By James Kwak
[Updated with Mnuchin’s position on charitable contribution deduction.]
I wrote two days ago about the fairy tale that you can lower tax rates for the very rich yet avoid lowering their actual taxes by eliminating those mythical beasts, loopholes and deductions. The basic problem with this story is that, at the very high end of the distribution, deductions and exclusions (with the possible exception of the deduction for charitable contributions) just don’t amount to very much as a percentage of income. Therefore, eliminating those deductions may increase rich people’s taxes by tens of thousands of dollars, but that is only a tiny proportion of their overall tax burden, and not enough to offset any significant rate decrease.
Unlike me, Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema are actual tax scholars (Hemel has a blog on Medium), and their detailed research largely tells the same story. They have a forthcoming paper that analyzes the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and shows that, while it is worth more dollars to rich people than poor people (for all the well-known reasons—bigger houses, higher marginal rates, itemizing), the MID causes people in the top 1% to pay a larger share of the overall tax burden. Therefore, eliminating the MID and using the increased tax revenue to reduce tax rates for everyone (what Mnuchin proposed in concept) would be a large windfall for the top 0.1% and a small windfall for the rest of the 1%.
The numbers are in the last column of this table:
The Proportionate column shows the distributional effects of repealing the MID and using the money to reduce everyone’s taxes in equal proportion, which are even worse. (The only good outcome is the Per Household column, which uses the revenue from eliminating the MID to give every household a flat $558 tax rebate, but no one is talking about that.)
Hemel and Rozema do a similar analysis of the deduction for state and local taxes, which I didn’t mention in my post (and which many rich families can’t take because of the AMT). The basic story is the same: repealing the deduction to lower rates is, again, a windfall for very rich families.
The only deduction that turns out to increase inequality under this approach is the one for charitable contributions, because there is no practical limit to the possible size of such donations. (And guess what? Mnuchin doesn’t want to touch this one!) Eliminating this deduction could cause the rich to pay more in taxes, but they could easily maintain the same level of disposable income simply by donating less to charity. In other words, tax revenues would go up, but the money would effectively be coming from charities, not from rich people.
So, there is no deduction fairy. You can’t cut tax rates in anything like the way the Trump administration proposes without vastly increasing inequality. Once again, it’s a conceptually plausible idea that is providing air cover for a massive raid on government services to benefit the very rich.