Should We Blame TurboTax for Tax Code Complexity?

After another grueling tax season, my colleague Howard Gleckman is understandably frustrated with America’s complex tax code. And with instructions like this, who can blame him?:

Your ATNOL for a loss year is the excess of the deductions allowed for figuring the AMTI (excluding the ATNOLD) over the income included in the AMTI. Figure this excess with the modifications in section 172(d), taking into account your AMT adjustments and preferences (that is, the section 172(d) modifications must be separately figured for the ATNOL).

So who is to blame? Feckless politicians? High-priced lobbyists? Social engineers?

Well, yes, yes, and yes. But Howard looks deeper and asks why Americans don’t rise up against the scourge of needless complexity. Why are we so complacent?

His answer: TurboTax. By buffering us from complexity, tax preparation software allows that complexity to persist:

[T]echnology both inoculates us from much of the complexity of tax filing and reduces compliance costs. But, more importantly, it immunizes the politicians from the consequences of their decisions that lead to this madness.

Taking this to its logical extreme, Howard calls (tongue-in-cheek) for a one year moratorium on tax preparation software and, for good measure, paid preparers too.

I’m not ready to go that far. But I would like to point out that the dynamic Howard points out is everywhere around us. Give people cellphones that make it easier to call for help, and they will get into more trouble in the wilderness. Offer people low-fat cookies, and they will eat more. Put people in more fuel-efficient cars, and they will drive more. Give people software to do their taxes, and they will accept greater complexity. It’s practically a law of nature.

P.S. Over at Republic Report, Matt Stoller levels a more serious charge at Intuit, the producer of TurboTax. Quoting from its SEC filings and lobbying data from Open Secrets, he argues that the company has been lobbying against efforts to make it easier for citizens to file without the help of software.

How Big Are Tax Preferences?

The tax code is chock full of credits, deductions, deferrals, exclusions, exemptions, and preferential rates. Taken together, such tax preferences will total almost $1.3 trillion this year.

That’s a lot of money. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that $1.3 trillion is there for the picking in any upcoming deficit reduction or tax reform.  In fact, even if Congress miraculously repealed all of these tax preferences, it would likely generate much less than $1.3 trillion in new resources. 

Where did I come up with that number? For a short piece in Tax Notes, I simply added together all the specific tax expenditures identified by the Department of Treasury; these were reported in the Analytical Perspectives volume of the president’s recent budget.

Treasury doesn’t report this total for a good, technical reason: some provisions interact with one another to make their combined effect either larger or smaller than the sum of their individual effects. As a result, simple addition won’t give an exact answer. That’s an important issue. In the absence of a fully integrated figure, however, I think it’s useful to ballpark the overall magnitude using basic addition.

In your travels, you may find other estimates that do the same thing but come up with a figure of “only” $1.1 trillion. Why is mine higher? Because it includes some important information that Treasury reveals only in footnotes. Treasury’s main table estimates how tax expenditures reduce individual and corporate income tax receipts; those effects total $1.1 trillion. But they also have other effects. Refundable credits like the earned income tax credit increase outlays, for example, and some preferences, like those for employer-provided health insurance and alcohol fuels, lower payroll and excise taxes. I include those impacts in my $1.3 trillion figure.

Budget hawks and tax reformers have done a great job of highlighting tax expenditures in recent years. I fear, however, that we have lifted expectations too high. Just because the tax code includes $1.3 trillion in tax preferences doesn’t mean it will be easy to reduce the budget deficit or pay for lower tax rates by rolling them back. Politics is one reason. It’s easy to be against tax preferences when they are described as loopholes and special interest provisions. It’s another thing entirely when people realize that these include the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction, and 401(k)s.

Basic fiscal math is another challenge. Tax expenditure estimates do not translate directly into potential revenues. Indeed, there are several reasons to believe that the potential revenue gains from rolling back tax preferences are less than the headline estimates. One reason is that the estimates are static—they measure the taxes people save today but do not account for the various ways that people might react if a preference were reduced or eliminated; those reactions may reduce potential revenues. Second, most reforms would phase out such preferences rather than eliminate them immediately. That too reduces potential revenues, at least over the next decade or so.

Finally, the value of tax preferences depends on other aspects of the tax code, most notably tax rates. If a tax reform would lower marginal tax rates, the value of deductions, exclusions, and exemptions would fall as well. Suppose you are in the 35 percent tax bracket. Today, each dollar you give to charity results in 35 cents of tax savings—a 35-cent tax expenditure. If the top rate were reduced to 28 percent, as some propose, your savings from charitable donations would be only 28 cents. The 20 percent reduction in tax rates would thus slice the value of your tax expenditure by 20 percent. That means that the revenue gain from eliminating the deduction—or any other similar tax expenditures—would also shrink by 20 percent, thus making it harder for tax expenditure reform to fill in the revenue gap left by reducing tax rates.

My message is thus a mixed one. Tax expenditures are very large—$1.3 trillion this year alone if you add up all the individual provisions – and deserve close scrutiny. But we need to temper our aspirations of just how much revenue we can generate by rolling them back. It isn’t as though there’s an easy $1.3 trillion sitting around. In coming months, the Tax Policy Center will explore how to translate tax expenditure figures into more reasonable estimates of the potential revenues that tax reformers and budget hawks can bargain over.

P.S. For an interesting analysis of how individual tax preferences interact with each other, see this piece by TPC’s Dan Baneman and Eric Toder.

Should High Heels Be Taxed?

Among my idiosyncracies are two footwear anti-fetishes: I hate flip flops and high heels. I have never mastered the dark art of walking in flip flops, and I have always been troubled when women teeter at the edge of falling because of shoes designed for fashion (allegedly) rather than function.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal piece about the engineering, some would say architecture, of contemporary high heels. I was also pleased that columnist Christina Binkley emphasized some of the negatives early in her piece:

High heels can exact a heavy toll on the body, pushing weight forward onto the ball of the foot and toes and stressing the back and legs. Most doctors recommend a maximum height of 2 inches.

But with heels, many women trade comfort for style. Women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group, and more than half of those sales were for heels over 3 inches high. High heels are seen as sexy and powerful. Stars on the red carpet clamor for the highest heels possible–leading designers who want their shoes photographed into an arms race for height.

That “arms race” comment got me to thinking. Perhaps there’s an externality here? Are women trying to be taller than other women? If Betty has 2 inch heels, does that mean Veronica wants 2 and a half inch heels? And that Betty will then want 3 inch heels? If so, high heels are an example of the kind of pointless competition that Robert Frank highlights in his recent book, “The Darwin Economy“. As noted in the book description

[Such] competition often leads to “arms races,” encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting. The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.

Hence today’s question: Are high heels an example of such misguided competition? If so, should we tax them? (Bonus question: Should we tax noisy flip flops?)

P.S. The book description is not correct about the absence of “painful sacrifice.” Someone out there will still purchase such goods (otherwise there would be no revenue to “eliminate government debt”), and there’s a good chance they will view their tax payments as a sacrifice.

Public Service Announcement: There Is No Health Care Tax on Home Sales

The 2010 health reform legislation introduced a new 3.8% tax on the net investment income of high-income taxpayers. That tax, which I suspect you will hear more about in coming months, goes into effect on January 1, 2013.

This tax raises important policy issues, not least of which is whether Congress should give the name “Unearned Income Medicare Contribution” to an investment tax whose proceeds have nothing to do with Medicare.

The most pernicious myth, however, is that this new tax will apply to home sales. This meme appears regularly in the blogosphere. I even encountered out at the Kauffman bloggers conference. But it’s completely untrue.

As Howard Gleckman explains over at TaxVox:

Yes, the health law will impose a 3.8 percent tax on investment profits and other non-wage income starting in 2013. But that tax applies only to couples with adjusted gross income of $250,000 (or individuals with AGI [adjusted gross income] of $200,000). About 95 percent of households make less than that, and will be exempt from the law no matter what.

In addition, couples who sell a personal residence can exclude the first $500,000 in profit from tax ($250,000 for singles). That would be profit from a home sale, not proceeds. So a couple that bought a house for $100,000 and sold it for $599,000 would owe no tax, even under the health law.

If that couple had AGI in excess of $250,000 and made a profit of $500,010, it would owe the new tax. On ten bucks. That would be an extra 38 cents.

The Tax Policy Center figures that in 2013 about 0.2 percent of households with cash income of $100,000-$200,000 would pay any additional tax under this provision. And they’d pay, on average, an extra $235. Keep in mind that is added tax on all sources of non-wage income, not just home sales.

In short, the tax applies to capital gains, not home sales. Most capital gains on primary residences are exempt from tax. And it only hits high-income taxpayers. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. But opponents really need to get their facts straight.

P.S. For more information about the tax, please see my recent Tax Notes article: “Health Reform’s Tax on Investment Income: Facts and Myths“.

How Big Is the Federal Government?

In a new paper, my Tax Policy Center colleague Eric Toder and I argue that the federal government is larger than conventional budget measures suggest. Why? Because many tax preferences are effectively spending programs. Adding these “spending-like tax preferences” back to federal spending and revenues gives a better picture, we think, of the federal government’s true size.

In 2007, for example, federal spending was officially recorded as 19.6 percent of GDP. If you add in the tax preferences that Eric and I believe are effectively spending (the SLTPs), that figure rises to 23.7 percent. In round terms, the government was one-fifth larger than traditional budget figures indicate:

And that’s not all. We also consider the many user fees and premiums that the government charges for various services, ranging from regulatory activity (e.g., patent fees) to Medicare premiums. Such payments are treated as negative spending in official budget calculations. This is sometimes done as a pure budget gimmick to make the government look smaller. More often, however, it’s done for a good reason: to focus on government activities that are funded collectively. That’s an important thing to measure when budgeting. But it’s not the only one. If you want to know how much economic activity is occurring through government agencies, you should consider the gross size of those activities, not just the net. The third column thus adds back user fees and premiums to get the full size of the federal government: 25.4 percent of GDP in 2007.

Eric and I would be the first to argue that the size of government, by itself, tells you little. Small governments can be dysfunctional, and large ones can be well-run. But government size plays a central role in many political discussions. Given that attention, we think it’s worthwhile to consider whether existing measures fairly capture its true size.

And, as a crucial corollary, whether they fairly capture the implications of potential policy changes. As I will discuss in a subsequent post, our measure of government size has several important implications. For example, some “tax increases” (e.g., closing loopholes and reducing many other tax preferences) actually make the government smaller.

P.S. The figures in our paper are based on information from the administration’s 2012 budget. Some historical figures have changed slightly since then, due to revisions in GDP and budget figures.

The Need for Corporate Tax Reform

My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor lays out the case for corporate tax reform:

April 1 is often a day for pranks. In the tax world, however, it will mark something more serious. Barring another Fukushima Daiichi-like catastrophe (which delayed its plans last year), Japan will cut its corporate tax rate by five percentage points. That move will leave the United States with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world: 39.2 percent when you add state and local taxes to the 35 percent federal rate.

The corporate income tax is a particularly problematic way to collect tax revenues. Corporate taxes are often more harmful for economic growth than ones on personal income or consumption, as noted in a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moreover, a high corporate rate is an invitation for US multinationals to play games with their accounting, locating profits overseas while reporting as many tax-deductible expenses as possible here at home.

That’s why there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that the federal rate needs to come down. President Obama recently proposed lowering it to 28 percent. His likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, wants to bring it down to 25 percent.

But corporate tax reform can’t just be about lowering the statutory rate. America faces enormous budget challenges and cannot afford to simply cut future revenue. Moreover, the high statutory rate isn’t the only problem with our system. The code is riddled with tax subsidies and loopholes. Those tax breaks, more generous than those in many nations, reduce corporate tax burdens significantly.

That leaves us with the worst possible system. It maximizes the degree to which corporate managers must worry about taxes when making business decisions but limits the revenue that the government actually collects.

One side effect is that the system plays favorites among different businesses. Retailers and construction companies, for example, pay an average tax rate of 31 percent, according to recent Treasury Department calculations, while utilities pay only 14 percent and mining companies (which include fossil fuel producers) pay only 18 percent.

I know of no reason why the tax system should favor utilities and mining while hitting construction and retailers so hard. Far better would be a system in which investors deployed their capital based on economic fundamentals, not the distortions of the tax system.

Another problem is that the system perversely favors debt financing over equity. Interest payments are tax-deductible, while dividends are not. Corporations thus have a strong incentive to finance their investments by borrowing. Given what our economy’s been through, it is hard to believe that the tax system ought to subsidize more debt.

The solution to all this is to reduce the corporate tax rate while taking a hatchet to many corporate tax breaks. Done right, that would level the playing field across different businesses and between equity and debt and maintain revenues.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have proposed reforms along these lines, albeit with much more clarity about the rate-cutting than the base-broadening. That isn’t surprising.

Leveling the playing field (while maintaining revenues) will require that some companies pay more so others can pay less. Politicians would rather focus on potential winners, not losers. But losers there will be.

The US Chamber of Commerce has said that it “will be forced to vigorously oppose pay-fors [tax increases] that pit one industry against another.” But such pitting is exactly what will be necessary to enact comprehensive corporate tax reform.

P.S. You might be wondering what tax breaks I would cut in order to lower corporate tax rates. I haven’t had a chance to put together a complete package, but a starting point would be the domestic production credit (a subsidy for manufacturing), many energy subsidies (the ones for fossil fuel don’t make much sense, and I’d rather we use taxes than tax subsidies to encourage greener energy production), and the benefit of debt finance (e.g., by limiting deductibility of interest). Interest deductibility isn’t usually viewed as a tax break, but it leads to perverse effects when combined with favorable depreciation rules. Many propose rolling back those depreciation rules, but given the overall tax preference for debt, it’s worth considering limiting interest deductibility instead.

The Rhetoric of Economic Policy: Inequality vs. Dispersion

Rhetoric matters in economic policy debates. Would allowing people to purchase health insurance from the federal government be a public option, a government plan, or a public plan? Would investment accounts in Social Security be private accounts, personal accounts, or individual accounts? (See my post on the rule of three.) Are tax breaks really tax cuts or spending in disguise? Is the tax levied on the assets of the recently departed an estate tax or a death tax?

In an excellent piece in the New York Times, Eduardo Porter describes another important example, how we characterize differences in income:

Alan Krueger, Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, offers a telling illustration of the changing views on income inequality. In the 1990s he preferred to call it “dispersion,” which stripped it of a negative connotation.

 In 2003, in an essay called “Inequality, Too Much of a Good Thing” Mr. Krueger proposed that “societies must strike a balance between the beneficial incentive effects of inequality and the harmful welfare-decreasing effects of inequality.” Last January he took another step: “the rise in income dispersion — along so many dimensions — has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.”

Bruce Bartlett’s Excellent Guide to Tax Reform

The tax code is like a garden. Without regular attention, it grows weeds that will soon overwhelm the plants and flowers. Unfortunately, no serious weeding has been done to the tax code since 1986. In the meantime, many new plants and flowers have been added without regard to the overall aesthetic of the garden. The result today is an overgrown mess. There is a desperate need to pull the weeds, cut away the brush, and rethink some of the plantings to restore order, beauty, and functionality to the garden.

So begins Bruce Bartlett’s The Benefit and the Burden, an excellent guide to the promise and peril of tax reform.

Beauty is too much to ask of any tax system, but order and functionality are fair aspirations. As Bruce documents, however, we fall far short. Our code is too complex, unfair, and economically harmful. And it doesn’t raise enough revenue to pay the government’s bills.

Bruce takes readers on a tour of many crucial issues in designing a coherent tax system. How should we measure income? Should capital gains count? How should the tax burden vary with income? Are all tax cuts and increases created equal? What can we learn from other nations? Should we tax income or consumption? How should we think about the inevitable politics of choosing winners and losers?

Bruce’s writing is clear, concise, and crisp. And he provides excellent suggestions for further reading for those who want to delve deeper (I found several items to add to my reading list).

Highly recommended for anyone wanting a pithy introduction to the challenges of designing a tax system we can be proud of.