Eli Lehrer has an incisive piece on this page about Tom Coburn’s “Gang of Six” tax proposals. I believe however that the proposals deserve a warmer endorsement than Eli offers.
An important cause of America’s long-term debt problem is the intellectual cul-de-sac into which Republicans have driven themselves. Republicans have accepted a total ban on any kind of tax increase as party orthodoxy. And they have submitted to the authority of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform to determine what constitutes a “tax increase.”
Norquist takes the view that any action that increases the revenue column of the federal government must be deemed a tax increase – and that such increases are only permissible if they are offset by an equivalent cut to the spending column.
The trouble is that a lot of federal spending – especially the spending done by Republicans – takes the form of tax remission.
The federal government offers a tax credit of up to $9,500 for the purchase of plug-in electric cars. How exactly is that different from writing a check to every plug-in buyer? Yet canceling this program would count as a tax increase under Grover Norquist’s test.
Adopt a child and you can qualify for a tax credit of up to $13,100. You can even get credit for the cost of meals and lodging while traveling in a foreign country to receive the child. You can say a lot of things about this measure. But is it a “tax cut”? Hardly.
Enrolled in college or university? You can deduct up to $4,000 of qualified tuition expenses.
Over 65? Or disabled? Adjusted gross taxable income of less than $17,500? Tax credit for you.
And so on. The point is not that these tax expenditures are all necessarily ill-advised. (It’s genuinely more expensive to be disabled, and public money to help the disabled cope with the costs imposed on them by nature or accident seems a reasonable response by a civilized society.) The point is: they are expenditures, disguised as tax cuts.
This point – so obvious with the smaller tax expenditures – is true also of many of the larger tax expenditures, even if familiarity blinds us to the fact. Mortgage interest deductibility and the tax exclusion of employer-provided fringe benefits: these are subsidies too, no less subsidies for being widely rather than narrowly used.
Yet on the Norquist system and by the Norquist rule, the US cannot address these subsidies contained in the tax code unless and until they are simultaneously matched exactly with other subsidies and benefits that happened to have been framed as outlays. Economically, the rule makes little sense. Politically, it has the job of making deficit reduction twice as difficult as it needs to be. With consequences that …. well let’s leave that for a second post.