Problems with Obama’s Tax Credit = Tax Cut Accounting

I normally stay away from politically tinged posts.  Tonight, I’m posting two.

Call it formal recognition that the McCain candidacy is a lost cause, and that Obama is going to take the White House.  Futures on a McCain win are now down to 15.5% on the Iowa markets, even lower on the Intrade markets.  That’s bad for him, and good for everyone afraid of a McCain victory.  Since the Democrats will likely retain Congress, we will have, for the first time since 1992-1993, a full Democratic sweep.

So the topic turns to Obama, and what he’s likely to do in the next four years.  Obama, like Clinton, actually has a wide set of very smart economic advisors.  Unfortunately, they literally cover the spectrum of economic policy, from conservative to liberal perspectives.  Like Clinton, it’s hard to tell ahead of time which direction he’ll lean on once he’s in office.  It’s Robert Reich vs. Robert Rubin all over again.

This opinion piece ran in the WSJ last week, and it got me thinking.

Originally, I thought Obama’s tax plan was quite clever:

  • You can’t argue that income disparity hasn’t become extreme in the past decade
  • You can’t cut the taxes of most people, because 40% of Americans don’t owe any taxes
  • Most people will not accept higher tax rates to fund new entitlements/distributions
  • Solution: Effective negative tax rates!  That allows a progressive tax system to extend into the non-taxpayer minority, without having to approve new distributions.

The WSJ article, however, got me thinking about the accounting for all this, and it has some scary implications.  From the article:

The Tax Foundation estimates that under the Obama plan 63 million Americans, or 44% of all tax filers, would have no income tax liability and most of those would get a check from the IRS each year. The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis estimates that by 2011, under the Obama plan, an additional 10 million filers would pay zero taxes while cashing checks from the IRS.

The basic idea is that Obama will change a large number of deductions to refundable tax credits.  That means that, effectively, a large minority of Americans will actually be paying negative taxes.

The problem sounds like semantics, but it has accounting implication:

When is a tax credit just a distribution?

Why does it matter?  Well, a tax credit is just treated like a negative tax.  So if I tax one person $1000, and give a tax credit of $200, it’s treated like $800 of tax revenue.

Welfare is treated like an expenditure.  If I tax one person $1000, and give $200 welfare to another, we declare $1000 of tax revenue, and $200 of spending.

Both net to $800, but have very different implications for the size of government and the perception of spending.

By using tax credits, Obama can state, with a straight face, that he isn’t going to raise taxes, he’s just going to redistribute the burden more fairly.  And technically, he’s correct.

However, if you treat tax credits as entitlement spending, then you see that what he actually could do is radically increase the tax burden on the country, but cancel out a large volume of transfer payments from the spending side of the equation.  So it looks like the tax burden has stayed the same.  It looks like spending has not increased.

But really what’s happened is that a whole new set of entitlements and taxes have come into existence, but cancel themselves out where no one can see them.

This may not sound like a big deal to you, but this type of accounting shenanigan looks highly prone to abuse.  Imagine what our debate about Social Security would look like if Social Security checks were positioned as tax credits instead of distributions?  Medicare.  Welfare.

I’m not saying that Obama will abuse this system per se, but it’s a bad accounting precedent, started by the Earned Income Tax Credit.  The CBO and GAO should declare that tax credits are distributions, and shift the accounting accordingly.  That would provide accurate transparency in the system, while still giving the government flexibility to tax & spend as it sees fit.

I’m not eager to see Enron-style accounting on this scale.

Update (10/16/2008): A few people have asked me for a concrete example of the problem here.  Here is an exaggerated one:

Imagine that Obama sets the income tax rate to 100%, and then gives back 80% of the money in tax credits.  By the Obama accounting, the government’s take would only be 20% of GDP.  However, in actually, the government has confiscated 100% of all income, and redistributed 80% of it.  The 100% is the number that truly reflects the government take, not the 20%.

4 thoughts on “Problems with Obama’s Tax Credit = Tax Cut Accounting

  1. Pingback: Maas Publications: Stargazer

  2. (can’t .. resist .. political … post …)

    It’s kind of a side issue to your point, and kind of not, but 40% of Americans don’t pay *Federal Income taxes*. Most do pay taxes of some kind or other — federal payroll taxes, state and local taxes of various kinds.

  3. James… I knew I’d bait you in. 🙂

    You are 100% correct. The payroll taxes were part of the rationalization for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Effectively, Social Security and Medicare are our most regressive taxes, because they are not only flat taxes, but they also cut off at a certain income level, so the effective Social Security tax on a $200K earner is lower than the effective tax rate on a $100K earner.

    Of course, this limit is import to maintain the illusion that Social Security isn’t welfare – that it’s some form of social insurance and/or retirement plan. Obama will remove the cap, making social security more obviously a welfare plan for disability and the elderly. Of course, this will likely lead to its demise in the long term.

    The point of my article (and thought) was that there is no limit to this logic. I’ll add an update above as an example, but with this definition, what’s to stop the government from having a 100% income tax, and then providing tax credits of 80% of the money. Voila, 20% of GDP is technically the government share, but in actually, we’ve completely socialized the economy. The 100% is the true take of the government, not the 20%.

    Adam

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