Browsing the blog archives for April, 2017.

The President’s Tax Proposal

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President Trump’s draft tax proposal is a clear improvement over the status quo, but it falls short of the type of overhaul we really need. It’s a long way from fruition and as I noted in a previous post, the greatest opposition to even moderate change in the tax code will come from the special interests.

Everyone in the housing industry, from contractors to roofers to realtors, benefits from the mortgage interest deduction in the current tax code. By passing along part of the cost of your new home to other taxpayers, this provision subsidizes an entire industry and artificially increases home values, all in the name of “making housing affordable” and pursuing the “American dream.” President Trump’s draft proposal did not eliminate this deduction, but it increases the standard deduction. You must itemize to deduct mortgage interest, so increasing the standard deduction means that homeowners with modest home payments would not enjoy the same tax benefit as they did previously, thereby reducing the net effect of the mortgage interest deduction, at least on paper.

The National Association of Realtors wasted no time in its response. NAR president William Brown referred to the proposal as a “nonstarter,” noting:

For over a century, America has committed itself to homeownership with targeted tax incentives that help lower- and middle-class families purchase what is likely their largest asset. No surprise, real estate now accounts for over 19 percent of America’s gross domestic product, or more than $3 trillion in investment. But for roughly 75 million homeowners across the country, their home is more than just a number. It represents their ambitions, their nest egg, and the place where memories are made with family and friends. Targeted tax incentives are in place to help people get there. The mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction make homeownership more affordable.

Brown is protecting industry’s his turf by wrapping the mortgage interest subsidy in the American flag. His defense of the current system cites America’s alleged commitment to home ownership with an emotional appeal—homes are about ambitions and memories. Of course, one need not own a piece of real estate to amass great memories, and the “targeted tax incentives” about which he speaks penalizes renters.

It’s ironic that the President is getting stiff opposition while proposing to retain the subsidy. Increasing the standard deduction might reduce the number of Americans who itemize their taxes, but the accompanying tax cuts would likely spur demand for housing anyway. That’s just not good enough for the industry, which like most, will lobby for government support at every turn. The NAR has tons of resources to trumpet this argument. When traditional media outlets opposing anything and everything Trump offers, it’s not clear who will fight the realtors and other special interests. Achieving even modest tax reform won’t be easy.

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Why consumers like (some) regulations

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There’s a lot to learn from the video depicting airport security dragging a passenger from an overbooked United flight earlier this week. The airline had the right to (humanely) remove the passenger, but dragging him from the plane was a horrible decision that only fuels demands for more regulation.

Airlines overbook flights because some passengers won’t show up at the gate. When everyone is present, they offer payoffs to passengers willing to take a later flight instead. It’s usually easy to find passengers willing to take the payoff—in this case, $800—but once in a while everyone shows up and nobody is willing to give up their seat. When this occurs, the airline is permitted to identify passengers for removal, and remove them physically if they do not leave voluntarily. It’s not a common situation, but it happens.

United made obvious mistakes here. The airline could have sweetened the pot to obtain the necessary volunteers. This is a reasonable expectation and would have satisfied everyone. Overbooking is more efficient and reduces costs and fares, so the airline should be able to compensate inconvenienced passengers at a higher level if necessary. Removing the passenger was permissible, but United should not have done so, even if it could have been accomplished without the optics.

There’s a larger concern here. Consumers who don’t understand overbooking or the contract they accept when they purchase a ticket see this incident as a massive abuse of power. They feel helpless, and predictably, many are asking the government to intervene so this doesn’t happen again. If airlines don’t overbook flights, there will be more empty seats on the typical flight, raising costs and fares for all of us. Governor Christie has already suggested that airlines be restricted from overbooking flights until more regulations can be developed. Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.

What’s the solution? Airlines should make higher payoffs when required to deal with overbookings. Every man has his price, and payoffs are a cost of doing business. United was not willing to pay more, and now it’s costing the airline dearly. If politicians get involved to “protect our rights,” it will cost all of us as well. More government intervention is unnecessary. The market is already extracting a heavy price on United, and other airlines are taking notice.

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Tax Reform

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Some type of tax reform will probably pass this year, but I expect the same philosophical debate we saw during the Ryancare debacle. Real tax reform requires 3 things: Lower taxes, less spending, and simplification of the system. Cutting taxes is not too difficult politically. Spending reductions are feasible because a better tax code can enhance revenue anyway, while real “cuts” are delayed into the future. But simplifying the system is a real problem.

A simplified tax code is easy to understand and keeps the government out of one’s personal business. You would think simplification would be a no-brainer, but each carve-out in the existing system benefits certain individuals and interest groups at the expense of everyone else. Most taxpayers don’t realize how these arduous rules and “tax breaks” hurt all of us.

Take the home mortgage interest deduction as an example. If you itemize on your return—another needless complication of the code—then you can typically deduct from your income the interest you pay on your mortgage. Proponents of this policy claim that it “makes housing more affordable.” Who could oppose home ownership?

The mortgage interest deduction essentially reduces monthly payments, encouraging Americans to purchase homes, and to purchase larger ones. Almost everyone connected to housing from realtors to contractors will fight to the end to keep this deduction in the code because it affects their pocketbooks, at least in the short term. It’s a bad deal in the long run, as a subsidy always increases prices and encourages people to spend more than they would otherwise. In fact, this and other government (and Fed) support for housing set the table for the Great Recession.

But convincing Americans that subsidized housing hurts the economy is not easy. Many think they’re getting something out of the deal. What they don’t realize is that tax rates for everyone must be increased to compensate for the $70 billion in annual mortgage interest deductions. That’s more than $200 per American citizen, most of whom don’t file or pay income taxes anyway.

Mortgage interest is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s health care, the earned income tax credit (EITC), and solar energy, to mention a few others. Each special deduction or tax credit has its own constituency that lobbies and donates to campaigns. Try to abolish all of them at once, the insiders tell us, and you’ll have too many battles to wage. They suggest that we eliminate some of them, avoid the bloodiest fights, provide a modest tax cut, and call it a day.

I take the opposite view. I favor attacking all deductions simultaneously to allow for the greatest reduction in tax rates. Start with your income, subtract an individual deduction, multiple what’s left by a flat tax rate, and you’re done. I realize that my plan would be deemed “too radical” by most, but I’m negotiable. A few deductions like charitable contributions (which is logical) and health care (which is practical) might remain to get a bill passed, but we can eliminate most of the social engineering in the tax code if we have the courage. Unfortunately, I’m doubtful that enough Republicans do.

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