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Tax deductions are popular, but penalties may work better

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The National Zoo's baby panda Tai Shan munches on a carrot in the Giant Panda Habitat of the new Asia Trail area at the zoo in Washington October 11, 2006. REUTERS/Molly RileyWhen making tax policy, there’s a choice between carrots or sticks: Does the government give taxpayers credits or deductions for doing the right thing (buying their homes, giving money to charity, not emitting greenhouse cases) or penalize them for doing the wrong thing?

Brian Galle, who is on leave as an assistant professor at Boston College Law School and currently a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, has been analyzing those choices, and come to a surprising conclusion: Expenditures may be politically expedient, but penalties would often be preferable for fiscal policy.

In his forthcoming paper in the Stanford Law Review, called “The Tragedy of the Carrots,” Galle argues that carrots are overproduced and often misguided, costing the Treasury funds that would be better spent elsewhere in an effort to nudge people towards the behavior it hopes to reward.

“The problem with tax expenditures is not that they are in the tax code, but that they are expenditures,” Galle explains in a recent telephone interview.

What next for long-term care after CLASS act folds?

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Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services REUTERS/Joshua RobertsThe federal government threw in the towel on creating a public option for long-term care coverage last week, and that would seem to be definitive for now.

In defeat, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was doing the right thing in admitting the concept’s flaws and cutting the government’s losses of the proposal, which was a lesser-known component of the new health reform law. It was an attempt to expand the number of Americans with long-term care coverage by providing a basic, inexpensive LTC option deployed mainly through the workplace as an opt-out choice in benefit plans.

Occupy colleges? How to shut down student debt

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Members of the Occupy Wall St movement hold signs aloft while demonstrating. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson One of the more compelling issues to emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement is subject of crushing student debt.

College financing has gotten to be too onerous and complicated, so it’s difficult for families to negotiate the process and, as a result, it’s hobbling graduates’ attempts to live normal lives. Congress has largely ignored these Americans, though, as it focuses on the national debt and the Tea Party agenda.

How cuts to Social Security Administration will hurt you

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Undated handout photo. REUTERS/ICE/Handout  “Starving the beast” is a favorite conservative strategy for forcing cuts in federal spending. The idea is to deprive the government of revenue in order to force spending cuts – and resistance to new taxes is a central feature of the current Super Committee deliberations in Washington.

Advocates for older Americans are watching closely to see how the committee’s work might lead to retirement benefit cuts via a higher Social Security retirement age, smaller cost-of-living adjustments or higher Medicare eligibility ages. Meanwhile, a separate starve-the-beast exercise goes mostly unnoticed: a big squeeze on the administrative budget of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Margaret Atwood on debt and consequences

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Margaret Atwood REUTERS/handoutWhat might be most surprising about the myriad economic problems around the globe right now is how many major world economies seem to have been taken by surprise by the concept of debt. Maybe they should have been reading more Margaret Atwood.

Atwood isn’t only one of the world’s premier novelists, she’s also the author of the nonfiction “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” which hit the presses just as the financial crisis arrived in the fall of 2008 (timing that one review described as “freakishly prescient”).

Debt deal puts off tax decisions for another day

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The legislation to lift the debt ceiling gives the country a framework for more than $2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years and avoids default. But it also puts off discussion of taxes for another day — and it’s unlikely that we’ll see any movement on tax reform or significant tax changes until 2012.

“If I were at a roulette table in Vegas, I would put almost all my chips on a square marked ‘Lame Duck,’” says Clint Stretch, managing principal of tax policy in Deloitte Tax’s national office in Washington, D.C. “I see nothing that Congress will regard as a ‘must do’ in the tax area before a lame-duck session in 2012.”

Fractional ownership is on the rise, so power up that corporate jet

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Despite the fact that President Obama has started taking aim at tax breaks, fractional ownership is gaining steam post-financial crisis, offering affluent consumers an efficient use of their dollars and time. So if you thought owning a piece of a private jet or Italian villa was just for the Cannes crowd, think again.

Private aviation, in particular, has taken a tongue lashing as of late, thanks to Obama’s proposal to augment tax breaks for corporate jet owners in an effort to fill the country’s coffers.

The tax rate you should care about most

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We talk a lot about tax rates here, and about whether they might go up in the future and for whom. But to think intelligently about tax policy — not to mention your own tax strategy — it pays to stop and ask: Which tax rate do you mean? And what tax rate matters most to you?

When most people talk about tax rates these days, what they’re really talking about are marginal tax rates. Your marginal tax rate is the percent you’ll pay on the last dollar of income you bring in. Today, those federal marginal tax rates range from 10 percent to 35 percent; under the terms of last year’s tax agreement, they’ll expire next year and the one thing you can count on is another big debate over what tax policy should look like.

Considering divorce? File your taxes like you’re already single

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The following is a guest post from Nancy R. Mandell. She is the former Managing Editor of Wealth Manager and OnWallStreet magazines, as well as the newsletter Securities Week. For the past decade, she has specialized in stories concerning women in finance and women’s relationship to money and investing. The opinions expressed are her own.

A couple argues while waiting in the subway system in New York July 30, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson Maybe the “D” word hasn’t come up yet, but somewhere in the back of your mind is a nagging concern that your marriage is on its last legs.

Will a VAT turn America into a Greek-style welfare state?

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Daniel J. Mitchell is an expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. He is a senior fellow at the CATO Institute. The opinions expressed here are his own.

This post is part of an ongoing series on tax reform ideas. Where do you stand? Come back regularly to be a part of the national debate.