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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 20, 2011 9:47 AM. The previous post in this blog was Portland City Hall's next triumph: the grocery business. The next post in this blog is Portland, "America's ultimate White City". Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Republican platform: Tax businesses that are losing money

Why not get rid of all deductions -- wouldn't that make the income tax simpler? Now Rick Perry's on the "flat tax" bandwagon, so that he can compete with Herman 999 Cain.

Deductions are there for a reason. The income tax is imposed only on the profit of a business, not on its gross receipts. Congress made the judgment 100 years ago that taxpayers who are losing money in their operations shouldn't pay tax that year. If you get rid of deductions, businesses that are in trouble will go under faster.

Deductions also help families, encourage people to give money to charity, pitch in with large medical expenses, keep poverty-level wage earners off the tax rolls. make it easier to buy a home, and enshrine many other public policies. If the Republican Presidential candidate wants to get rid of all of those effects, we'll see how that plays in Peoria.

A "flat tax" sounds great to a people the first time they hear that phrase. But not if they think about it for a couple of minutes. If Obama runs as perfect a campaign as he did three years ago, he should be able to eat the "flat tax" alive.

Comments (28)

Understood, but we need to address the deductions issue.

If GE can get away with paying no tax, it doesn't matter if we raise the marginal rate on the rich to 99.9%, they've got better accountants and loopholes to take advantage of. Of course, that might mean no more subsidies (kind of a reverse loophole I guess) and COngress would lose a lot of power with fewer levers to play with.

The current tax system is way too complicated and favors wealthier individuals and families who can afford to hire some type of professional to give them an edge. It is also set up so that most people end up paying much more then they owe, which in turn gives the government a zero interest loan throughout the year.

Have no fear, a “flat tax” will never become reality.

However, that doesn’t mean that “deductions” are a good thing. Of course they’re there for a reason – to enable some to pay less in taxes than they would without the deduction. As such a system matures it inevitably rewards gaming the system. It’s only business; if I can pay a consultant less than I save in taxes with his “strategy” (in itself a bizarre concept if you think of taxes as the way you support your community… I need to strategize to minimize my support for that which I profess to value?), then I’ll do it. More effective still, with the right connections I can actually get the laws written such that I get favored treatment before the gaming even starts. Then throw in social engineering aspects which get to a more micro-management level (tax policy to influence the way I eat… really???), and it’s guaranteed to anger folks.

The urge towards a “flat tax” is an acknowledgment that people know they’re out of the game, sidelined and marginalized, and have zip influence on policy. Consequently they get to pay whatever those who are in the game say they should pay. Breeds resentment to constantly be the one in the harness instead of the one with the whip.

I think the real issue here these candidates are trying to addres is the drastic need to simplify the tax code. Too often people just accept that "this is just the way it will be and there's nothing we can do to change it", when in fact, it's not. I think injecting ideas of simplification into the conversation of taxes is a good thing, even if the particular plan right now is not. The status quo needs to be challenged, and sparking debates with various plans about how it can be done is good for this country.

Tax deductions are the same as government subsidies i.e. the government is trying to pick "winners and losers". It should not be the role (or goal) of government to pick winners and losers. Real winners do not need subsidies (or deductions) and NONE of us need to be "directed" by government to do what they think best for us.

If we didn't have to pay interest to the private banksters every time we print money, then we wouldn't need much of a taxing structure. We used to have a very minimal federal tax, but that all changed with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

And the real issue with tax fairness is that businesses and rich individuals have various methods to hide "income". So no matter what type of income tax you have, you can only collect based on what somebody claims is their income. A person on a payroll (most of us) can't hide their income.

The "flat tax" (a single rate, that is) isn't relevant to the issue of complexity in the tax system. Applying graduated rates to calculate the tax on taxable income isn't hard. A flat tax is attractive to conservatives because it is perfectly regressive.

The tax code keeps a lot of people employed. Private and public. I doubt if anyone will change it much.

Jack, Were you opposed to Measure 67?

Being able to trade tax exemptions should be illegal the same way paying cash for food stamps is wrong. Why are ANY tax deductions allowed? I don't have a problem with progressive tax, but tax shelters only work for the players. Why do the Gate's Foundation or even the Guggenheim and Rockerfeller Foundations exist? Answer: "Monarchy is not recognized/allowed in the USA."

Remember when Steve Forbes was portrayed as a wacko for proposing this a couple of election cycles ago? Funny how if they keep shamelessly trotting out their favored-though-derided dogs, sooner or later they get taken seriously--a la The Tea Party (f/k/a John Birch Society), supply-side ("voodoo") economics and "pre-emptive" war (f/k/a imperialism).

Simplification for the sake of simplification is sooooo GOP mindset too: black and white, white and black; old days good, modern life bad; simple good, complicated bad.

The real problem is the inequity in our tax system, and flat taxes would be a move towards even greater inequality (i.e., regressive) than we have now. People who seriously think this is a solution for any real problem we actually have are not qualified to hold the highest office in the country. This isn't a junior high student council they're dealing with.

"A flat tax is attractive to conservatives because it is perfectly regressive."

Fine, adjust the rates so that you exempt the first $30K a year in income.

As long as we have a bazillion deductions, people will take advantage of them. We need to take a hard look at re-hash of what we have.

“The real problem is the inequity in our tax system…”

Which are made manifest by “deductions” and all the other exceptions to the rules.

Because when I look at the tax tables they’re perfectly progressive. Make more, pay more, bringing progressive equity to the system. Yet in the end it’s not working that way. Why? The exceptions.

So one answer, that appeals to many (and not all are the troglodytes partisans make them out to be), is to do away with the exceptions. To simplify. Another answer is to add more, modify or add to the exceptions. Both are actually valid avenues.

As an old programmer my prejudice is to simplify. When stuck with spaghetti code it’s almost always best, in the long run, to scrap it and rewrite.

That assumes, of course, that there’s agreement on what the program is supposed do. That lack is the true “real problem” with the tax system.

Allan L: If the flat tax is "perfectly regressive", how do you describe payroll taxes (SS), which make the flat tax appear "perfectly progressive"?

Observer: How would going to a flat tax be more regressive than the current system of deductions (granted by the government)? If you want the system more "progressive", why not discuss payroll taxes, which tax on the FIRST dollar earned?

if the IRS could actually collect the taxes due we could all pay at a significantly lower rate. The benefits of social engineering nothwithstanding, a flat tax should enable us all to pay less taxes and the government to collect more. No deductions, no credits, not tax lawyers and accountants...

The tax code is a primary tool the government uses to manage the economy and nurture its fiscal health. No sense changing that.

The status quo is wonderful. Through various accounts, deductions, credits, exclusions and dodges I can shelter or defer taxes on half or more of my income some years. That's so fair -- let's keep the system in place!

And while we're at it, bring back other ruses that were deep sixed the last time the tax code was flattened, like double declining balance depreciation for commerical real estate (imagine how much more leveraged real estate markets would have been going into the meltdown if that was still in place), sales tax deductions (on top of state income tax), income averaging (to empower double digit deflation), deduction for married couples when both work, and on and on and on.

Reality is that dramatic simplification of the tax code is a free lunch insofar as the economy is concerened. If the populous is swayed the other way on this and other issues by Sugar Daddy Barack we all are doomed.

I've heard you should never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel. That probably applies equally to debating tax policy with a tax professor on his own (high-traffic) blog, but I never really followed the first aphorism anyway....

Jack wrote:

Deductions are there for a reason. The income tax is imposed only on the profit of a business, not on its gross receipts. Congress made the judgment 100 years ago that taxpayers who are losing money in their operations shouldn't pay tax that year. If you get rid of deductions, businesses that are in trouble will go under faster.

I understood flat tax proposals for businesses to be based on (a measure of) profit. I would be surprised if Perry's proposal was actually a tax on gross revenues.

Here is a flat tax description that I found in a recent US News op-ed:

Instead of the hundreds of forms required by the IRS, the flat tax uses two simple postcards. Families use the household postcard, and all they need to know is their labor income, available on a W-2 form. They then subtract an allowance based on family size. The remaining amount is taxable income, and the tax bill is based on the flat rate. The business postcard is equally simple. All businesses, from Microsoft to a hot dog stand (as well as individuals with "Schedule C" income), start with total revenues, and then calculate taxable income by subtracting wage costs, input costs, and investment costs. The IRS then gets a flat percentage of that remaining amount.

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2010/04/12/eliminate-tax-brackets-and-complicated-forms-with-a-flat-tax

Many different (mostly right-wing) tax platforms have been marched out under the "flat tax" banner over the years. The one someone was nattering about this morning was a tax on income with no deductions. If no deductions are allowed, it's a tax on gross receipts.

Another one trotted out a while back would have been "flat," all right. And oh-so-simple! Because it would have exempted all income except wages. "You'll be screwed royally by the wealthy, but you'll be able to file your tax return on a postcard!" Didn't get anywhere.

I also favor simplifying the tax code, and eliminating some types of deductions seems prudent. I agree that one purpose of a progressive tax code with multiple deductions is, as the original post indicates, to "keep poverty-level wage earners off the tax rolls," but I question whether that's an argument in favor or against the current system.

In my mind, everyone should pay taxes, no matter how modest. A progressive scale is fine, but the top end shouldn't escape responsibility through deductions and the bottom end shouldn't escape at least some very modest payment, even if its only 5 or 10 dollars.

When 47% of all American households pay nothing to support or maintain our nation's government, we have a problem.

"When 47% of all American households pay nothing to support or maintain our nation's government, we have a problem."

So the 47% doesn't pay social security taxes, state and local taxes as well???

(Mis-posted to your grocery story.) I am admittedly clueless about taxes. Given that this is you area of expertise, I am very interested to know what you think the remedy is to this? What would President Bojack propose to fix the trainwreck that is the U.S. Tax Code?

The smartest proposal I have heard would be to scrap the income tax for 90% of the population. Adopt a European-style value-added tax (which yes, is regressive compared to an income tax), and impose an income tax on top of that for only the top 10% of income earners.

http://www.law.columbia.edu/media_inquiries/news_events/2010/june2010/Graetz-VAT-Tax

It makes a lot of sense -- too much sense for our current, insane federal legislative process.

Regarding deductions, now might be a good time politically to get rid of the mortgage interest deduction, if you were of a mind to get rid of it. Real estate prices are continuing to go down whether the interest deduction is in place or not - that was always the argument of the real estate pros, that it would depress prices (i.e. "pop the bubble"). Also, with marginal tax rates as low as they are now, the tax savings isn't much until you get into the higher brackets, and those people would not be frozen out of the housing market, they would just have to settle for a slightly less desirable piece of real estate.

I know there are arguments both ways on the mortgage interest deduction.

The flat tax or any other regressive tax is the quickest way toward socialist revolution. The increasing poor will keep demanding services and voting. Soon the system goes up in smoke (yes, that was a Cheech and Chong reference).

History. It's so informative.

You're right, Jack, that there are all kinds of crazy ideas that float under the rubric "flat tax" but the serious ones combine a comprehensive tax base(which still allows businesses to deduct actual expenses of doing business such as payroll, rent, cost of goods sold, etc.) with a flat tax rate above a some personal exemptions.

Probably the best simple explanation of a true flat tax appears in Milton Friedman's book Capitalizm and Freedom written in 1962. But you're right, it isn't practical today and, given the largely regressive nature of most state and local taxes, wouldn't be fair.

Combine a more comprehensive tax base with a flatter system of graduated tax rates is what the 1986 Tax Reform Act represented, which has been variously credited to Reagan, Packwood, Bradley and Gephardt.

What we have today is the remnants of that system albeit with a somewhat less comprehensive tax base. A more comprehensive tax base (i.e., fewer deduction and loopholes) combined with lower rates has a lot of bipartisan support today and is what the Simpson-Bowles commission recommended.

The Flat Tax talk is all campaign fodder for Republicans.

Mike H:

I don't know if there are statistics measuring the percentage of people who pay social security, state and local taxes but who don't pay federal income tax. But we do know that individual and corporate income taxes make up nearly 59% of the total receipts of the federal government (FICA and other payroll taxes are approximately 34%). If that 59% is paid by only half the population, the others are getting a free ride. Everyone should share in the costs of maintaining the federal government.

And further: Most of those at the low end of the income scale have all the Social/Medicare taxes they pay "refunded" to them through the Earned Income Tax Credit and other programs. For those whose incomes exceed EITC limits, all they are paying for are two federal government programs - Social Security and Medicare. That is hardly full participation in our society. Most probably pay some level of state and local taxes (in Oregon particularly, state income taxes kick in at very low income levels), but that's not relevant to this discussion which is about federal taxes.

I completely agree with the Kid that everyone in this society should be paying something, even if it's a tiny amount. It is not fair that half of Americans pay little to nothing for the maintenance of our society. The system has been set up this way to create a large group of potential voters to support bigger government and more taxes on everyone but them.

How much should the disadvantaged pay in order to "pay something" when so many of them have been screwed by the powerful people who decide how the economy and financial markets work? If the rich send a guy's job overseas, which the dimmest corporate poobahs must have realized was a potentially damaging long-term plan, how much should "fairness" demand he pay for the privilege of being transformed into a poor person? If he signed a shaky mortgage because "there has never been a better time to buy real estate" and "the appreciation will take care of it," how much should he pay for that advice?
Yes, he should support the common defense, but if you haven't noticed, poor people usually make their contribution in blood.


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