Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In defense of (some) tax loopholes

Romney, Obama, the Simpson-Bowles Commission and an increasingly-large share of Congress all agree that we need to "simplify the tax code" by reducing or eliminating tax expenditures.  I agree that punitive damages from civil lawsuits probably shouldn't be tax deductible, and that encouraging home ownership through the tax code probably isn't worth the cost.  But there's lots of stuff that's tax deductible that seems totally reasonable to me.

Deductions for charitable giving are a smart way for government to encourage people to provide public services so the government doesn't have to.  Giving a tax break in exchange for donating money (by definition more money than the tax break costs) to a hospital or a scholarship fund might save the government more money that they cost through decreased costs for Medicare or Pell Grants.  I'm sure there are examples of ridiculous 501(c)(3) corporations out there which don't benefit the public enough to justify the cost of the tax breaks, so I'd be all for tightening the qualifications to earn tax-exempt status.  But taking a hatchet to the charitable giving deduction seems a poor plan.

Incentives for decreasing pollution make sense.  If my kid has asthma, I have an interest in encouraging people to not drive gas guzzlers.  The tax code provides a way to put a number on the true costs of polluting behavior.

The whole economy benefits from a more educated workforce, so tax incentives for education should probably stick around.  I'd be happy to discuss the proper level of such incentives and where the societal cost/benefit balance point is, but I imagine one would have a pretty hard time arguing the best level is $0.

This is an area where Democrats play into the Republicans' hands by how they approach the issue. Both parties suggest that there's plenty of money to be had if we'd just eliminate silly loopholes like deductions for corporate jets or donations from viewers like you.  Neither side wants to be the voice for those expenditures which are actually worthwhile, so we're left with the current and ongoing march toward "simplifying the tax code".


Anonymous said...

So how do you feel about deductions for church contributions, even knowing that an ever percentage of those contributions (on average less than 15 percent for mainline churches)actually goes toward providing social services?

Anonymous said...

Ahem, "ever DECREASING"....

TableTopJoe said...

While we're at it, anonymous, what actually counts as a charitable contribution? money to the opera house? money to pay legal fees for poor people caught up in the "war on (some classes of people who use some) drugs"? (h/t lawyers, guns, and money).

what about donations to political causes? are those "charitable"? what about "donations" to my local country club? my son's baseball team?

my point, of course, is to demonstrate that line-drawing in this instance is exceedingly difficult.

PoliticalDoctor said...

As there's no legitimate Constitutional distinction between a country club and a church, I'd be ok with contributions to either organization being deductible only to the degree that those organizations use their resources for the public good. If a church spends 15% on a soup kitchen, or if the country club spends 15% giving free golf lessons to kids (and both organizations are non-profit), I'm ok with donations to either being deductible in the amount of 15% of the contribution. I don't know how government offering incentives for activities with a strictly religious goal (e.g., free Sunday school for kids) can be reconciled with the First Amendment.