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Posts Tagged ‘Itemized Deductions’

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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Both the House and Senate have approved reasonably good tax reform plans.

Lawmakers are now in a “conference committee” to iron out the differences between the two bills so that a consensus package can be a approved and sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

Sounds like we’re on the verge of getting a less-destructive tax system, right?

I hope so, but there are still some major hurdles. The conference committee has a difficult task. They’re only allowed $1.5 trillion in tax relief in the short run and have to produce a bill that is “revenue neutral” in the long run. That won’t be easy in an environment where interest groups are putting heavy pressure on lawmakers.

I joked that doing tax reform with these restrictions is like trying to fit an NFL lineman in Pee Wee Herman’s clothes. But the serious point is that genuine tax reform requires some revenue-raising provisions to offset the parts of the bill that reduce revenue.

Needless to say, the right way of doing this is by going after economically harmful tax preferences. I’ve already written (over and over and over again) that the deduction for state and local taxes should be on the chopping block. To their credit, lawmakers are curtailing that loophole.

Today, I want to make the case that housing preferences in the tax code also should be targeted. I’m not naive enough to think politicians are suddenly going to decide to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. But the bills – especially the House version – slightly curtail preferences for housing and it would be nice if they went a bit further.

That would free up more revenue for pro-growth tax cuts and also be smart policy. Let’s look at what some expert voices, starting with market-oriented people.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explains the provisions in the House bill for the Wall Street Journal.

Tax reform could make housing more affordable. Done correctly, it could increase the supply of homes by reducing federal tax subsidies for homeownership. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act furthers this aim in several ways—by raising the standard deduction, capping new loans qualifying for the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000, eliminating the deduction on loans for second homes and the deduction on cashing out home equity, and capping the property-tax deduction at $10,000.

The Senate bill raises the standard deduction as well, but otherwise basically gives housing a pass. In the conference committee, Senators should agree to the House approach. Pinto explains that homeownership will be higher with less “help” from Washington.

…the House tax bill would create about 870,000 additional available units over 10 years. This represents a boost of 14% (the current build rate will yield about 6.2 million units over 10 years). Cutting homeowner subsidies out of the tax code provides other important benefits. The percentage of mortgage holders who itemize would drop from about 60% to 12%. This would free nearly half of mortgaged homeowners from a massive federal tax incentive hanging over their financial decisions, thereby greatly reducing the market-distorting impact produced by the interest deduction. …Lower prices due to loss of subsidies will ultimately allow more low-wealth Americans to become homeowners, since less cash will be needed to close a purchase. Rents will remain roughly constant as house prices decline, thus reducing the cost of homeownership compared with renting—another positive outcome. …It is time to put the interests of taxpayers and aspiring homeowners ahead of the interests of the housing lobby. Tax reform—especially if the final bill fully implements the House’s subsidy cuts—will improve the housing market and make homeownership more accessible to all.

Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (home of the national championship-bound Bulldogs, I can’t resist pointing out) discusses the issue in Forbes.

About 64% of Americans own a house. Roughly two-thirds of those homeowners have a mortgage. Only 6% of all mortgages are for $500,000 or more. Put all those numbers together and you will find that home builders and realtors think their world is ending over policy changes to the mortgage interest deduction that impact only about 2.5% of American households. Plus, existing mortgages are grandfathered in, so anyone who purchased a home expecting the deduction will continue to enjoy it. …doubling the standard deduction means fewer people will itemize, meaning fewer will use the mortgage interest deduction. Importantly, those households that stop itemizing are doing so because the newly enlarged standard deduction provides them a lower tax burden. Households that have more after-tax income have more money to spend on houses, mortgage payments, and everything else in the economy. Housing is not being made unaffordable by the proposed tax reform since the vast majority of Americans will receive a moderate tax cut under the plan. Home builders and realtors seem concerned that a few rich Americans might not buy as expensive houses without as big a tax break, even though they will have more disposable income. …Housing depends much more on disposable income, the health of the job market, and Americans’ confidence in the economic future than it does on tax breaks. Don’t listen to the real estate industry; they will be just fine if the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passes.

George Will is not a fan of housing preferences in the tax code.

…only around 30 percent of taxpayers itemize their deductions. …not even half of all homeowners use the deduction. …the unpleasantness of 2008 demonstrated the downside of encouraging too much homeownership. Furthermore, the deduction might actually suppress homeownership by being priced into rising housing costs. Besides, Australia, Canada and Britain, which have no mortgage interest deductions, have homeownership rates comparable to that of the United States. …Homeownership is…not an investment because “it does not improve the productive capacity of the economy.” Indeed, the more money that flows into housing, the less flows into stocks, bonds or banks.

Amen. We should have learned from 2008 that it’s bad news for government to muck around in housing.

Yet some politicians can’t resist because of their desire to buy votes.

Kevin Williamson of National Review adds his two cents.

It’s time for…a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households… Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing…significant tax increases on the rich. …Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. …mortgage subsidies are not randomly distributed. The mortgage-interest deduction is much more important to rich people in San Francisco, where the median home price exceeds $1 million, than it is to middle-class people in Tulsa, where the median home price is about $110,000. …The best course of action would be to eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction entirely over a relatively short period of time, say five years. …it is difficult to make a compelling case that subsidizing Lena Dunham’s mortgage on her $5 million Brooklyn apartment (or helping out whoever took that $4.2 million Trump apartment off Keith Olbermann’s hands) needs to be a top national policy priority.

Writing for the City Journal, Howard Husock explains why the deduction is bad policy.

…the deduction should be pruned or eliminated—not just because it is inequitable but also because it distorts the housing market. Currently, a taxpayer can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1.1 million—substantially more than the median U.S. home value ($203,000). Not surprisingly, the Government Accountability Office has found that higher-income households are generally more likely to use the mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions. In 2008, the most recent tax year for which data are available, taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or more “accounted for 13 percent of all returns but claimed nearly half (47 percent) of all mortgage interest and property tax deductions.” …The core problem with the MID, though, lies in how it affects housing markets. Inevitably, any policy that provides a tax reduction for those who buy or own homes increases the price of housing, through the implicit promise that the tax code will lower the effective house payments. MID supporters say that it encourages homeownership, but the Urban Institute finds that it mostly “rewards affluent households who would have bought homes anyway,” …Not surprisingly, the homebuilders lobby—among the hardiest of Washington swamp creatures—is fighting the proposal. …Reducing tax deductions that put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage should not be impeded by a special-interest group that has achieved its purported social goal—homeownership—in the U.S. at a rate (64 percent) that lags that of Canada (67 percent), where mortgage interest is not deductible.

Even folks on the left realize that housing preferences are bad policy.

Here are some excerpts from a Slate column.

It also must be said that the mortgage interest deduction is an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed. Currently, it’s an estimated $80 billion-plus subsidy that disproportionately helps upper-middle-class and wealthy households—according to the Tax Policy Center, 72 percent of its benefits go to the highest-earning 20 percent of taxpayers. This is to be expected, since wealthier people can buy larger houses and take out bigger mortgages. It also explains much of its political invulnerability; people who earn low- to mid-six-figures vote and very much treasure their slice of the welfare state that’s submerged in our tax code. But as a result, the deduction mostly encourages people who could have afforded homes anyway to buy bigger. Research has shown it does little if anything to expand homeownership overall, and may actually discourage it among younger American by driving up prices.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic points out that housing preferences are a reverse from of class warfare.

Although about two-thirds of American households own a home, only one-quarter of them claim the deduction…households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. …it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners. …Desmond writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

Scholars also find he deduction is not good policy.

A just-released academic study confirms that the right kind of tax reform will be very good for society, the economy, and homeownership.

The model demonstrates that repealing the regressive mortgage interest deduction decreases housing consumption by the wealthy, increases aggregate homeownership, improves overall welfare, and leads to a decline in aggregate mortgage debt. The mechanisms behind these results are intuitive. When both house prices and rents are allowed to adjust, the repeal of the mortgage interest deduction decreases house prices because, ceteris paribus, the after-tax cost of occupying a square foot of housing has risen. Reduced house prices allow low wealth, credit-constrained households to become homeowners because the minimum down payment required to purchase a house falls. At the same time, the elimination of the tax favored status of mortgages, acting in concert with the fall in equilibrium house prices, causes unconstrained households to reduce their mortgage debt. Because rents remain roughly constant as house prices decline, homeownership becomes cheaper relative to renting, which further re-enforces the positive effect of eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on homeownership. Importantly, the expected lifetime welfare of a newborn household rises because the tax reform shifts housing consumption from high income households (the main beneficiaries of the tax subsidy in its current form) to lower income families for whom the additional shelter consumption is relatively more valuable.

Now let’s look at experts who have strong arguments against the deduction, but who also comment on the distasteful role of special interests.

Matt Mitchell and Tad DeHaven, in a column for U.S. News & World Report, point out that the only real beneficiary of the deduction are interest groups (I call them swamp creatures) that want homeowners to go into debt in order to spend more money.

Motivated in part by a need to find revenue offsets for its broader tax cut proposal, the House has proposed to reduce the amount of mortgage debt taxpayers may deduct interest on from $1.1 million to $500,000; the Senate version would slightly reduce it to $1 million. But even these modest reforms have raised the ire of Big Housing. Indeed, even if both chambers had proposed to leave the mortgage interest deduction alone, this powerful lobby would still be upset that Congressional Republicans intend to raise the standard deduction: Doing so would cause fewer taxpayers to itemize, which means fewer people would claim the deduction. … the mortgage interest tax deduction…benefits wealthier Americans and the housing lobby at the expense of the majority of taxpayers, who receive no benefit…even the benefit for wealthier taxpayers is illusory “because the tax gains to homeowners are largely offset by increases in home prices.” That leaves the powerful housing lobby – represented most prominently by the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Homebuilders – as the real beneficiary. …why, then, has Big Housing fought so hard to keep the mortgage interest deduction? The answer is that although the deduction doesn’t affect home ownership, it does incentivize people to purchase more expensive homes. That translates into more money for realtors and home builders. And because the deduction is taken against the interest payment and not the down payment, it encourages home buyers to put more of the purchase on credit. So in reality, the deduction encourages home-borrowship, not homeownership. Did we mention that the Mortgage Bankers Association is also a prominent defender of the mortgage interest deduction?

Since we’re on the topic of swamp creatures, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner explains that housing preferences are bad for families and good for interest groups.

That means a married couple who rents (or owns a modest house, say, less than $225,000) making $70,000 would probably see their federal income taxes fall by 25 percent. Some lower-income families — including homeowners — would have their federal income tax liability wiped out. Middle-class families who currently itemize their deductions (because they spend more $12,600 a year on mortgage interest and charitable giving) would have their taxes go down, and their tax-filing simplified. …Will this lower home prices? Probably yes, because the value of this deduction gets priced into homes. That is, this deduction wasn’t really helping homeowners anyway. Who was the deduction helping? Mortgage lenders and homebuilders mostly, also realtors. These are the special interests who created and who fight tirelessly to save this deduction. Removing an economic distortion that has inflated home prices will create some losers, sure, but that doesn’t make it bad. Inflated home prices have stultified mobility, delayed family formation, increased household debt, and otherwise tied up families’ assets.

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation also criticizes the interest groups defending special preferences.

One of the obstacles to fundamental tax reform has always been that there is an entrenched constituency that benefits in some way from every provision in the tax code, and that can be counted on to noisily oppose any change to it. These constituencies are often not taxpayers themselves but business interests that have built a business on a particular tax provision. An obvious example is the residential mortgage interest deduction. …current tax reform plans would increase the standard deduction available to taxpayers who choose not to itemize their deductions. In other words, the real estate industry has a targeted tax preference that is only available to home owners through the itemized deduction, and they don’t want to see that tax preference diluted by a higher standard deduction available to everyone else. This is an obnoxious argument for the real estate industry to be making. Giving a higher standard deduction to those who do not itemize doesn’t take anything away from taxpayers who do, and it would simplify tax filing for many taxpayers because it would make the standard deduction more attractive. Apparently the real estate industry doesn’t want Americans to get a tax break unless they agree to go into massive debt to buy a house.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the odious role of interest groups.

…doubling the standard deduction…would make the first $24,000 of income for a married couple tax-free. What’s not to like? Plenty, says the housing lobby. The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors each bashed the larger standard deduction on grounds that it would make the tax subsidy to their industries less appealing. …a reminder of how misguided the mortgage-interest deduction is. For starters, it distorts the allocation of capital by favoring housing, a form of consumption, over investments that might be more productive and raise everyone’s living standards. The deduction also disproportionately benefits the affluent, who buy more expensive homes with bigger mortgages. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office study found that 75% of the benefit of the mortgage-interest deduction goes to the top 20% of income earners. Two of three American tax filers don’t even itemize, which means they can’t deduct mortgage interest even if they have it. It’s also not clear the mortgage deduction is as critical to home ownership as advocates contend. Canada and Britain have similar rates of home ownership as the U.S. (nearly two thirds of their citizens) without a mortgage-interest deduction. …Republicans should reconsider giving housing a pass. For example, the GOP could limit the amount of mortgage-interest that could be deducted, or limit the deduction to borrowing below, say, $250,000. This would make the tax benefit less tilted to the affluent, and it would also provide more revenue for lower tax rates.

Since the WSJ editorial mentions that Canada has very high homeownership without any loopholes, let’s close today’s column by reviewing some additional global evidence.

In a chapter for a book on tax reform, Bill Gale of Brookings points out that the U.K. dramatically curtailed the tax benefit of housing without any adverse impact on homeownership.

Great Britain conducted a fascinating experiment showing both the political and economic viability of reducing mortgage subsidies.’ When tax subsidies for most forms of borrowing were eliminated in 1974-1975, subsidies for interest on the principal primary residence were retained, subject to a loan limit of £25,000. No subsidies were provided on second homes. The limit was raised to £30,000 in 1983-1984 and has stayed fixed since. …More recently, the subsidy has been provided only up to a fixed rate, set at 25 percent and then reduced to 15 percent for new loans in 1998. The British experience raises several interesting possibilities. …because the £30,000 limit is well below the average new mortgage loan, mortgage subsidies provide no marginal incentive for most taxpayers. …the decline in the value of the mortgage interest subsidy has been gradual, but huge. From 1974 to 1996, the value-thought of as the interest rate times the rate at which the subsidy is taken times the real loan limit-fell by about 90 percent. Nevertheless, finding much of an effect of the policies on the housing sector is difficult. From 1974 to 1994, homeownership rates, the ratio of mortgage debt to GDP, the ratio of mortgage debt to the housing stock, and the ratio of housing to fixed capital rose faster in the United Kingdom than in the United States. …the significant reduction in mortgage subsidies when homeownership rates were rising (by thirteen percentage points from 1974 to 1994) may make the events even more remarkable from a political perspective. The British experience and cross-country evidence that the presence of a deduction for mortgage interest does not greatly influence homeownership rates suggest that the value of subsidies for owner-occupied housing could be reduced.

Charles Hughes of the Manhattan Institute writes about the deduction’s downsides, but the part of his article that I want to highlight is the description of how Denmark curtailed housing preferences with no adverse consequences.

Many areas in the tax code introduce substantial distortions that are ripe for reform. One area is the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows claimants to deduct mortgage interest on their primary or secondary residences, up to a certain threshold. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the deduction for mortgage interest will reduce revenue by $72.4 billion this year, and by $234 billion through 2020, making it one of the most expensive tax expenditures in the tax code. Even at this magnitude, only about a quarter of tax filers claim the deduction… A new working paper analyzing the effects of the mortgage interest deduction in Denmark finds that it has no effect on homeownership rates in the long run, and it distorts decision-making about the size and price of which homes to buy. …the economists found no short- or long-run effects on home ownership.

Here’s a chart from that study. As you can see, dramatically curtailing the value of the deduction for mortgage interest did not have any noticeable impact on homeownership.

P.S. If you like the gory details of tax policy, I explained in 2012 that the problem with the tax code and housing isn’t the mortgage interest deduction, per se, but rather the fact that business investment doesn’t get the same treatment as residential real estate.

P.P.S. While lawmakers are debating whether to slightly limit preferences for housing, I should point out that there are two other huge loopholes – the municipal bond interest exemption and the healthcare exclusion – that basically were left untouched. Hopefully they will be on the chopping block for the next installment of tax reform.

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I’ve written a couple of times to explain why the deduction for state and local taxes should be eliminated as part of pro-growth tax reform.

One of my main arguments, as I pointed out at the beginning of this interview, is that Republicans are generally unwilling to finance pro-growth tax changes by restraining government spending.

And since GOPers are too timid on spending, that means “revenue offsets” are needed to finance the good provisions in tax reform (assuming the goal is to make such changes permanent).

But this second-best approach can still be very good if the right loopholes are targeted.

In other words, wiping out the deduction is a good idea as a general principle, but it’s a very good idea in today’s environment since it would produce a lot of revenue to “offset” the cost of lowering tax rates and making our awful tax system less onerous. Plus, the deduction is unfair and inconsistent with principles of good policy.

Many organization point out that generating revenues by getting rid of the state and local deduction would be a win-win situation.

The National Taxpayers Union is not a fan.

…the provision departs from principles of sound tax policy and unwisely abets the behavior of high-tax states, enabling big government.

And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t like the loophole.

The deduction for state and local taxes creates winners and losers within states. Higher-income taxpayers win; lower-income taxpayers lose.

The Tax Foundation has weighed in.

The deduction favors high-income, high-tax states like California and New York, which together receive nearly one-third of the deduction’s total value nationwide.

Along with the American Enterprise Institute.

…repealing the state and local tax deduction would be an important move toward broadening the tax base.

Americans for Tax Reform also opposes the deduction.

…this deduction actually subsidizes upper income earners in high tax states.

And the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has a fact sheet with lots of data.

…nearly all filers (~99.7%) would likely benefit from a lower rate and increased standard deduction notwithstanding the loss of SALT.

National Review rejects the loophole.

Getting rid of state-tax deductibility is…good policy. …deductions mainly benefit higher-income households. …The federal government…should not use the tax code to encourage or discourage.

But the most powerful and persuasive evidence for getting rid of the deduction is that organizations favoring higher taxes and bigger government openly admit that the loophole encourages and enables bad policy (what they would call good policy) at the state and local level. You don’t have to believe me. Here are some passages from a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

…with this deduction, higher-income filers are more willing to support state and local taxes. …Ending the SALT deduction would strain state budgets over time by making it harder for states and localities to raise…revenues… The GOP tax plan…would threaten many states’ ability to raise…revenue.

What’s amazing is that the report openly acknowledges that the deduction overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy, something that CBPP normally doesn’t like because of their support for class-warfare taxation.

But if one’s goal is bigger government, you acquiesce to reverse class warfare when it makes life easier for tax-aholic politicians in states such as CaliforniaConnecticutIllinoisNew York, and New Jersey.

The lesson for the rest of us, though, is that if CBPP thinks this preference for the rich is worth preserving, the rest of us should want it abolished.

Let’s close with some analysis that is compelling to me. Here’s what Ronald Reagan said when he tried to eliminate this odious loophole back in the 1980s.

P.S. I still prefer the first-best option of tax reform financed by spending restraint. If Republicans simply limited federal spending so it grew by 1.96 percent per year over the next 10 years, that would enable both a balanced budget and a $3 trillion tax cut. And that’s even with static scoring!

P.P.S. Back during the debate on tax reform in the 1980s, Reagan also opposed the VAT. Helps to explain why I admire the Gipper so much.

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If tax policy was a religion, the Holy Trinity of reform would be very straightforward.

But if tax policy was a meal, the first two items would be the dessert and the last item would be the vegetable. Simply stated, politicians like lowering tax rates and reducing double taxation because that makes most people happy (at least the ones who actually pay tax).

But when you take away loopholes, the people who benefit from those preferences are unhappy. And they get very noisy. Interest groups hire lobbyists. Trade associations spring into action. Campaign contribution get dispensed.

If tax policy was a movie, it would be Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.

In this clip from a recent interview, I talk about some of the dessert, specifically a much-needed reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Bu today I want to focus more on the vegetables of itemized deductions.

Here’s some of what Reuters reported last month about the swamp gearing up to protect its privileges.

…industry groups and other sectors of society are gearing up to fight proposed changes to the personal income tax. …proposed changes to the personal tax code have already stirred opposition from realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and charities.

And here’s a description of what might happen and the impact.

To simplify the tax code, Republicans have proposed eliminating nearly all tax write-offs including those for state and local taxes, then doubling the standard deduction. This would eliminate the incentive to itemize and should drastically reduce the number of taxpayers who do so. Currently, many taxpayers use itemized deductions, claiming write-offs for things like charitable contributions, interest paid on a mortgage and state and local taxes. If the standard deduction becomes larger, fewer taxpayers will need to itemize, reducing the incentive to hold a mortgage or contribute to charity. …Estimates suggest more than half of taxpayers would stop itemizing under the proposed plan.

Should we hope that these reforms occurs? If people lose or forego itemized deductions, would that be a good outcome?

As a long-time fan of the flat tax, I’m obviously not a fan of these preferences. Though I always stress that I only want to get rid of loopholes if the money is used to finance lower tax rates. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t want the money being used to finance bigger government.

Let’s see what others have said, starting with Justin Fox’s column for Bloomberg. He’s not happy that loopholes disproportionately benefits taxpayers with above-average incomes.

Let’s talk about upper-middle-class entitlements, the subsidies that flow almost entirely to those in the upper fifth or even tenth of the income distribution. …Why do these subsidies continue…? Mainly, it seems, because they’ve been granted to a sizable, influential population who, it is feared, will fight any effort to take them away. There are other interested parties, too — the real estate industry and mortgage lenders in the case of the mortgage interest deduction… But mainly it’s the millions of upper-middle-class Americans who, like me and my family, are beneficiaries of tax subsidies.

He’s right. I’m more upset about the economic distortions these preference create, but there’s no doubt that upper-income taxpayers reap most of the benefits.

Here’s his conclusion, which I think is spot on.

…if these tax breaks had never become law, no one would really miss them. Houses might cost a bit less. College might be slightly cheaper. Income tax rates might be a little lower. The economy might run a little bit more smoothly. So … how do we get to that place from here?

By the way, Fox includes a chart showing how richer taxpayers get more benefit from the mortgage interest deduction.

That’s certainly true, and I’ve previously shared data showing how the middle class gets almost nothing from itemized deductions compared to high-income taxpayers.

Let’s focus specifically on those goodies for the rich. This chart from the Tax Foundation reveals that the state and local tax break is especially lucrative.

For what it’s worth, the state and local deduction is my least favorite, so I’d like to see this chart change.

Though the healthcare exclusion may do even more economic damage (I assume it’s not included in the above chart since it’s an exclusion rather than a deduction).

But the bottom line of today’s column is that we’re not going to get the dessert of lower tax rates unless policy makers are willing to eat some vegetables – i.e., get rid of some tax preferences. Or, to be more exact, it will be impossible, given congressional budget rules, to have any sort of meaningful permanent reforms of the tax system unless there are revenue raisers to offset the tax cuts.

P.S. In any discussion of tax preferences, it’s important to properly define a loophole. Folks on the right generally think income should be taxed only one time (technically, they favor “consumption-base” taxation). So a loophole is a provision that results in zero tax on a particular activity.

Folks on the left generally think the tax code should impose double taxation (technically, they favor “Haig-Simons” taxation). So they have a much bigger list of loopholes, mostly focused on provisions that limit the extra layers of tax imposed on income that is saved and invested. You see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. Heck, you even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

By the way, Justin Fox presumably is in the Haig-Simons camp since his column treats the capital gains tax and 401(k)s as loopholes. But he cited one of my columns, so I can’t bring myself to criticize him.

P.P.S. It (almost) goes without saying that many folks on the left want to curtail tax breaks. They openly argue that it is good to divert a larger share of income into the hands of politicians and in order to facilitate bigger government. Some of them are even honest enough (crazy enough?) to openly assert that all income belongs to the government.

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If I had to pick my least-favorite tax loophole, the economist part of my brain would select the healthcare exclusion. After all, that special preference creates a destructive incentive for over-insurance and contributes (along with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) to the third-party payer crisis that is crippling America’s healthcare system.

But if I based my answer on the more visceral, instinctive portion of my brain, I would select the deduction for state and local taxes. As I’ve previously noted, that odious tax break enables higher taxes at the state and local level. Simply stated, greedy politicians in a state like California can boost tax rates and soothe anxious state taxpayers by telling them that they can use their higher payments to Sacramento as a deduction to reduce their payments to Washington.

What’s ironic about this loophole is that it’s basically a write-off for the rich. Only 30 percent of all taxpayers utilize the deduction for state and local taxes. But they’re not evenly distributed by income. Here’s a sobering table from a report by the Tax Foundation.

The beneficiaries also aren’t evenly distributed by geography.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing in dark blue that only a tiny part of the country benefits from this unfair loophole for high-income taxpayers.

As you can see from the map, the vast majority of the nation deducts less than $2,000 in state and local taxes.

But if you really want to see who benefits, don’t simply look at the dark blue sections. After all, most of those people would happily give up the state and local tax deduction in exchange for some of the other policies that are part of tax reform – particularly lower tax rates and less double taxation.

And I suspect that’s even true for the people who hugely benefit from the deduction. The biggest beneficiaries of this loophole are concentrated in a tiny handful of wealthy counties in New York, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As you can see, they reap enormous advantages from the state and local tax deduction, though I suspect these same people also would benefit if tax rates were lowered and double taxation was reduced.

Regardless of who benefits and loses, there’s a more fundamental question. Should federal tax law be distorted to subsidize high tax burdens at the state and local level?

Kevin Williamson of National Review says no.

…the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

The Governor of New York, by contrast, argues that the tax code should subsidize his profligacy.

It would be “devastating on the state of New York, California, et cetera, if you didn’t allow the people of this state to deduct their state and local taxes,” Cuomo told reporters… State and local governments have been working to preserve the deduction, and they argue that doing away with the preference would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.

By the way, I noticed how the reporter displays bias. Instead of being honest and writing that that the loophole enables higher taxes, she writes that the loss of the preference “would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.”

Gee, anyone want to guess how that “flexibility” is displayed?

Though at least the reporter acknowledged that the deduction is primarily for rich people in blue states.

…the deduction…is viewed as disproportionately benefiting wealthy people. It also tends to be used in areas that lean Democratic.

And that’s confirmed by a 2016 news report from the Wall Street Journal.

Repealing the federal deduction for state and local taxes would make 23.6% of U.S. households pay an average of $2,348 more to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016. But those costs—almost $1.3 trillion over a decade—aren’t evenly spread… Ranked by the average potential tax increase, the top 13 states (including Washington, D.C.), as well as 16 of the top 17, voted twice for President Barack Obama. …And nearly one-third of the cost would be paid by residents of California and New York, two solidly Democratic states. …President Ronald Reagan tried repealing the deduction as part of the tax-code overhaul in 1986, but he was rebuffed by congressional Democrats and state officials. …Republicans argue that the break subsidizes high state taxes, because governors and legislators know they can raise income taxes on their citizens and have the federal government pick up part of the tab. …half the cost of repealing the deduction would be borne by households making $100,000 to $500,000, using a broad definition of income. Another 30% would be borne by households making more than $1 million. Under the GOP plans, residents of high-tax states wouldn’t necessarily pay more in federal taxes than they do now. They would benefit from tax-rate cuts.

Here’s one final image that underscores the unfairness of the deduction.

The Tax Policy Center has a report on the loophole for state and local taxes and they put together this chart showing that rich people are far more likely to take advantage of the deduction. And it’s worth much more for them than it is for lower-income Americans.

How much more? Well, more than 90 percent of taxpayers earning more than $1 million use the deduction and their average tax break is more than $260,000. By contrast, only a small fraction of taxpayers earning less than $50 thousand annually benefit from the deduction and they only get a tax break of about $3,800.

Yet leftists who complain about rich people manipulating the tax system usually defend this tax break.

It’s enough to make you think their real goal is bigger government.

I’ll close by calling attention to the mid-part of this interview. I shared it a couple of days ago as part of a big-picture discussion of Trump’s tax plan. But I specifically address the state and local tax deduction around 3:00 and 4:30 of the discussion.

P.S. In addition to the loophole that encourages higher taxes at the state and local level, there’s also a special tax preference that encourages higher spending at the state and local level. Sigh.

P.P.S. Now, perhaps, people will understand why I want to rip up the current system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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While the political world is consumed by the various scandals and baggage of the two main presidential candidates, let’s play a game of make-believe. Let’s pretend that politicians aren’t crooks and clowns and instead actually want to make America’s economy more vibrant and productive so the American people can enjoy higher living standards.

What would they do? What should they do?

Those are very big questions with lots of answers, so let’s focus just on the issue of tax policy. If the goal is more growth and prosperity, there are two obvious choices.

And if these two policies are desirable, there are three ways to make them happen.

  • Pass a stand-alone tax cut.
  • Finance a tax cut with concomitant reductions in federal spending (i.e., a spending-reducing and deficit-neutral tax cut).
  • Finance a tax cut by eliminating special tax preferences (i.e., a revenue-neutral, spending-neutral, and deficit-neutral tax reform).

Needless to say, a combination of the three also is possible.

My preference is for a spending-reducing/deficit-neutral tax cut for the simple reason that lower spending and better tax policy is a win-win situation that would make us more like Hong Kong. And I certainly don’t mind going with a pure, stand-alone tax cut since it’s generally a good idea to “starve the beast.”

In the current political environment, however, I suspect the final choice may be the most practical option. That’s because reasonable leftists may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that the burden of government spending won’t be reduced. And self-styled deficit hawks may be willing to go along with better tax policy so long as they can be convinced that red ink won’t increase.

But this also can be a win-win situation since there are many distortionary preferences in the tax code that lure people into making economically inefficient decisions solely because of tax considerations. So if those provisions are repealed and all the money is used to finance lower tax rates and less double taxation, we’ll have a tax system that is much less punitive.

Heck, this is the premise of the flat tax. Wipe out the 70,000-plus pages of the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair system that taxes income only one time at one low rate.

This means getting rid of preferences such as the healthcare exclusion, the municipal bond exemption, the charitable contributions deduction, and the state and local tax deduction.

Some people say eliminating tax preferences is too politically risky, however, akin to “touching the third rail.”

And it’s certainly true that the interest groups benefiting from a tilted playing field will fight to preserve their special preferences. But I’m not sure they would be able to scare voters into supporting their position.

The first thing to understand is that only 30.1 percent of taxpayers utilize itemized deductions. And those that do itemize on their tax returns tend to have higher-than-average incomes. And remember that these are the same people who will directly benefit from lower tax rates and less double taxation.

Interestingly, the Open Source Policy Center has an interactive site where you can see what happens to people in various income classes if selected itemized deductions are repealed.

Here are the results from repealing the state and local tax deduction. As you can see, rich people are the only ones who take a meaningful hit.

Yet are these upper-income taxpayers going to fight to preserve that deduction if they are offered a trade for lower tax rates and less double taxation?

I suppose it depends on the specific circumstances of each taxpayer, but I’m guessing a majority of them would prefer a friendlier and simpler tax code that didn’t punish wealth creation.

Moreover, if you look at where these people live, you find that they are highly concentrated in just a handful of states along with a few urban areas elsewhere in the country.

This suggests that policy makers from most states shouldn’t even care about itemized deductions. So there shouldn’t be any reason for them to oppose a tax reform plan that produces lower tax rates and less double taxation.

P.S. The hard-core left will not go along with revenue-neutral tax reform. They have such antipathy to success that some of them openly urge punitive taxes even if the economic damage is so severe that the government doesn’t collect any revenue.

P.P.S. With regards to the reasonable leftists and the deficit hawks, one can point out that good tax policy will generate better economic performance and therefore more taxable income (i.e., the Laffer Curve). But it’s only in rare (albeit sometimes very noteworthy) cases that the increase in taxable income is sufficiently large to offset the impact of lower tax rates, so revenues will still fall. And since these people don’t like tax cuts, even smaller-than-expected ones, they will still be opposed to pro-growth tax policy unless it is revenue-neutral.

P.P.P.S. The mortgage interest deduction is misguided, but isn’t technically a loophole since one of the goals of tax reform is to give business investment the same tax-income-only-one-time treatment now reserved for residential real estate.

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