Posts tagged ‘taxes’

February 2, 2015

How the ‘middle class’ saved 529 plans

by Grace

Why did President Obama do such a quick about-face on 529 plans, first proposing to eliminate them and then a few days later dropping that proposal?  Although it was widely believed that this initiative had zero chance of getting through Congress, it appears Obama’s actions were due to the efforts of the elusive “middle class”.

Several news sources have pointed out how poorly this proposal polled, notably with Democratic voters.  It seems the administration could have predicted this reaction, but apparently they were blindsided.  Obama’s proposal would have penalized wealthy families the most, since 70% of 529 “tax benefits go to households earning more than $200,000”.  As such, “middle class” families would not be seriously hurt by this change.  But here’s the rub.  The vast majority of Americans consider themselves middle class, including many with household incomes well into the six-figure range.

Don’t tax me, tax that rich guy over there.

The first rule of modern tax policy is raise taxes only on the rich. The second rule is that your family isn’t rich, even if you make a lot of money.

President Obama’s State of the Union proposal to end the tax benefits for college savings accounts ran afoul of these rules, which is why he abandoned it, under intense pressure from both political parties, within a week.

Tax-free college savings accounts, like the mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction, principally benefit people who range from affluent to wealthy. In pushing its proposal, the White House pointed to Federal Reserve data showing that 70 percent of balances in the college accounts were held by families making at least $200,000 a year. In theory, tax reform is supposed to be built around cutting back preferences like these, in order to pay for some combination of lower tax rates and tax preferences aimed at people with lower incomes.

Politicians have met with strong resistance to increasing taxes on the “merely affluent”.

But in practice, politicians from both parties have made a point of holding the group you might call the “merely affluent” harmless from tax increases. If you make $150,000 to $225,000, you make about two to three times the national median income for a married couple. The list of occupations that can get you into this income bracket — government official, academic, lobbyist, journalist — can sometimes make it hard for people in political circles to remember that 92 percent of American married couples make less than $200,000 a year.

A lot of people in this category don’t think of themselves as rich, and they benefit from tax provisions like college savings accounts.

So how can politicians raise more tax revenue?  It’s a challenge.

… If you can’t go after tax provisions for the merely affluent, you are exempting almost everyone from tax increases. And if you can’t broaden the tax base, then you are very limited in how much you can finance tax reform.

Where else can they find the money?

Raising taxes on the very rich won’t raise enough revenue to balance the budget, and the bottom 50% of income earners — who only pay about 2% of all federal taxes — are not a likely source.

Peter Suderman of Reason believes the 529 debacle shows that the “existing welfare state is unaffordable”.  On the other hand, Reihan Salam of Slate laments that the upper middle class is ruining all that is great about America.  In essence, both may be saying the same thing.  It’s hard to finance expansive government programs because “eventually you run out of other people’s money”.

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Josh Barro, “A ‘Rich’ Person Is Someone Who Makes 50 Percent More Than You”, New York Times, January 29, 2015.

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February 11, 2014

Does ‘expanding equality of opportunity increase inequality’?

by Grace

It seems that expanding opportunity leads to increased inequality.  Would higher taxes be a good solution?

Since “families are the primary transmitters of human capital”, does it follow that “expanding equality of opportunity increases inequality because some people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities”.  This is the premise explored by George Will in a Washington Post opinion piece last year.

If America is to be equitable, with careers open to all talents and competent citizens capable of making their way in an increasingly demanding world, Americans must heed the warnings implicit in observations from two heroes of modern conservatism. In “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960), Friedrich Hayek noted that families are the primary transmitters of human capital — habits, mores, education. Hence families, much more than other social institutions or programs, are determinative of academic and vocational success. In “The Unheavenly City” (1970),Edward C. Banfield wrote: “All education favors the middle- and upper-class child, because to be middle or upper class is to have qualities that make one particularly educable.”

Some lucky, privileged “people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities”.

Elaborating on this theme, Jerry Z. Muller, a Catholic University historian, argued in the March-April 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs that expanding equality of opportunity increases inequality because some people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities. And “assortative mating” — likes marrying likes — concentrates class advantages, further expanding inequality. As Muller said, “formal schooling itself plays a relatively minor role in creating or perpetuating achievement gaps” that originate “in the different levels of human capital children possess when they enter school.”

Would raising taxes on rich people reduce inequality?

Recognizing that a meritocracy doesn’t always work very well for people lacking supportive families or other advantages, Matt Yglesias proposes that the government should tax rich people and “give the money to poor people” as a way to make everyone happy.

Should we guarantee everyone a “great” life?

,,, When you think about physical disabilities this becomes particularly clear. We try to help out people who are blind or who lost a leg in Iraq or who are born with a congenital heart weakness not because providing such assistance accords with a principle of merit, but precisely because people who lack “merit” in the field of seeing or walking or not dying as a child due to heart failure are the people who need help. But lots of people suffer from less visible problems, be it a genetic weakness for alcoholism or the below-average intelligence that afflicts exactly 50 percent of the population. Those people should have great lives, too.

More money is not the solution.

The rich already “pay an overwhelming majority of the taxes in the United States”, but presumably Yglesias means their taxes should be increased.  As much money as we throw at them, I don’t think we can provide every disadvantaged person with a great life.  Add on the problem “that you eventually run out of other people’s money”, and this doesn’t seem like a good solution.  Money can sometimes help improve lives, but it must be spent wisely.  Politicians and bureaucrats don’t have that part quite figured out, and it seems that the more money we give them to control the less effectively they spend it.

Related:  Changes in marriage patterns have affected poverty and income inequality (Cost of College)

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