Time to Return to TRA 1986?

I am fine with the current fiscal deficit–the evidence is pretty clear to me that we would be worse off in the absence of the stimulus, and so long as we can borrow cheaply, and build projects cheaply (because contractors are eager to get work), there are positive NPV opportunities for the public sector.

But the long term fiscal position worries me a lot (and it bothers me when people I respect as much as Paul Krugman soft-peddle it). The question is how to we get out from under?

The good news is that we have gotten out from under budget shortfalls before. The Obama administration proposes raising taxes on high earners, and that is fine, but it is not enough. More fruitful, I think, would be to go after the tax expenditures.

Leonard Burman, Eric Toder, Christopher Geissler estimate the size of tax expenditures. It is huge: depending on the modeling strategy they employ (they look at tax expenditures with and without interaction effects, and with different assumptions about the Alternative Minimum Tax), they estimate tax expenditures for 2007 of 700 billion to 760 billion. The largest expenditures are for retirement plans (126 billion), employer contributions for health insurance (138 billion), the mortgage interest deduction (92 billion), and preferential treatment of capital gains (84 billions).

If we were to eliminate tax expenditures, the overall effect on the tax code would be largely progressive. Pretty much everyone would take a hit, but those at the top would take a bigger hit. If the earned income tax credit (about 43 billion) were left alone the impact would be more progressive.

According to CBO, the long-term fiscal deficit is somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 billion per year. Elimination of tax expenditures other than the EITC would put us back into fiscal balance in a progressive manner without raising rates. It would also make the tax code simpler and less distortionary.

Just a thought.

About Richard K. Green 102 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

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