Martin Feldstein on Tax Reform in the NYT

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Thursday, 05 May 2011 04:10

Deficit reduction is all the craze now that it is official policy in Washington to ignore the downturn and the tens of millions unemployed and underemployed. (Hey, how many of these people have advanced degrees and went to Ivy League schools?)

Harvard economist and former AIG director Martin Feldstein made his contribution to the effort today in a column on tax reform in the NYT today. Feldstein wants us to "raise taxes, but not rates." His proposal is to limit deductions for tax expenditures to 2 percent of total income.

Feldstein tells readers:

"What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more."

Before anyone gets too excited over this former Reagan economist pushing progressive tax reform, it's worth considering this one a bit more closely. Let's put the average income in the $25k-50k group at $38,000. The promised $1,000 tax increase for these folks is about 2.6 percent of their income. The average income for people earning over $500,000 is around $1.7 million. The $40,000 Feldstein expects to get from this group comes to 2.3 percent of their income. 

In other words, insofar as this tax reform proposal is progressive, it is very trivially progressive. Comparing the $40,000 additional tax take with the $500,000 bottom end cutoff may confuse people here. Given that more than 8 percentage points of GDP ($1.2 trillion annually) has been redistributed upward to the top 1.0 percent over the last three decades, we might hope to do a little better with our tax reform.

But wait, it gets worse. It is worth asking who would get nailed by Feldstein's proposed caps. Most people in that middle $25k to $50k group take the standard deduction. The most common deductions for this group are the mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for health care expenditures, including employer paid health care.

While there is a good argument for limiting the mortgage interest deduction (if someone wants a big home, why should the rest of us share the bill), if these people have a large deduction for health care expenses, it is likely because they have a serious illness in their family. Taxpayers with a large health care deduction are likely families with a chronically ill child or a severe medical condition, like cancer.

Of course, we can argue that there are better ways to pay for health care than through the tax code, but remember we're cutting back on government health care spending too. So don't anticipate that we fix any inequities created by Feldstein's tax reform on the expenditure side.

In short, what we have from Feldstein is exactly what we expect from those on the right: an effort to lift more money out of the pockets out of the middle class, the poor, and the sick to make the wealthy even wealthier.