Sunday, April 22, 2012

Much like my tax return...  

 The math for budget-cutting is tricky.  I have been studying the Romney/Ryan hybrid proposal and agree with most econobloggers who are not sure where he can find the loopholes/deductions to pay for his tax breaks.

The first thing to note is that there are clearly enough tax expenditures to finance the $900 billion cost that the Tax Policy Center reckons Mr Romney’s plan will cost (relative to current law). But as you dig into the list, problems arise. First, these expenditures would be worth a lot loss once Mr Romney has cut income tax rates (see my caveat below). Second, Mr Romney has put several off limits, most notably the preferential rate on dividends and capital gains (worth $91.3 billion) and the ability of corporations to defer tax on foreign income ($19.6 billion), since under his plan corporations would not owe taxes on such income. Third, several will presumably be off limits: is he really going to tax Medicare benefits ($79.3 billion) or eliminate the earned income credit ($58.5 billion)?
But the biggest problem is one not obvious from the table: the distribution of these breaks. Yes, they disproportionately benefit the upper 20% of households because their tax rates are higher. Nonetheless, as this Tax Policy Center paper notes, roughly a third went to the bottom 80% of households (especially tax credits and above-the-line deductions). Since Mr Romney has said he would spare the middle class, most of this money would be off the table. Where it gets really interesting is inside the top 20%. Many deductions are in effect capped. As a result, their biggest beneficiaries are not the top 1% but the next 19%, with one exception: the preferential rate on capital gains and dividends, more than half of whose benefits go to the 1%. By eliminating tax expenditures for upper income families except the preferential rate on capital gains and dividends, Mr Romney’s plan would be a gigantic transfer from the upper middle class to the rich. And keep in mind that the upper middle class is also the group likely to pay most under any reform to Social Security and Medicare. 
Mr Romney’s team defends the feasibility of his plan by noting its similarity to the Bowles-Simpson commission proposal, which like Mr Romney lowers the top rate to 28% and pays for it by closing loopholes. But the comparison does not actually help Mr Romney’s case. First, unlike Mr Romney, Bowles-Simpson eliminates the preferential rate for capital gains and dividends. That is both a significant revenue-raiser and the principal reason the truly wealthy suffer most under their plan: the top 1% sees its after-tax income fall 7.8% and shoulder half the net increase in taxes. Under any plausible version of Mr Romney’s, the after-tax income of this group would rise. Second, it only lowers the corporate rate to 28% instead of Mr Romney’s 25% (from 35%). Third, Bowles-Simpson clearly hurts the middle class; the middle 60% of households see their after-tax income drop about 1.5% each. The reason is that the plan nukes almost all deductions, and replaces only a few with miserly tax credits that are worth less than the current deduction to most taxpayers. If Mr Romney wants to spare the middle class he will have to be much more generous than Bowles-Simpson when it comes to protecting their tax breaks. And there’s the rub: Mr Romney can be revenue neutral or he can spare the middle class but I don't see how he can do both. [More]
From the table above - which has been widely accepted as an accurate account of what tax expenditures cost, farmers should note certain items.
  1. Exclusion of capital gains at death: This "step-up in basis" is a BIG deal - perhaps more important than the actual rate itself. It also looks to be one with a smaller consituency to fight for it. I think it is greatly at risk.
  2. Capital gains: As discussed in the above article, the fact this is largely helpful to the 1% and few others makes it a tempting target. Again it's a big deal for farmers selling land after the recent runup.
  3. Elimination of deduction for health insurance: Depending on the outcome for Obamacare, this could tempt many employers to drop group insurance for simple compensation. At the very least, it will undoubtedly push more of the cost to employees, although that is happening already.
  4. Mortgage interest: I think this applies to homes (reported on Schedule A) - not interest reported on Schedule F, but it's the same 1099, so I could be wrong. [Update: probably not at risk unless a desire to include real estate investors in the revenue makes it a target]
  5. 401K benefits: Not sure how many farmers do this when buying land has trounced these as retirement piggy-banks, but some did.
While it's hard to imagine enough Congresshumans anxious to attack these popular "loopholes", you can't get done what Romney has proposed without hitting many of them. So the bottom line is worrying about the Farm Bill is peanuts compared to the budget debate for my farm.

Prediction: tax cuts might happen, but eliminating enough tax breaks won't. 

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