Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Base broadening, rate lowering…Robert asks?

Lifted from Robert’s site:

Ezra Klein defends an increased capital gains tax as necessary for distributionally neutral base broadening rate lowering tax reform..  I support a higher capital gains tax rate (did not have space for that in my comment).
My comment:

But why do you want base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform  ?  The inside the beltway wonk consensus is that this must be good.  The claim is that it is more efficient.  Surely true if efficiency is measured as dollars raised per page of tax code or dollar of compliance cost.  But the argument is that the important advantage is that such reform will reduce distortions due to taxes.  Here the implicit arguments are both that high rates cause distortions and that deductions and credits and such allow socially costly tax avoidance. I consider them in turn:

1) High rates are bad. There is almost no evidence for this claim. It is an article of faith for Republicans and Democrats have decided that they can get more important changes in exchange for lower rates.  But as far as I know (and I’ve published in the Journal of Public Economics) the claim is not supported by actual evidence.

2) Tax expenditures are worse than just giving the money to corporations and rich individuals because they distort decisions.  Here I think opposition to tax expenditures in general is like opposition to government’spending in general.  No one likes either in the abstract. 

You wouldn’t really argue that way too many Americans had health insurance because employer provided health insurance was not taxed as income.  So that is one major bit of base broadening you would have opposed at least pre ACA (except on a ‘the worse it is the better it is’ Leninist principle). 

How about the EITC.  You know that is one tax expenditure that Republicans want to cut.  It is also one of the very best policies there is (one of the key ways US policy is vastly better than European policy along with … uh give me a minute).  How about the charitable gift deduction ? It can be abused but seems basically OK to me.
I think a lot of the broad support for base broadening is based on hatred of the mortgage interest deduction.  It means huge houses far from work and driving cars and global warming.  It diverts saving from productive capital labor productivity and wage increasing capital to houses which just sit there.  Suburban and Exurban because that’s where the new building is.  Also completely totally politically untouchable and you know it.  You might as well base your hopes on cutting rates and increasing the tax on gasoline by a dollar a gallon plus imposing a $100 dollar a ton carbon tax.  Fine policy, but not a policy proposal of any relevance to the US debate.
The most extreme case is someone (not you a friend of yours) who said we have to radically simplify the corporate tax code so corporations spend money on engineers not lawyers and accountants.  That is to increase corporate R and D and eliminate the R and D tax credit.
3) This is not an argument for base broadening and not at all relevant to this blog, but I think every aging Washington wonk’s favorite year is 1986.  Genuinely bipartisan, wonk driven reform.  It was great.  But what good did it do ?

(Dan here…Light editing for readability)

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Tax expenditures, tax cuts, and IOUs (bonds)

We have seen the argument from some commission participants (Peterson for one) that Social Security is too expensive for those who need it and pay for it because it is an ‘entitlement’. We also have read from some Congress members (Senators Kyl and McConnel) that tax cut extensions of the Bush presidency are not deficit producing and need not be part of pay go.

The Fiscal Times has an article on considerations being undertaken by the Commission for Deficit Reduction. (H/t coberly).

The main theme in this article is that the “tax expenditures” home mortgage deduction and health insurance premium deductions are actually government spending (I assume in relation to the deficit) and thereby letting these taxpayers keep their money is bad. (Because these are “tax expenditures” and not “tax cuts”?)

I see a pattern here unfolding in this series of electioneering statements. Maybe politicians can put it altogether for us before the elections so we know who should pay and who should not in a less confusing way.

Quote is below the fold, bolding is mine:

As the 18-member bipartisan panel met in public for the fifth time, it was becoming clear that the tax system is under its microscope and there are many ideas under review for the long term. The commission’s success has always hinged on whether its leaders could muster support among Republicans for changes to the tax system, and agree to major spending cuts and changes in Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs that dominate the budget. So far, the GOP members are still at the table.

The most obvious target is recovering the huge amounts of revenue lost to federal tax loopholes known as “tax expenditures,” which include the home mortgage interest deduction and tax-free health premiums for employees. Proponents of rolling back these breaks say they are essentially government spending via the tax code. But health care premiums and mortgage deductions have long histories and are considered untouchable by some.

Erskine Bowles, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, pointed out that these loopholes cost the Treasury as much as $1.3 trillion per year, which is larger than total tax revenue. Bowles, citing an op-ed by Reagan White House economist Martin Feldstein, suggested that tax expenditures must be part of any serious attempt to limit spending.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told the commission that the current system of tax expenditures is “one of the most detrimental things to the country.” But she also pointed out that they would be among the more difficult programs to touch.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who leads the commission’s working group on taxes, said that he has become convinced that more comprehensive tax reform is necessary to update a system that was built for an era in which the United States did not face global competition. “My own conclusion from this [working group review] is that we really have a tax system that is badly outdated,” he said. “It no longer relates to a world that we are in today.”

In addition to massive lost revenue through tax expenditures, the Treasury loses another $340 billion or so each year in taxes that people owe but simply do not pay, Conrad pointed out. “These are things that require a focus in our work.”

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Watch What I Do…..

This is my first official posting on Angry Bear. Let me start with a “thanks and delighted to be here.” I look forward to a productive interchange and expansion of the work I have been doing through ataxingmatter, my blog on tax and economic issues. I will continue to maintain the tax blog, and post here about once a week (usually with simultaneous posting on ataxingmatter).

There has been quite a bit said about Obama’s proposals for international taxation. If you read ataxingmatter, you know that I think the proposals to tighten up the way the rules work to prevent abuses are important starts in the right direction. Not surprisingly, multinational corporations have suggested that any change to the international regime that increases their taxes will make them even less competitive internationally (implying that they already have too little money to compete well) and ultimately, even quickly, lead to the demise of U.S. jobs. See, e.g., Donmoyer, Ballmer Says Tax Would Move Microsoft Jobs Offshore,, June 3, 2009.

One would think from such talk that US multinationals are just hanging on by the sheerest strings, unable to reduce costs further, leaving very small profits (if any) for their shareholders, and barely managing to pay their managers enough to keep decent talent aboard. But is that what Ballmer really means? Isn’t it more likely that it is a question of Microsoft hoping to retain all that money for its managers and owners rather than see a penny of it go to government purposes (like education, basic research)? How do we get any idea about what differences taxes make to companies when what managers say can’t really be trusted to shed much light on actual plans for the future?

Well, there is some real data on this issue that comes from the 2004 tax legislation–the corporate pay-back bill that was sold to the public with the same old claim that tax cuts would create millions of new jobs. The 2001-2003 tax bills cut revenues, but primarily lowered tax liabilities for individual taxpayers. (As I recall, Bush himself saw about a $37,000 tax cut from the 2001 legislation and Cheney more than double that.) Corporate lobbyists had agreed to this plan–ram the individual tax cuts through first and then pass a big bill fulfilling the multinationals’ wish list. The Bush administration and Congress came through in blazing colors for the corporate lobbyists, passing a host of corporate-friendly provisions under the guise of “job creation tax incentives for manufacturers, small businesses, and farmers.” (That’s the heading for Title II of the so-called American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. Even the names of the various bills ultimately passed in 2004 represent a veritable smorgasbord of propaganda–the “Homeland Investment Act”, the “American Jobs Creation Act”, and, the same year, the “Working Families Tax Relief Act”. )

The Jobs Act provisions included a host of bad policy choices all in the name of freeing up investment cash so that corporations could invest more in the good ol’ USA: even more section 179 expensing; even more accelerated depreciation for leaseholds, restaurants, aircraft, and syndication property; S corporation expansion; AMT breaks; more cross-crediting of foreign tax credits; more tax expenditures for the Big Oil, Big Timber and Big Pharm. And there was one other tax expenditure that was heavily lobbied for on behalf of multinational enterprises–a (purportedly one-time) provision for very low taxed repatriation of foreign earnings, in new section 965 of the Code. The MNEs claimed that the break would permit them to create thousands of new US jobs by reinvesting tax savings in their US businesses–investments that just couldn’t be managed under the constraints on the current tax burdens on repatriated cash. Repatriation, on the other hand, was supposed to lead to an increase in capital spending in the range of 2-3% over two years (see NBER paper, below, noting J.P. Morgan Securities’ estimate) and firms stated both confidentially and publicly that they planned to use repatriated funds for business purposes like acquisitions, capital spending, R&D, debt repayments rather than to pay out profits to shareholders.

The express purpose of the repatriation tax cut was to increase investment and viability of U.S. operations. Hiring new employees, conducting R&D, increasing capital investment in the US were all good uses, and Treasury guidelines indicated that use to pay executive compensation, dividends or stock redemptions would disqualify the repatriations from the tax benefit.

Did the corporate giants deliver? An NBER working paper by Dhammika Dharmapala, Fritz Foley and Kristin Forbes concludes that they did not. Watch What I Do, Not What I Say: The Unintended Consequences of the Homeland Investment Act, NBER Working Paper No. 15023, June 2009. Here’s the conclusion, as stated in the abstract.

Repatriations did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, employment or R&D—even for the firms that lobbied for the tax holiday stating these intentions and for firms that appeared to be financially constrained. Instead, a $1 increase in repatriations was associated with an increase of almost $1 in payouts to shareholders. These results suggest that the domestic operations of U.S. multinationals were not financially constrained and that these firms were reasonably well-governed.

Furthermore, money is fungible. The paper concludes that firms “were able to reallocate funds internally to bypass the publicly stated goals of the Act.” Id. at 5. So of the $299 billion that companies brought back from foreign subsidiaries (about 5 times the normally repatriated amount), about 92 percent of it went to shareholders in share buybacks and increased dividends. And interestingly, the firms that brought back the most money under the repatriation scheme were the firms that tended to “shield[] foreign income from U.S. taxation by using tax haven affiliates or holding companies.” The study also found that “[f]irms that increased parent equity provisions around the time of the tax holiday … had significantly higher levels of repatriations. This pattern suggests that the domestic operations of U.S. MNEs were not capital constrained and were instead providing liquidity to affiliates. These firms seem to have taken advantage of the HIA by ’roundtripping,’ that is, by replacing retained earnings that would be subject to high repatriation taxes if there were no tax holiday with new paid-in capital.” In fact, the paper includes a comparison of MNE and nonmultinationals on financial constraint indicators, showing that the MNEs are less constrained than nonmultinationals under each of the three important indicators.

At least one result was that good guys–the MNEs that didn’t use as many tax shelters to shield their foreign income and who regularly repatriated it and paid taxes on it–didn’t get nearly as much benefit from this bill as the bad guys–the MNEs that shielded their foreign income as much as they could and held it abroad until they could get this repatriation measure passed through their intensive lobbying pressure. And the bad guys didn’t do much of anything in the way of job creation, the political calling card they used to get their special tax break passed.

Seems to me we ought to at least keep this Jobs Act history in mind in the discussion of President Obama’s efforts to tighten international taxation rules and the already begun whining by MNEs that they are having such a difficult time competing that any further taxation will force them to move out of the US completely.

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