Monday, October 31, 2011

Free Lunch Politics

I've been critical of the tax and economic policies advocated by Team Obama and its cheerleaders on the political left. However, for the last 30 years, Republicans in Congress have been complicit in the debt-fueled expansion of the federal budget.

Despite their public animosity, Democrats and Republicans have each promoted a "free lunch" philosophy to the voting public. Of course, their marketing of the "free lunch" philosophy is slightly different.

Democrats target their message to middle- and lower-income taxpayers. They argue that increased taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" can finance larger entitlements and higher discretionary spending. The middle-class can enjoy a "free lunch" courtesy of income redistribution. The harsh reality -- which most Democrats won't acknowledge publicly -- is that we cannot plug the long-term budget gap through increased taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." To fund Democratic spending initiatives, we'll need higher taxes across the board. Today, the political left defines the "wealthy" as working professional families with $250,000 in taxable income. How low will they go to finance tomorrow's spending initiatives?

Republicans target their message to middle- and higher-income taxpayers. Under Team Bush, they cut taxes while increasing entitlement spending for seniors. Lower taxes, higher spending? Sounds like a "free lunch" to me. Except for that little problem with deficit financing. Today's deficit spending will increase future interest expense and impose higher tax burdens on future generations of taxpayers. I'm not suggesting that all deficit spending is problematic. But Republicans have been disingenuous by attempting to kick the can permanently down the road.

Today, Republicans oppose "tax increases" as a mechanism to reduce the federal budget deficit. Like obsequious courtesans in the House of Norquist, they conflate elimination of tax expenditures with marginal tax rate increases. But tax expenditures have the same impact on federal deficits as on-budget cash outlays. Lowering tax expenditures will increase taxes for some taxpayers, but may permit broader tax relief for all taxpayers. As Congress grapples to slow the accumulation of federal debt, Republicans should be aiming to reduce federal spending and tax expenditures.

The other problem with tax expenditures is the fact that they distort economic behavior. Tax expenditures provide government subsidies for activities that Congress wishes to encourage. Given his defense of tax expenditures, Grover Norquist must believe that members of the Ways and Means Committee are better capital allocators than the free market.

By distorting economic behavior, tax subsidies can lead to over-consumption of goods and services. For example, the exclusion from taxable income for employer-sponsored health insurance is a major contributor to the runaway inflation of health care costs. Employees with generous health care packages have no incentive to control costs. Absent a price transmission mechanism, they consume more and higher-cost health care services. The excessive demand outstrips supply for medical products and services. The supply-demand imbalance translates into higher insurance premiums for individuals and businesses.

Tax expenditures can also lead to the mis-allocation of capital. For example, the mortgage interest deduction encourages taxpayers to "stretch" and purchase a little more home than they can otherwise afford. The behavior wasn't a problem during the real estate bubble. However, it had devastating consequences on thousands -- if not millions -- of homeowners during a period of high unemployment and real estate deflation.

Finally, tax expenditures can result in tax "windfalls" for high-income taxpayers that don't need the underlying tax subsidy. Take the home mortgage interest deduction. The home mortgage interest deduction has a higher value to a high-income taxpayer that pays a top marginal rate of 35% than a lower-income taxpayer that pays a top marginal rate of 25%. The lower-income taxpayer saves $250 in tax on $1,000 in mortgage interest expense. The higher-income taxpayer saves $350 in tax on $1,000 in mortgage interest expense. But capping the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction is no solution. If a taxpayer can afford a half million dollar home -- or a million dollar home -- why are we providing a tax subsidy at all?

I'm not the first to highlight the problems with tax expenditures, and I won't be the last. We desperately need fundamental tax reform, which I define as base broadening combined with marginal tax rate reductions. The first step towards any such tax reform must include an acknowledgement by Free Lunch Republicans and Free Lunch Democrats that tax expenditures are on the chopping block.

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