Again keying off of this morning’s Wonkbook, here’s the Tax Policy Center’s table of the largest tax expenditures. When you hear politicians talk about raising revenues by closing tax breaks and loopholes, these are the tax breaks and loopholes they’re talking about.
A lot of those items are regressive, but they nevertheless provide huge benefits to the middle class — benefits that are largely invisible until anyone tries to take them away. The deduction for employer-provided health-care coverage, for instance, costs much more than the Affordable Care Act does. That is to say, we’re spending more to subsidize the health coverage of employed Americans with good jobs that offer them health coverage than the Affordable Care Act spends to subsidize the insurance of unemployed Americans and those without jobs that provide them with health coverage. The excise tax is going to ratchet back that subsidy, but until then, it’s a perverse use of resources.
It’s also, however, a very popular use of resources. So the question for politicians who want to get rid of these breaks is how do you survive the immediate political backlash? Tax economist Len Burman has come up with an interesting answer: Use the fact that people value a dollar today more than a dollar tomorrow to sweeten the deal. Instead of just taking away these tax breaks, Burman proposes to offer a lump-sum payment at the front-end to distract from the reduction in tax breaks in the years to come. This would, he notes, serve the dual purposes of stimulus and deficit reduction
We could phase in a version of Feldstein’s plan by offering a “tax break credit” of 10% of AGI for tax year 2011 in exchange for eliminating tax breaks worth 5% of income. The credit rate could be phased down to 2% of AGI over 5 years. For the first three years, this would be a tax cut compared with current law and provide a needed economic stimulus . To make the stimulus even more effective and help those most in need of aid, the first $5,000 for joint filers could be made refundable ($2,500 for single returns). That amount could also be phased down over time. This would raise taxpayers’ incomes by roughly half a trillion dollars in 2011, and smaller amounts in 2012 and 2013, providing a helpful prod to the economic recovery.
The bottom line is that this plan would boost the economy in the short term, substantially reduce the deficit over the long term with tax rates, and significantly simplify the tax system.