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Archive for September, 2012

Almost everyone in Washington wants to lower the corporate tax rate. President Obama wants to go from today’s 35 percent down to 28 percent. Governor Romney and Ways and Means Chairman Camp want to get to 25 percent.

There’s just one problem: paying for it. To offset the costs of cutting rates, policymakers will need to roll back tax preferences, each of which has powerful defenders.

To illustrate the challenges, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget just released a nifty corporate tax reform calculator that shows how your revenue goals and willingness to cut tax preferences affect what tax rate you have to accept.

Bottom line: going low is harder than it sounds.

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Five Myths about the 47 Percent

Each Sunday, the Washington Post runs an opinion piece debunking five myths about a topic in the news. Bill Gale and I penned today’s, addressing five myths about the 47 percent of households who pay no federal income tax in any given year. Here is the Cliff Notes version:

Myth #1: Forty-seven percent of Americans don’t pay taxes. “This oft-heard claim ignores the many other taxes Americans encounter in their daily lives.”

Myth #2: Members of the 47 percent will never pay federal income taxes. In fact, households often move in and out of the 47 percent, primarily because of changes in their income.

Myth #3: Many high-income people game the system to pay no income tax. Gaming certainly happens, but “it has essentially nothing to do with who does and doesn’t pay income taxes … the vast majority of people who pay no federal income tax have low earnings, are elderly or have children at home.” They aren’t scheming millionaires.

Myth #4: The 47 percent vote Democratic. Many low-income folks don’t vote at all; many seniors vote Republican.

Myth #5: Tax increases are the only way to bring more of these households onto the [income] tax rolls. Rolling back tax breaks like the child credit would, of course, be one way to reduce the ranks of the 47 percent, if one were so inclined. But don’t forget economic growth. Faster job creation and growing incomes would help move some households up the income scale and out of the 47 percent.

The full version is here.

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In 2000, I was CFO of a health software startup in Austin, Texas. Our product: an innovative electronic medical record oriented to a doctor’s actual workflow. It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea today. But one of the biggest hurdles (besides classic startup execution issues and the bursting of the tech boom) was how to get doctors to adopt it.

Even if it integrated perfectly into a doctor’s routine, there was the small issue of paying for thousands of dollars of hardware and software and, we hoped, a little bit of profit for us and our investors. Even if we could get insurers and medical suppliers to defray some costs, we would still need doctors to reach into their own pockets.

After a bit of research, it was obvious that the best way to drive adoption would be to design the EMR so that it boosted doctor earnings. There are, of course, good and bad ways to do that. The good ways help doctors avoid undercoding (i.e., mistakenly billing too little) or remind them to do appropriate, health-improving, billable activities  (e.g., “Mrs. Jones has diabetes, so consider checking her eyes and toes.”) The bad ways … well, you don’t need to be Neil Barofsky to realize that there are myriad ways that doctors could game the system. Our goal was to stay on the right side of that line.

But as a New York Times article by Reed Abelson, Julie Creswell, and Griffin Palmer makes clear, that clearly isn’t true for everyone:

[T]he move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.

Hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier, at least in part by changing the billing codes they assign to patients in emergency rooms, according to a New York Times analysis of Medicare data from the American Hospital Directory. Regulators say physicians have changed the way they bill for office visits similarly, increasing their payments by billions of dollars as well.

The most aggressive billing — by just 1,700 of the more than 440,000 doctors in the country — cost Medicare as much as $100 million in 2010 alone, federal regulators said in a recent report, noting that the largest share of those doctors specialized in family practice, internal medicine and emergency care.

For instance, the portion of patients that the emergency department at Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare in Utica, N.Y., claimed required the highest levels of treatment — and thus higher reimbursements — rose 43 percent in 2009. That was the same year the hospital began using electronic health records.

The share of highest-paying claims at Baptist Hospital in Nashville climbed 82 percent in 2010, the year after it began using a software system for its emergency room records.

Some experts blame a substantial share of the higher payments on the increasingly widespread use of electronic health record systems. Some of these programs can automatically generate detailed patient histories, or allow doctors to cut and paste the same examination findings for multiple patients — a practice called cloning — with the click of a button or the swipe of a finger on an iPad, making it appear that the physicians conducted more thorough exams than, perhaps, they did.

Critics say the abuses are widespread. “It’s like doping and bicycling,” said Dr. Donald W. Simborg, who was the chairman of federal panels examining the potential for fraud with electronic systems. “Everybody knows it’s going on.”

I contain to believe that EMRs will eventually transform health care for the better. But the idea that they would instantly lead to cost savings always struck me as naive. As the NYT article illustrates, the killer app for doctors–both the vast majority of legit ones and the nasty minority of scammers–is to find a way to boost their revenues and profits.

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My most popular blog post, by a long shot, was this one in July 2011 explaining why almost half of Americans paid no federal income tax. If you are interested in some context behind Governor Romney’s now famous remarks about the 47 percent (TPC calculated it as 46 percent for 2011), please check it out.

One item I didn’t mention in that post is that the number of taxpayers not paying federal income tax should decline over time. As the economy recovers, higher incomes will boost the fraction of households that pay federal income tax.

 

 

 

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Corporations pay income taxes in an administrative sense: they write checks (or send electrons) to the IRS. But corporations can’t actually bear the burden – they are just legal entities, not living and breathing human beings.

So who ultimately bears the burden of corporate income taxes? Shareholders? Employees? Customers?

Economists have struggled with this question for decades. When Mick Jagger dropped out of the London School of Economics in the 1960s, for example, he allegedly complained that “economists can’t even tell if corporations pay taxes or pass them on.”

We’ve made some progress since then. Over at the Tax Policy Center, my colleague Jim Nunns summarizes what economists have learned over the past five decades and describes TPC’s new approach to distributing the corporate income tax.

As Jim reports, our best estimate is that workers bear 20 percent of the corporate income tax,  shareholders bear 20 60 percent, and investors as a whole bear 60 20 percent.

Workers bear some of the corporate income tax because capital can move around the world. All else equal, the corporate income tax encourages some capital to locate abroad rather than in the United States. That reduces worker productivity (since they have less capital with which to work) and thus reduces worker wages and benefits. As a result, some of the corporate tax burden falls on workers.

Investors in general bear the majority a portion of the corporate income tax for a similar reason. When you tax corporations, you encourage capital to flow out of corporate equities and into other investments, including corporate debt and non-corporate businesses. That flow reduces the rates of return that investors earn in those other asset classes as well. Much of the corporate income tax thus gets passed on to investors in general, not just corporate shareholders.

Shareholders alone, finally, bear the portion of the corporate income tax that falls on “super-normal returns” — i.e., the returns they get in excess of a normal rate of return.

If any readers know Mick Jagger, please send him a link to the study. Maybe it will finally give him some satisfaction.

P.S. For another overview, see this TaxVox post by Howard Gleckman.

Update 9/16: I accidentally reversed the all capital vs. shareholder shares in the original version of this post. Apologies.

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Our buddy Merle Hazard — of  “Inflation or Deflation?” and “Bailout” fame — is back  with a new, animated version of his surf-music take on the Fiscal Cliff.

P.S. I should get back to real blogging soon.

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