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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Loopholes’

There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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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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When I wrote last year about “Hillary Clinton’s Plan to Increase the Cost of College,” I explained that colleges and universities boost tuition when the government hands out more subsidies to students, so the main effect is to make higher education even more expensive.

Today, let’s look at Donald Trump’s plan to increase the cost of childcare. And this is a very easy column to write because the economic consequences of Trump’s plan to make childcare expenses deductible are the same as Hillary’s misguided plan to subsidize tuition.

Let’s start with a caveat. We don’t know a lot about Trump’s new scheme. All we know is that he said in his big speech to the Economic Club of Detroit earlier today that “My plan will also help reduce the cost of childcare by allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of childcare spending from their taxes.”

From an economic perspective, Trump’s statement doesn’t make sense. At best, creating a big deduction for childcare expenses simply creates the illusion of lower cost because of the tax loophole.

But that’s the best-case scenario. The actual result will be to increase costs and make the tax code even more convoluted.

When income is shielded from taxation, either based on how it is earned or how it is spent, that creates an incentive for taxpayers to make economically irrational decisions solely to benefit from the special tax preference. And just as the healthcare exclusion has led to ever-higher prices and ever-greater levels of bureaucracy and inefficiency in the health sector, a deduction for childcare expenses will have similar effects in that sector of the economy. Providers will boost prices to capture much of the benefit (much as colleges have jacked up tuition to capture the value of government-provided loans and grants).

Creating a new distortion in the tax code also will have a discriminatory impact. The tax loophole will only have value for parents who use outside care for their kids. Parents who care for their own kids get nothing. Moreover, the new loophole also won’t have any value for the millions of people who don’t earn enough to have any tax liability. Yet these people will be hurt when childcare providers increase their prices to capture the value of the deduction for parents with higher levels of income.

And that will probably lead politicians to make the tax loophole “refundable,” which is a wonky way of saying that people with low levels of income will get handouts from the government (in other words, “refundable” tax breaks are actually government spending laundered through the tax code, just like much of the EITC).

So we’d almost certainly be looking at a typical example of Mitchell’s Law, where one bad policy leads to another bad policy.

And when the dust settles, government is bigger, the tax code is more convoluted, and the visible foot of government crowds out another slice of the invisible hand of the market.

Remember, bigger government and more intervention is a mistake when Republicans do it, and it’s a mistake when Democrats do it.

I want fewer favors in the tax code, not more. I want rationality to guide economic decisions, not distorting tax preferences. Most of all, I don’t want politicians to have more power over the economy. I wish Trump listened to Ben Carson when putting together a tax plan.

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Even though I’m not a Romney fan, I sometimes feel compelled to defend him against leftist demagoguery.

But instead of writing about tax havens, as I’ve done in the past, today we’re going to look at incremental tax reform.

The left has been loudly asserting that the middle class would lose under Mitt Romney’s plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent and finance those reductions by closing loopholes.

That class-warfare accusation struck me as a bit sketchy because when I looked at the data a couple of years ago, I put together this chart showing that rich people, on average, enjoyed deductions that were seven times as large as the deductions of middle-income taxpayers.

And the chart includes only the big itemized deductions. There are dozens of other special tax preferences, as shown in this depressing image, and you can be sure that rich people are far more likely to have the lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants needed to exploit those provisions.

But that’s not a surprise since the internal revenue code has morphed into a 72,000-page monstrosity (this is why I sometimes try to convince honest leftists that a flat tax is a great way of reducing political corruption).

But this chart doesn’t disprove the leftist talking point, so I’m glad that Martin Feldstein addressed the issue in today’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s some of what he wrote.

The IRS data show that taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over $100,000 (the top 21% of all taxpayers) made itemized deductions totaling $636 billion in 2009. Those high-income taxpayers paid marginal tax rates of 25% to 35%, with most $200,000-plus earners paying marginal rates of 33% or 35%. And what do we get when we apply a 30% marginal tax rate to the $636 billion in itemized deductions? Extra revenue of $191 billion—more than enough to offset the revenue losses from the individual income tax cuts proposed by Gov. Romney. …Additional revenue could be raised from high-income taxpayers by limiting the use of the “preferences” identified for the Alternative Minimum Tax (such as excess oil depletion allowances) or the broader list of all official individual “tax expenditures” (such as tax credits for energy efficiency improvements in homes), among other credits and exclusions. None of this base-broadening would require taxing capital gains or making other changes that would reduce the incentives for saving and investment. …Since broadening the tax base would produce enough revenue to pay for cutting everyone’s tax rates, it is clear that the proposed Romney cuts wouldn’t require any middle-class tax increase, nor would they produce a net windfall for high-income taxpayers. The Tax Policy Center and others are wrong to claim otherwise.

In other words, even with a very modest assumption about the Laffer Curve, it would be quite possible to implement something akin to what Romney’s proposing and not “lose” tax revenue.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Romney seriously intends to push for good policy. I’m much more concerned, for instance, that he’ll wander in the wrong direction and propose something very bad such as a value-added tax.

But Romney certainly can do the right thing if he wins. Assuming that’s what he wants to do.

Just like he can fulfill his promise the reduce the burden of government spending by implementing Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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Have you ever wondered why the tax code is a Byzantine mess that requires 72,000 pages of law and regulation?

Hopefully you don’t ponder such dark and dreary thoughts, but the answer is that politicians and lobbyists have spent nearly 100 years creating all sorts of loopholes, shelters, deductions, preferences, exemptions, credits, and shelters.

Beginning on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax began to plague America.

Politicians love this process since they get to control our behavior and (even better) raise campaign cash from interest groups that benefit from industrial policy in the tax code.

The Washington Post has put together a revealing chart showing the steady growth of tax breaks – just in the past 37 years. If you click on the website, it has some interactive features, but this pictures of ever-rising distortions is all you really need to know.

But you should have two warning signs blaring in your head as you peruse this material.

1. You can’t properly define a loophole unless you first properly define an ideal tax system. This sounds like wonky talk for tax geeks, but it’s critically important. There’s a big debate featuring (mostly) tax lawyers on one side who think the right “tax base” includes pervasive double taxation of saving and investment. And the other side is comprised of (mostly) tax economists who think that a proper “tax base” has no double taxation.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post, like much of the Washington crowd, accepts the wrong definition of a loophole. I explained this issue more thoroughly in this post, for those who want to get in the weeds. But here’s one example. If you put money in an IRA, that means you only get taxed on that income one time. The tax lawyers think that’s a loophole and they want you to be taxed at least two times, once when you first earn the money and again when you take the money out of the account. The tax economists point out that the government should only get one bite at the apple, meaning that the income can be taxed before it goes into the account (a Roth-style IRA) or when it comes out of the account (a traditional IRA). But not both.

2. Assuming we have the proper definition of a loophole, we presumably agree that these distortions are both corrupt and inefficient. And we’d like to clean up the tax code by eliminating these provisions. But getting rid of loopholes – assuming that’s all that happens – gives the government more money. That’s what’s motivating folks on the left. Going after loopholes (including things that aren’t loopholes, as explained above) is largely a tax-raising exercise.

That’s why, as I explained in an earlier post, any loophole-closing should be accompanied by an equal amount of tax-rate cutting. More specifically, every dollar generated by reducing tax breaks should be used to finance lower tax rates. That’s the underlying principle of tax reform. And if you get rid of all loopholes, eliminate all double taxation, and lower tax rates as much as possible, you wind up with a simple and fair flat tax.

This video explains how the system works.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Politicians react to the flat tax like vampires react to holy water.

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Here’s a very good new video from the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, in which he explains why lower tax rates and fewer loopholes are the keys to a simple, fair, and competitive tax system.

Very well done. Given my video on the flat tax, as well as my video on the global flat tax revolution, you probably are not surprised by my reaction to Congressman Ryan’s contribution.

But I’m a glass-half-empty skeptic and pessimist, particularly when dealing with Republicans, so here are a few additional thoughts.

1.Why not take the logic of this video to its sensible conclusion and come out in favor of a flat tax? Yes, a half loaf is better than no loaf, but the special-interest groups and class-warfare crowd will fight just as hard against partial tax reform and they will against full tax reform, so why not go for the Full Monty?

2. I would feel much happier if people who talk about getting rid of loopholes (including Ryan) made clear that every single penny of revenue generated by eliminating tax preferences was used to finance lower tax rates. If tax reform ever becomes a vehicle for higher taxes, the exercise will either blow up or become a scam to rip off the American people.

3. There was no discussion of double taxation. Since every economic theory, even socialism and Marxism, acknowledges that saving and investment are vital for long-run economic growth, higher wages, and better living standards, this is an unfortunate omission. Given that a single dollar of income can be hit by several layers of tax – capital gains tax, corporate income tax, double tax on dividends, and death tax, this is not a trivial concern.

4. Congressman Ryan has been sympathetic to a value-added tax. Indeed, his “Roadmap Plan” includes a VAT. As I’ve explained many times before, a VAT would be fiscal poison for America. If tax reform ever becomes a vehicle for a VAT, the exercise will either blow up or become a scam to rip off the American people.

The concerns I just outlined are not a knock on the video, which obviously was designed to highlight a couple of key principles.

But I am saying that good tax policy involves more than what Congressman Ryan outlined. Lower rates and fewer loopholes are necessary conditions for better tax policy, but there are other pieces of the puzzle that can’t be ignored.

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