Cutting charitable deductions

The Republican proposal to step away from the fiscal cliff is to raise revenue by cutting tax deductions while also lowering overall tax rates.  Democrats would keep rates higher for those who make over $250,000, and probably cap their tax deductions at $50,000.   So it looks like we have some agreement from both sides and that deductions for home mortgages, state taxes, and charitable giving will be cut, if not cut out entirely.  From Ezra Klein:

“Base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform.” It sounds so good, right? But what if you call it what it really is? Charity-destroying, home-shrinking, state-burdening tax reform.

Doesn’t sound as good, does it?

But that’s really what we’re talking about. The term ”base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform” has the advantage of vagueness: No one knows what it means. But the practical definition, at least the one that’s emerging in the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations, is tax reform that limits itemized deductions among high-income taxpayers. And as former OMB director Peter Orszag points out, 90 percent of the value of those deductions comes from just three categories: “taxes paid (mostly state and local taxes), home-mortgage interest and charitable contributions.”

So when we say “base-broading, rate-lowering tax reform,” here’s what we’re really saying: Tax reform that’s paid for by cutting tax breaks for charities, homes, and state and local taxes.

Most economists will tell you that cutting the home-mortgage interest deduction, particularly for high-income taxpayers, is a good idea. There’s no real reason the tax code should be subsidizing McMansions. But cutting the break for charities is more complicated. As Orszag writes:

In 2009, households with incomes of more than $200,000 claimed almost $60 billion in charitable deductions — or about 20 percent of total charitable giving in the U.S. that year. Households with incomes of more than $10 million claimed an average of $1.75 million each in charitable donations in 2009, and they accounted for roughly 5 percent of all giving.

Charitable giving reacts to tax incentives, and in response to any limits on deductions it could even fall by about the same amount as the increase in the tax bill, according to John List of the University of Chicago, who recently reviewed the literature on this subject. Other studies have suggested an effect about half as large. Even that smaller estimate, though, suggests that limiting deductions to $50,000 a year could easily reduce giving by tens of billions of dollars.

via The reality of tax reform: Less charity, smaller homes, higher state taxes.

As Klein says, “limiting itemized deductions in order to raise revenues is a tax increase.”  So the Republican plan to eliminate or cut back on these deductions as a way to raise revenue is a tax increase, even if other rates are lowered.

People complain about “the rich,” but whenever there is a capital campaign for a museum, a college, an arts group, a charity, or a church, the wealthy are wooed and generally come up with most of the money.  Conservatives want “the private sector” instead of the government to bear more of the responsibility to help the poor, support the arts, and do other good works.  That means those worthy causes would need the support of wealthy donors.  Do you think that donors would be as generous as they are without the incentive of a large tax deduction?   I am convinced many of them would, but I worry about the practical effect on non-profit organizations (which incorporate for that status precisely so they can become tax  deductible).

What impact do you think cutting deductions for charitable giving might have on churches?  Specifically, on your congregation?  Probably most of your members come nowhere near the high-income level that would trigger the limits.  And yet a total limit of $50,000–including home mortgage, state taxes, charitable giving, and everything else–would hit people who don’t consider themselves all that wealthy.  [Tote up how much you deducted last year.]   And yet, very often a big chunk of a congregation’s revenue comes from a few families.  Again, one would hope that they give because the Lord loves a cheerful giver, because they believe in tithing, because they see themselves as stewards of the Lord’s gifts, etc., etc.  But a tax deduction is surely an incentive to generosity.  What would happen if all deductions for giving to the church were eliminated for everybody?

Perhaps this would become liberating in the long run.  No more would churches or other organizations have to operate under the regulations for non-profits.  They could express political opinions and endorse candidates without  the threat of losing their tax-exempt status.

At any rate, we need to consider the consequences–including especially the unintended consequences–of these proposed changes.  (And remember, these ideas aren’t coming primarily from liberals but from Republicans.)

Each party’s wrong ideas on taxes

As our lawmakers try to prevent us from falling off the “fiscal cliff” when the Bush tax cuts expire with the new year and mandatory federal reductions click in, Matt Miller argues that BOTH Republicans AND Democrats are laboring under two wrong ideas when it comes to taxes.

Republicans believe our fiscal woes can be solved by cutting taxes.  And Democrats believe our fiscal problems can be solved by raising taxes on the rich.  Miller tries to show why neither will work and how such ideological blinders will prevent effective solutions.

See Matt Miller: Dead ideas on taxes – The Washington Post.

Perhaps it isn’t that one side is right and the other wrong, or that both are partially right, but that both are wrong!  Where does that leave us?

If this is true, does anyone have any viable suggestions for putting our financial house in order?

 

Cliff diving

On New Year’s Day, the Bush-era tax cuts will expire and mandatory cuts in government spending will go into effect, a double-whammy to the economy that is being called “the fiscal cliff.”  Republicans do not want the tax increases and Democrats do not want the spending cuts.  So Congress is negotiating with the President about compromises, reforms, and trade-offs, all in an effort to avoid what nobody wants, the country going off the cliff.

But might falling off the fiscal cliff, in the long run, be the best solution, despite the horrible short-term consequences?  Under that scenario, taxes would rise dramatically (giving the government more revenue, the Democrats’ dream) but also government expenditures would be cut dramatically (resulting in a smaller government, the Republicans’ dream).  The combination of higher revenues plus lower expenditures would solve the deficit.

Isn’t this a true bi-partisan solution?  Don’t we as a nation need to take our bitter medicine before we can get better?  Other countries, such as Great Britain, have gone through austerity programs as a necessary step to fiscal health.  Could we Americans handle austerity?

(I am not necessarily advocating this, simply proposing for now a mental experiment.  Some of you suggested this in yesterday’s discussion of “Breaking Pledges,” but it’s worth discussing in its own right.)

Breaking pledges

Republican lawmakers are bailing on the formal pledge they made not to vote for a tax increase.

Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has been a sacred and unchallenged keystone of the Republican platform for more than two decades, playing a central role in almost every budget battle in Congress since 1986. But Norquist and his pledge, signed by 95 percent of congressional Republicans, are now in danger of becoming Washington relics as more and more defectors inch toward accepting tax increases to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

On Monday, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) became the latest in a handful of prominent Republican lawmakers to take to the airwaves in recent days and say they are willing to break their pledge to oppose all tax increases.

“I’m not obligated on the pledge,” Corker told CBS’s Charlie Rose. “I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also suggested Monday that Norquist’s anti-tax pledge would not dictate the GOP’s strategy on the fiscal cliff, raising questions across Washington about whether Norquist’s ironclad hold on the Republican Party has loosened. . . .

Even House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed dismay with Norquist’s pledge and his role in the GOP at the time. . . .

Last November, 100 House members, 40 of them Republicans, wrote a letter to Congress’s deficit-reduction “supercommittee” urging it to consider all options — a vague pronouncement that, at least in theory, endorsed tax increases forbidden by Norquist. A number of House members, including freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), said openly that they no longer felt bound by the pledge they had signed when running for office. Rigell was reelected this month. . . .

And now, with severe cuts in line if Congress doesn’t reach a deal on the fiscal cliff, coming to an agreement is paramount. Analysts have a hard time forecasting a deal that doesn’t include tax increases — especially after President Obama won reelection, having run in large part on letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire.

Some Republicans are bowing to that version of reality. Over the weekend and on Monday, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Corker (Tenn.), along with Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), said they would be willing to violate the pledge under the right circumstances.

via Will the fiscal cliff break Grover Norquist’s hold on Republicans? – The Washington Post.

Now I can agree that it is foolish to bind oneself in a pledge like this.  There may well be a time when it is in the republic’s interest to raise taxes.  Perhaps this is such a time.  But it is still highly unethical to violate one’s word.  (And how about Scott Rigell not feeling bound by the pledge because he made it while running for office?  As if campaign promises, by definition, don’t need to be kept!)

But if lawmakers no longer believe in what they once pledged, they still are obliged to keep that pledge.   The honorable course of action would be to resign their office so that their governor can appoint someone who has not made the pledge.

The blue states’ tax break

In the negotiations to avoid falling off the “fiscal cliff,” Republicans are proposing cutting out tax deductions in exchange for lower tax rates.  I worry about the fate of charitable giving deductions and the impact eliminating them might have on  churches.  (One option being discussed is to just cap them for the wealthy, but many non-profit organizations–museums, colleges, and just about any entity running a capital campaign–depend heavily on big donors.)  Another potential casualty is the home-mortgage deduction, doing away with which may deal yet another blow to the housing market.

These may all make economic sense and, if rates are lowered, individuals may not take a tax hit.  But they will still have consequences.  Charles Lane looks at another IRS deduction that most of us appreciate, that for state and local taxes.  He shows, though, how the most liberal states have been using this provision to soften the blow of raising state taxes, forcing the rest of the country to subsidize their profligate spending:

Taxpayers have been allowed to deduct state and local income and property taxes since the federal income tax began in 1913. (Sales taxes have at times been deductible, too, but that’ s a relatively minor issue.) The theory is it’s unfair to make people pay twice for the public services they receive. That’s doubtful, though, since, despite some overlap, federal taxes support different services than state and local.

What the deduction does is enable higher-income states and localities to tax — and spend — more than they otherwise would, while shifting some of the cost to other states. It also encourages them to collect revenue in forms that are easier to deduct on federal returns.

Two states, California and New York, reaped almost 30 percent of the deduction’s value in 2009, the latest year for which I could find Internal Revenue Service data. Other states that benefit disproportionately include Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.

In 2009, 73 percent of the deduction’s benefits went to taxpayers with annual incomes above $100,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office; fully 20 percent of the benefits went to taxpayers with annual incomes above $1 million.

Starting to notice a pattern? Basically, what we have is a significant federal tax subsidy for “blue” state governments. These also happen to be the states having the most difficulty living within their means, what with their expensive urban school systems, bloated pension liabilities and all. Yet they have an incentive to close their budget gaps by raising income taxes rather than reining in spending, because the deduction helps them pass the tab to other states, most of them red.

California Gov. Jerry Brown addressed his budget woes through a referendum this year to boost the top income tax rate, just as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pushed an income tax rate increase through his legislature last year.

Now you’re beginning to understand how this seemingly innocuous tax break distorts financial flows within and among the 50 states, as well as between the states on the one hand and Washington on the other.

As for negotiations over a “grand bargain” between President Obama and the Republican House, the state and local tax deduction complicates that process, too.

The main bone of contention is the federal income tax rate on top earners, currently 35 percent. Obama says it is going to be hard to raise enough revenue without returning that rate to 39.6 percent, the level during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Republicans insist that eliminating deductions and tax breaks could bring in more revenue without raising rates — while getting most of the money from the wealthy, just as the president wants to do.

In fact, the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, has shown that eliminating all itemized deductions while leaving tax rates where they are now would raise $2.2 trillion over 10 years. That’s $600 billion more than President Obama is seeking from Congress.

Of course, not even the Republicans are proposing such a sweeping reform, which would certainly make the tax code more efficient — but also wipe out breaks for charitable giving and mortgage interest that enjoy wide red-state support, too. And the president himself has suggested limiting deductions in combination with rate increases, perhaps by capping the rate at which deductions may be claimed.

But because its impact is so heavily concentrated in blue states, the state and local deduction creates an asymmetry: Democrats have an extra reason to insist on raising rates, and Republicans have an extra incentive to demand loophole-cutting. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but I have noticed that those most skeptical of the loophole-closing approach include Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

So let’s all say a pre-Thanksgiving prayer for a successful negotiation — and remember that even a very grand bargain would still leave our state and federal tax and budget systems in need of major reform.

via Charles Lane: The best deduction to chop – The Washington Post.

The fiscal cliff-divers

On December 31, the Bush tax cuts will all expire and, by the terms of the last government-shutdown compromise, spending cuts (especially to the military) will go into effect automatically.  Such a double-whammy in the middle of an economic downturn would have dire effects, according to most experts, who are warning about the danger of this “fiscal cliff.”   But some people are saying that we should just jump off that cliff:

The very notion of a “fiscal cliff” suggests that the country is approaching a calamitous drop-off at the end of the year — and it would be tantamount to suicide to jump off.

But a contingent of policy wonks and Democrats insist that letting the Dec. 31 deadline come and go — thus triggering automatic tax increases and spending cuts — could produce the best outcome for the country. Once the tax hikes have kicked in, the reasoning goes, Republicans would be hard-pressed to roll them all back and would have to accept a deal on taming the deficit that contains more new tax revenue than GOP lawmakers want.

So some policy analysts and legislators say they are willing to go over the brink—and some are even gunning for Congress to do it.

Call them the cliff-divers. [Read more…]


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