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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

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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Whenever I see an otherwise sensible person express support for a value-added tax, it triggers a Pavlovian response. And it’s not a favorable reaction.

But I just read a pro-VAT column and I liked it.

So what happened? Have I surrendered to big government? Did I ingest some magic mushrooms?

Actually, I think you’ll agree that I’m still the same lovable guy. Yes, Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (also a Cato adjunct scholar) has a column in the Wall Street Journal that embraces a VAT. But unlike all of the others I just cited, he includes a condition that is mandatory, necessary, vital, and non-negotiable. It’s so important that it deserves the opposite of fine-print treatment.

…eliminate entirely the personal and corporate income tax, estate tax and all other federal taxes. …it is essential that the VAT replace rather than add to the current tax system, as it does in Europe.

Amen. John hits the nail on the head.

The VAT isn’t theoretically bad. Like the flat tax, it would have one rate. There also would be no double taxation of saving and investment. And it also can be designed to have no loopholes.

In other words, the good news is that the VAT – when compared to the internal revenue code – is a less-destructive way of generating revenue.

The bad news, though, is that the VAT is capable of generating a lot of revenue. And as we’ve seen in Europe, that’s a recipe for enabling a larger burden of government spending.

Which is why the idea of a VAT should only be on the table if the plan would first abolish all other federal taxes. Which is what John is proposing.

Except I’d take it one step farther. Just like I’ve argued when contemplating a national sales tax, I’d only allow the VAT if we first repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with something so ironclad that even John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsberg couldn’t rule in favor of an income tax at some point in the future.

By the way, John is right that the economy would grow faster if the income tax was totally abolished. The current system is filled with warts.

Much of the current tax mess results from taxing income. Once the government taxes income, it must tax corporate income or people would incorporate to avoid paying taxes. Yet the right corporate tax rate is zero. Every cent of corporate tax comes from people via higher prices, lower wages, or lower payments to shareholders. And a corporate tax produces an army of lawyers and lobbyists demanding exemptions. An income tax also leads to taxes on capital income. Capital income taxes discourage saving and investment. But the government is forced to tax capital income because otherwise people can hide wages… The estate tax can take close to half a marginal dollar of wealth. This creates a strong incentive to blow the family money on a round-the-world cruise, to spend lavishly on lawyers, or to invest inefficiently to avoid the tax. …A reformed tax code should involve no deductions—including the holy trinity of mortgage interest, employer-provided health insurance, and charitable deductions. The interest groups for each of these deductions are strong. But if the government doesn’t tax income in the first place, these deductions vanish without a fight.

By the way, I will quibble with a couple of things he wrote.

First, I don’t necessarily think the correct corporate tax rate is zero. What’s important is eliminating either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends. That way the income is only taxed once. And since it’s probably administratively easier to tax the income once at the business level rather than once at the shareholder level, I’m not fixated on abolishing the corporate tax.

Second, it’s very important to get rid of double taxation (what he calls “capital income”), but you don’t need a VAT to make that happen. There’s no double taxation with a flat tax.

Third, he should have explicitly included the state and local tax deduction in his list of loopholes to abolish (I’m guessing he assumed it would be the first deduction on the chopping block and therefore didn’t need to be mentioned).

There’s another part of John’s column that deserves attention. He points out that you need to have small government if you want a low tax burden.

…if the federal government is going to spend 20% of gross domestic product, the VAT will sooner or later have to be about 20%. Tax reform is stymied because politicians mix arguments over the rates with arguments over the structure of taxes. This is a mistake. They should first agree to fix the structure of the tax code, and later argue about rates—and the spending those rates must support.

At the risk of being pedantic, I think the VAT rate would have to be significantly above 20 percent, both because the tax base will be smaller than GDP and also because there will be loopholes or rebates. But the point he’s making is spot on. You can’t have a low tax rate and a big government. I’ve made the same point when writing about Belgium and Germany, nations where middle-class taxpayers are pillaged because the welfare state is too big.

My bottom line on this issue is that Professor Cochrane has produced a column showing that a VAT is theoretically worth considering, but only if all other federal taxes are permanently abolished.

But since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think there’s any reason to ease up on my dogmatic (and pragmatic) opposition to that levy.

P.S. My clinching argument is that Reagan opposed a VAT and Nixon supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

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Why were the Reagan tax cuts so successful? Why did the economy rebound so dramatically from the malaise of the 1970s?

The easy answer is that we got better tax policy, especially lower marginal tax rates on personal and business income. Those lower rates reduced the “price” of engaging in productive behavior, which led to more work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s right, but there’s a story behind the story. Reagan’s tax policy (especially the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981) was good because the President and his team ignored the class-warfare crowd. They didn’t care whether all income groups got the same degree of tax relief. They didn’t care about static distribution tables. They didn’t care about complaints that “the rich” benefited.

They simply wanted to reduce the onerous barriers that the tax system imposed on the economy. They understood – and this is critically important – that faster growth was the best way to help everyone in America, including the less fortunate.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal thinks that Donald Trump may be taking the same approach. Her column today basically argues that the President is making a supply-side case for growth. She starts by taking a shot at self-styled “reform conservatives.”

In May 2014, a broad collection of thinkers and politicians gathered in Washington to celebrate a new conservative “manifesto.” The document called for replacing stodgy old Reaganite economics with warmer, fuzzier handouts to the middle class.

She’s happy Trump isn’t following their advice (and I largely agree).

Donald Trump must have missed the memo. …Mr. Trump wants to make Reagan-style tax reform great again.

The class-warfare crowd is not happy about Trump’s pro-growth message, Kimberley writes.

The left saw this clearly, which explains its furious and frustrated reaction to the speech. …Democratic strategist Robert Shrum railed in a Politico piece that the “plutocrat” Mr. Trump was pitching a tax cut for “corporations and the top 1 percent” yet was getting away with a “perverted populism.” …Mr. Trump is selling pro-growth policies—something his party has forgotten how to do. …The left has defined the tax debate for decades in terms of pure class warfare. Republicans have so often been cast as stooges for the rich that the GOP is scared to make the full-throated case for a freer and fairer tax system. …Mr. Trump isn’t playing this game—and that’s why the left is unhappy. The president wants to reduce business tax rates significantly… He wants to simplify the tax code in a way that will eliminate many cherished carve-outs. …his address was largely a hymn to supply-side economics, stunning Democrats who believed they’d forever dispelled such voodoo. …Mr. Trump busted up the left’s class-warfare model. He didn’t make tax reform about blue-collar workers fighting corporate America. Instead it was a question of “our workers” and “our companies” and “our country” competing against China. He noted that America’s high tax rates force companies to move overseas. He directly and correctly tied corporate rate cuts to prosperity for workers, noting that tax reform would “keep jobs in America, create jobs in America,” and lead to higher wages.

Amen. That’s the point I made last week about investment being the key to prosperity for ordinary people.

Ms. Strassel concludes by putting pressure on Congress to do its job and get a bill to the President’s desk.

His opening salvo has given Republicans the cover to push ahead, as well as valuable pointers on selling growth economics. If they can’t get the job done—with the power they now have in Washington—they’d best admit the Democrats’ class-warfare “populism” has won.

I largely agree with Kimberley’s analysis. Trump’s message of jobs, growth, and competitiveness is spot on. His proposal for a 15 percent corporate rate would be very good for the economy. And I also agree with her that it’s up to congressional Republicans to move the ball over the goal line.

But I also think she’s giving Trump too much credit. As I point out in this interview, the Administration isn’t really playing a major role in the negotiations. The folks on Capitol Hill are doing the real work while the President is waiting around for a bill to sign.

Moreover, I’ve been repeatedly warning that there are some very difficult issues that Congress needs to decide.

Since big companies will benefit from a lower corporate rate, will there be similar tax relief for small businesses that file using “Schedule C” of the individual income tax? That’s a good idea, but there are big revenue implications.

Since Republicans (and this definitely includes Trump) are weak on spending, will they achieve deficit neutrality (necessary for permanent reform) by eliminating loopholes? That’s a good idea, but interest groups will resist.

Unfortunately, the White House isn’t offering much help on these issues. The President simply wants big tax cuts and is leaving these tough decisions to everyone else.

P.S. I should have been more specific in the interview. I said we would have a flat tax in my “fantasy world” but that I would settle for partial reform in my “ideal world.” I was grading on a curve, so I want to redeem myself. Here’s how things really rank.

P.P.S. I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will get rid of the deduction for state and local taxes. Not only would that provide some revenue that can be used for pro-growth changes, but it also would get rid of a very unfair distortion that enables higher taxes in states such as Illinois, California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

P.P.P.S. I have no objection to family-oriented tax relief and other policies that target middle-class taxpayers. Such provisions are politically useful since they expand the coalition of supporters. But I want policy makers to understand that economic growth is the best way of helping everyone – including the poor. That’s why supply-side provisions should be the primary focus of any tax package.

P.P.P.P.S. The class-warfare crowd doesn’t like lower tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. They argue that rich people won’t pay enough and that the government will be starved of revenue. Yet they have no answer when I show them this IRS data. Or this data from the United Kingdom. Or this data from France.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Notwithstanding the title of today’s column, I don’t think Trump is a principled supply-sider like Reagan. But it might be accurate to say he’s a practical supply sider like President John F. Kennedy.

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While I realize there’s zero hope of ripping up America’s awful tax code and getting a simple and fair flat tax, I’m nonetheless hopeful that there will be some meaningful incremental changes as part of the current effort to achieve some sort of tax reform.

A package that lowers the corporate rate, replaces depreciation with expensing, and ends the death tax would be very good for growth, and those good reforms could be at least partially financed by eliminating the state and local tax deduction and curtailing business interest deductions so that debt and equity are on a level playing field.

All that sounds good, and a package like this should be feasible since Republicans control both Congress and the White House (especially now that the BAT is off the table), but I warn in this interview that there are lots of big obstacles that could cause tax reform to become a disaster akin to the Obamacare repeal effort.

Here’s my list of conflicts that need to be solved in order to get some sort of plan through Congress and on to the President’s desk.

  • Carried interest – Trump wants to impose a higher capital gains tax on a specific type of investment, but this irks many congressional GOPers who have long understood that any capital gains tax is a form of double taxation and should be abolished. The issue apparently has some symbolic importance to the President and it could become a major stumbling block if he digs in his heels.
  • Tax cut or revenue neutrality – Budget rules basically require that tax cuts expire after 10 years. To avoid this outcome (which would undermine the pro-growth impact of any reforms), many lawmakers want a revenue-neutral package that could be permanent. But that means coming up with tax increases to offset tax cuts. That’s okay if undesirable tax preferences are being eliminated to produce more revenue, but defenders of those loopholes will then lobby against the plan.
  • Big business vs small business – Everyone agrees that America’s high corporate tax rate is bad news for competitiveness and should be reduced. The vast majority of small businesses, however, pay taxes through “Schedule C” of the individual income tax, so they want lower personal rates to match lower corporate rates. That’s a good idea, of course, but would have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.
  • Budget balance – Republicans have long claimed that a major goal is balancing the budget within 10 years. That’s certainly achievable with a modest amount of spending restraint. And it’s even relatively simple to have a big tax cut and still achieve balance in 10 years with a bit of extra spending discipline. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s very little appetite for spending restraint in the White House or Capitol Hill, and this may hinder passage of a tax plan.
  • Middle class tax relief – The main focus of the tax plan is boosting growth and competitiveness by reducing the burden on businesses and investment. That’s laudable, but critics will say “the rich” will get most of the tax relief. And even though the rich already pay most of the taxes and even though the rest of us will benefit from faster growth, Republicans are sensitive to that line of attack. So they will want to include some sort of provision designed for the middle class, but that will have major revenue implications and complicate the effort to achieve revenue neutrality.

There’s another complicating factor. At the risk of understatement, President Trump generates controversy. And this means he doesn’t have much power to use the bully pulpit.

Though I point out in this interview that this doesn’t necessarily cripple tax reform since the President’s most important role is to simply sign the legislation.

Before the 2016 election, I was somewhat optimistic about tax reform.

A few months ago, I was very pessimistic.

I now think something will happen, if for no other reason than Republicans desperately want to achieve something after botching Obamacare repeal.

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It’s depressing to see how Republicans are bungling the Obamacare issue. But it’s also understandable since it’s politically difficult to reduce handouts once people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency (a point I made even before Obamacare was enacted).

Unfortunately, I fear that the GOP might bungle the tax issue as well. I was interviewed the other day by Dana Loesch on this topic and highlighted several issues.

Here’s the full discussion.

What’s especially frustrating about this issue is that taxes should be reduced. A lot.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute debunks six tax myths. Here they are, followed by my two cents.

Myth #1: Long-term deficits are driven by tax cuts and falling revenues

Fact: They are driven entirely by rapid spending growth

Brian nails it. I made this same point earlier this year. Indeed, because the tax burden is projected to automatically increase over time, it is accurate to say that more than 100 percent of the long-run fiscal problem is caused by excessive spending (particularly poorly designed entitlement programs).

Myth #2: Democratic tax proposals would significantly reduce the deficit

Fact: Their most common proposals would raise little revenue

Once again, Brian is right. There are ways to significantly increase the tax burden in America, such as a value-added tax. But the class-warfare ideas that attract a lot of support on the left won’t raise much revenue because upper-income taxpayers have substantial control over the timing, level and composition of their income.

Myth #3: Taxing millionaires and corporations can balance the long-term budget

Fact: These taxes cannot cover Washington’s current commitments, much less new liberal wish lists

Since even the IRS has admitted that upper-income taxpayers finance a hugely disproportionate share of the federal government, it hardly seems fair to subject them to even more onerous penalties. Especially since the IRS data from the 1980s suggest punitive rates could lead to less revenue rather than more.

Myth #4: The U.S. income tax is more regressive than other nations

Fact: It is the most progressive in the entire OECD

There are several ways to slice the data, so one can quibble with Brian’s assertion. But when comparing taxes paid by the rich compared to taxes paid by the poor, it is true that the United States relies more on upper-income taxpayers than any other developed nation. Not because we tax the rich more, but because we tax the poor less.

Myth #5: The U.S. tax code is becoming more regressive over time

Fact: It has become increasingly progressive over the past 35 years

Brian is right. Child credits, changes in the standard deduction and personal exemptions, and the EITC have combined in recent decades to take millions of households off the tax rolls. And since the U.S. thankfully does not have a value-added tax, lower-income people are largely protected from taxation.

Myth #6: Tax rates do not matter much to economic growth

Fact: They are among the most important factors

There are many factors that determine a nation’s economic success, including trade policy, regulation, monetary policy, and rule of law, so a good tax code isn’t a guarantor of prosperity and a bad tax system doesn’t automatically mean malaise. But Brian is right that taxation has a significant impact on growth.

In the interview, I said that I had two fantasies. First, I want to junk the corrupt internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Second, I’d ultimately like to shrink government so much that we could eliminate the income tax entirely.

Many people don’t realize that income taxes only began to plague the world about 100 years ago.

If we can somehow restore the kind of limited government envisioned by America’s Founders, the dream of no income tax could become a reality once again.

But if Republicans can’t even manage to cut taxes today, when they control both the executive and legislative branch, then neither one of my fantasies will ever become reality.

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The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for 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.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

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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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