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Tax Deductions or Tax Expenditures?

(Photo: David Reber)

Chances are, you’re going to spend tonight finalizing your taxes, making sure that you ferret every last deduction. And probably pretty pleased to be getting these deductions; but when you dig in a bit deeper, you may not be so sure — at least that’s what Betsey Stevenson and I argue in our latest column.

In fact, tax breaks are no different from either government handouts, or federal mandates, whether evaluated in terms of your finances, the government’s finances, or incentives:

Instead of looking at all the breaks for mortgage interest, health care, retirement savings and so on as deductions, picture the government writing you a check for each item. This equivalence between tax deductions and government spending leads economists to call them “tax expenditures.” Reformers have hit on an even more pointed description: spending through the tax code.

The tax system is also equivalent to a collection of individual mandates, like the one in the Obama health-care law, with penalties for Americans who fail to buy insurance. For many people, that’s how our system works. You and your neighbor might have the same income, but if, unlike your neighbor, you fail to have a mortgage or buy as much health insurance, then you have to pay higher taxes.

It’s hard to see how you could be against government spending or against mandates, yet for more tax breaks.  Yet that’s exactly the position of Grover Norquist, the czar of the anti-tax pledge. Behavioral economists would call this a framing effect.

For instance, you might think the mortgage interest deduction is a good idea.  What if we changed the framing though, and made it an explicit government handout:

Would you support giving millionaires with mansions 25 times more than the typical family? That’s effectively what we do: Middle-class families get an average benefit from the mortgage interest deduction of $139, while families in the top 1 percent get $3,752.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center has done some great work shining a statistical spotlight on these tax expenditures:

Taken together, individual income tax expenditures are the equivalent of sending $686 each year to those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, $3,175 to those in the middle fifth, and $30,714 to those in the upper fifth. The average member of the top 1 percent gets nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year.

So how does such an unfair system continue?  It’s politics.

Unlike typical government spending, tax expenditures aren’t reauthorized each year by Congress, so they have immense staying power. Because they aren’t as visible as outright spending, they aren’t subject to the scrutiny of campaigns to pare back waste or assess effectiveness.

This seems crazy.  So Betsey and I have a simple policy proposal:

Let’s replace all tax expenditures with explicit subsidies — that is, with actual federal payments — so we can really see the costs and debate all spending programs on an equal footing. Doing so would help us answer crucial questions, such as whether we get more bang for our buck by subsidizing homeownership or by spending more on schools.

Here’s Betsey making exactly this point last Sunday, on MSNBC’s Up! With Chris Hayes:

What do you think?  Is there any reason that this should be controversial?