentives have completely shifted? Recent research provides little hope for them. …last year’s tax reform…doubled the standard deduction, effectively eliminating most taxpayers’ ability to itemize deductions via contributions to charity…. Tax cost refers to the actual, post-tax price that someone pays when they make a donation. Imagine someone with a marginal tax rate of 25 percent. Every dollar donated only “costs” the taxpayer 75 cents after he or she takes the charitable deduction. …What happens when you change these “tax costs”? …Almost everyone who studied taxpayer behavior found that the charitable deduction encouraged people to donate more than they would if it didn’t exist. But studies yielded very different price elasticity figures ranging from -0.5 (a dollar in lost tax revenue generates an additional 50 cents in donations) to -4.0 (every dollar in forgone tax revenue generates a whopping four dollars of donations). A recent meta-analysis of approximately 70 of these studies yielded a price elasticity a median of -1.2. A recent study by Nicholas Duquette of the University of Southern California…examined how taxpayer contributions changed after the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which increased the tax cost of giving by dramatically lowering marginal tax rates. The result was eye-popping: A 1 percent rise in the tax cost of giving caused charitable donations to drop 4 percent.

I agree that lower tax rates increase the “tax cost” of giving money to charity.

And Reagan’s tax policy (the 1981 tax bill as well as the 1986 tax reform) had a huge impact. In 1980, it only cost 30 cents for a rich person to give a dollar to charity. By 1988, because of much lower tax rates, it cost 72 cents to give a dollar to charity.

Yet I’m a skeptic of Duquette’s research for the simple reason that real-world data shows that charitable contributions rose after Reagan slashed tax rates.

What Duquette overlooks is that charitable giving also is impact by changes in disposable income and net wealth. So the “tax cost” of donations increased, but that was more than offset by a stronger economy.

So our question today is whether we’re going to see a repeat of the 1980s. Will a reduction in the tax incentive for charitable giving be offset by better economic performance?

Some research from the Mercatus Center suggests that the non-profit sector should not fear reform.

…one study by William C. Randolph casts doubt on the claim that the deduction increases giving in the long run. Randolph’s paper analyzes both major tax reforms in the 1980s and follows individuals for 10 years, finding that taxpayers alter the timing of their giving in response to changes in tax policy, but not necessarily the total amount of giving. …lower-income households also donate to charities in large numbers. …However, very few of them benefit in terms of their tax burden, because many lower-income households have no positive tax liability. …For the 80 percent of middle-income filers who do not currently claim the charitable deduction, any cut in marginal tax rates is a pure benefit. Most taxpayers would be better served by eliminating the charitable contributions deduction and using the additional revenue to lower tax rates.

I would put this more bluntly. Only about 30 percent of taxpayers itemize, so 70 percent of taxpayers are completely unaffected by the charitable deduction. Yet many of these people still give to charity.

And they’ll presumably give higher donations if the economy grows faster.

This is one of the reasons the Wall Street Journal opined that tax reform will be beneficial.

…nonprofits…sell Americans short by assuming that most donate mainly because of the tax break, rather than because they believe in a cause or want to share their blessings with others. How little they respect their donors. …Americans don’t need a tax break to give to charities, which should be able to sell themselves on their merits. …The truth is that Americans will donate more if they have more money. And they will have more money if tax reform, including lower rates and simplification, helps the economy and produces broader prosperity. The 1980s were a boom time for charitable giving precisely because so much wealth was created. Like so many on the political left, the charity lobby doesn’t understand that before Americans can give away private wealth they first have to create it.

A column in the Wall Street Journal also augments the key points about generosity and giving patterns.

…a drop in the amount of deductible gifts does not necessarily mean an equivalent drop in actual giving. …recessions aside, Americans have steadily increased their giving despite numerous tax law changes. Individual donations increased by 4% in 2015 and another 4% in 2016. If donations continue to increase at such rates, it won’t take long to make up for changes brought about by tax reform. …Americans have continued to give to charities no matter what benefits the tax code conveys on them for doing so.

Last but not least, Hayden Ludwig, writing for the Washington Examiner, explains that charitable contributions increase as growth increases.

Liberal groups such as the National Council of Nonprofits claim that the plan will be “disastrous” for charities… The thrust of the Left’s argument is that allowing Americans to keep more of their money makes them stingier, and high taxes are needed to force Americans to take advantage of charitable tax write-offs. It’s ironic that anyone in the nonprofit sector, which is built entirely on the generosity of individuals and corporations, can argue that higher taxes encourage charity – or that charity needs to be legislated. …if the Left’s argument about tax incentives is true, we should see sharp declines in charitable donations after every tax cut in U.S. history. We don’t. According to a 2015 report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, individuals’ charitable giving rose four percent in 1965 and more than two percent in 1966, following the Kennedy and Johnson tax cuts of 1964 and 1965, respectively. Between the Reagan tax cuts in 1981 and 1986, individual giving rose a whopping 21 percent from $119.7 billion to $144.9 billion. By 1989, individual giving grew another 4.7 percent. …The reason is simple: Prosperity and generosity are inextricably linked.

Amen. Make America more prosperous and two things will happen.

Fewer people will need charity and more people will be in a position to help them.

I’ll conclude by noting that the charitable deduction is the itemized deduction I would abolish last. Not because it is necessary, but because it doesn’t cause macroeconomic harm. The state and local tax deduction, by contrast, is odious and misguided because it subsidizes bad policy and the home mortgage interest deduction is harmful since it is part of a tax code that tilts the playing field and artificially lures capital from business investment to residential real estate.

Things to keep in mind for the next round of tax reform.

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