James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The other government mandate

Apr 1, 2010 17:49 UTC

Forget about being forced to buy health insurance. Aren’ t Americans pretty much forced  by our complex tax code to buy tax prep software or see an accountant? That is a mandate, too, notes Howard Gleckman of TaxVox:

The government does not specifically require us to hire paid tax preparers or buy commercial software, of course. But it has, in effect, left millions of taxpayers with no real choice. Congress has created a tax code that makes it nearly impossible for many Americans to file returns without paid help. And even those who could … are so intimidated by the whole process that they pay people to help them anyway.

Thus, in 2005, 89 percent of individual taxpayers either used commercial software or hired paid preparers to help them do their civic duty. Just 11 percent, according to my colleague Eric Toder, filed returns on their own.

Yet, we just shrug and pay our $59 for commercial software or pony up between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to paid preparers. No constitutional challenges. No state attorneys general at the barricades. Many of us, in fact, are likely to spend more money hiring a human being to do our taxes than we’ll pay in penalties for refusing to buy insurance ($95 in 2014 increasing to $695 by 2016). Indeed, I’m willing to bet that more of us will pay somebody to prepare a tax return than will purchase medical coverage, despite the insurance mandate.

COMMENT

People pay $95+ for tax software? The program I use is $30, and I only use it because my dad buys it.

Unless you’re itemizing, the form isn’t that difficult. The biggest operation it asks is addition and subtraction.

VAT Attack! Another reason it is a bad idea

Oct 28, 2009 18:36 UTC

One reason many free-marketeers want to take a pass on a value-added tax is that it would only fuel bigger government via higher tax revenues. Indeed, the good folks at TaxVox find new research that helps make that case (bold is mine)”

In the most recent edition of the American Economic Review, Raj Chetty, Adam Looney, and Kory Kroft, examine the effect of tax transparency – what economists call salience – on economic efficiency.

Traditionally, economists view the structure and application of a tax as unimportant. All that matters is the change in relative prices. But Chetty, Looney, and Kroft find that structure and application do matter. For example, they find that consumers are less likely to buy an item if a sales tax is explicitly listed on the product than if the same tax is instead added at check-out.

Chetty, Looney, and Kroft’s theoretical model indeed shows that efficiency increases as a tax becomes less salient. However, their model also shows that reducing the salience of a tax will necessarily harm consumers (albeit not by as much as it helps the government). In other words, tricking consumers into thinking a tax does not exist has two effects: 1) it leads them to poor consumption choices; and 2) it increases tax revenue because more transactions are taxed. In dollar terms, the harm to consumers is less than the increase in revenues. But whether or not you view an opaque tax as a useful policy instrument depends on whether you think the gains to government coffers are worth the reductions in consumer welfare.

As Milton Friedman feared, government can go a step further. If complicated and opaque taxes can dull consumer response, they can also dull the political penalty associated with higher tax rates. An optimizing government could then increase tax rates by more than fully-informed voters would like.  Amy Finkelstein, in the most recent edition of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, finds that drivers are less aware of tolls paid electronically and that switching from toll booths to electronic tolls led to a 20 to 40 percent rate increase. In other words, as salience goes down, tax rates go up.

Me: But for Team Obama, the hidden nature of a VAT would be a feature not a bug. The same approach is being tried with a) healthcare taxes via an excise tax on health insurance companies that will be passed onto consumers, and b) cap-and-trade which is a hidden energy tax that will also be passed along. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a consumption tax as long as it a) replaces other taxes and b) is transparent, such as would be the case with the Hall-Rabusha flat consumption tax.

COMMENT

Not hard to understand, but not obvious, either.

Very enlightening.

California gets moody

Jun 19, 2009 21:14 UTC

Moody’s is threatening California with a “multi-notch” downgrade of its credit rating. The state is in a deep fix, but necessity is the mother of policy invention. It will be interesting to see what Arnold and legislature do, assuming no rescue from Uncle Sam. The governor’s call for a flat tax might just be the beginning.

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