While most critics of government spending focus on entitlements, regular appropriations, and earmarks, there is a category of spending that not many have paid much attention. This spending is called "tax expenditures." This year as part of the debate or controversy over raising the federal debt ceiling, attention is being paid to the cost of these tax expenditures, although the term commonly used is "loophole."
It's a big issue. As economist Martin Feldstein wrote in the Wall Street Journal, tax expenditures were thought to increase the federal budget deficit by $1 trillion in 2010.
We know where President Barack Obama stands. He is firm in wanting to increase tax revenue by eliminating tax expenditures. He focuses on those that apply to the rich, although there are plenty of tax expenditures that apply to the working poor and middle class, such as the earned income tax credit and child care credit.
To speak of these tax expenditures or loopholes having a "cost" makes sense only if you adopt a certain view of the world. It has to do with who owns what -- you or government. George Reisman recently explained: "The underlying assumption of those who hold this view is that the government already owns the funds in question whether it has collected them in taxes or not. The government is the alleged owner of funds that belong to the taxpayer and which it abstains from taking. It allegedly spends these funds in allowing the taxpayers to keep them."
Reisman further explained that eliminating tax expenditures is a tax increase, pure and simple, and must not be embraced: "The notion of tax expenditures provides the pretext for massive tax increases in the name of reducing government spending. This notion must be cast aside, so that the target of tax reform will be reductions in actual government spending, which then must be followed by reductions in taxes."
Other economists agree. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, in his essay More Loophole Lobbyists, Please warns of the "oldest trick in the book," which he says is "Give up your deductions, and we will reduce your income tax rate."
I agree with their arguments. Increasing tax revenue to the state by eliminating tax expenditures is not a good thing. At the same time, the tax expenditures are a problem. Their very existence, and the continual effort to expand them or prevent their closing, is harmful to the economy, too. Spending through the tax system is a major way of implementing crony capitalism, that is, political entrepreneurship instead of market entrepreneurship, as explained by Charles G. Koch in The Wall Street Journal: "Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want."
Koch went on to explain that "Our elected officials would do well to remember that the most prosperous countries are those that allow consumers -- not governments -- to direct the use of resources. Allowing the government to pick winners and losers hurts almost everyone, especially our poorest citizens."
I agree with that, too. This is why this is a difficult issue.
Tax expenditures are implemented through the tax system. It's usually the income tax system, especially at the federal level, but also at the state level.
Some of the tax expenditures consist of deductions: The government deciding not to collect tax on income that is spent for a specific purpose. An example is the deduction for home mortgage interest. For 2010, this is estimated to "cost" the federal government $103.7 billion in taxes that it would otherwise collect, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The tax expenditures that really "cost" the government -- and by extension, other taxpayers that must pay unless spending is also reduced -- are tax credits. These reduce the tax that must be paid dollar for dollar. An example is the "credit for alcohol fuels," which is to say ethanol. The cost of this tax credit program for 2010 is given as $10.1 billion. Many credits are refundable, meaning that if the taxpayer has no tax liability, the government will send the recipient a check.
Other examples of tax credits cited by Feldstein include "$500 million annual subsidy for the rehabilitation of historic structures and a $4 billion annual subsidy of employer-paid transportation benefits."
While supporters of many of these programs portray them as not costing the government anything, Feldstein writes that they do: "These tax rules -- because they result in the loss of revenue that would otherwise be collected by the government -- are equivalent to direct government expenditures."
I argued this in testimony I presented to a committee in the Kansas Legislature last year, when it was considering restoring and expanding the Kansas historic preservation tax credit program. I told committee members: "We must recognize that a tax credit is an appropriation of Kansans’ money made through the tax system. If the legislature is not comfortable with writing a real estate developer a check for over $1,000,000 -- as in the case with one Wichita developer -- it should not make a roundabout contribution through the tax system that has the same economic impact on the state’s finances."
In that committee, not one member voted against this program, even though the committee has some members who consider themselves very fiscally conservative and hawks on spending.
In Wichita, the city council regularly steers spending to certain companies through the tax system by granting property tax exemptions and tax increment financing.
Feldstein describes problems with spending implemented through the tax system:
- Politicians use tax expenditures to grow the welfare state. While proposing a freeze on discretionary spending, President Obama at the same time proposed an expansion of a tax credit program for child or elderly care.
- Once enshrined in the tax law, these appropriations don't have to be reauthorized each year. They're on auto-pilot, so to speak.
- Eliminating tax expenditures is looked on by Republicans as a tax increase, so they are reluctant to support their elimination. Felstein counters: "But eliminating tax expenditures does not increase marginal tax rates or reduce the reward for saving, investment or risk-taking."
- Tax expenditures distort the economy in harmful ways: "[Eliminating tax expenditures] would also increase overall economic efficiency by removing incentives that distort private spending decisions."
Feldstein concludes: "Cutting tax expenditures is really the best way to reduce government spending. And to be politically acceptable, the cuts in tax expenditures must be widespread, requiring most taxpayers to give up something so that the fiscal deficits can decline."
The 'Tax Expenditure' Solution for Our National Debt
The credits and subsidies that make the tax code so complicated cost big bucks. Reduce them by third and the debt will be 72% of GDP in 2020 instead of 90%.
By Martin Feldstein
When it comes to spending cuts, Congress is looking in the wrong place. Most federal nondefense spending, other than Social Security and Medicare, is now done through special tax rules rather than by direct cash outlays. The rules are used to subsidize a wide range of spending including education, child care, health insurance, and a myriad of other congressional favorites.
These tax rules -- because they result in the loss of revenue that would otherwise be collected by the government -- are equivalent to direct government expenditures. That's why tax and budget experts refer to them as "tax expenditures." This year tax expenditures will raise the federal deficit by about $1 trillion, according to estimates by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. If Congress is serious about cutting government spending, it has to go after many of them.
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