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tax expenditures by quintile
And that's not all. According to 29-page Congressional Budget Office report, The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures in the Individual Income Tax System, the top one percent of earners get 17 percent of tax expenditures. People in the bottom 20 percent only receive eight percent of the total benefits from tax expenditures. But while the overall benefits are far smaller for those in the bottom fifth, the impact as a percentage of their overall income is considerably higher than it is for people in the top quintile. They receive more of the expenditures but these make up less of the vastly higher incomes they bring in. The middle quintiles don't benefit as much as the bottom and top do.

They're called tax "expenditures" to distinguish them from actual federal spending, say, to buy tanks or stationery. But they do have an impact on revenue that would otherwise be received, and they thus do contribute to the federal deficit when the budget is not in balance. By giving selected groups favorable treatment under the tax code, they affect individuals' and corporate economic behavior and have an impact on the distribution of income.

The CBO reviewed the top 10 tax expenditures in four major categories. First, exclusions from taxable income—employer-sponsored health insurance, net pension contributions and earnings, capital gains on assets transferred at death, and a portion of Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits. Second, itemized deductions—certain taxes paid to state and local governments, mortgage interest payments and charitable contributions. Third, preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends; and, finally, tax credits—the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit.

All told, these tax expenditures amount to $900 billion, about 5.7 percent of total U.S. economic output. As Derek Thompson points out, that's more than is spent on Medicare or Defense or Social Security. Whether any one of these expenditures is good or bad depends on ideology and personal preference as much as anything. They represent a wide array of interests that allows the federal government to promote everything from cheaper home ownership to oil drilling.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the Democrats’ leader on budget issue, said the CBO study stresses the need to reduce the deficit by limiting the tax deductions and credits available to upper income earners. “If you look at the skewing of the tax preferences here,” he said, “it indicates very clearly that we could achieve a significant amount of deficit reduction by limiting these preferences for the highest income earners — the top 1 percent.”
Many Republicans and economic libertarians have long argued for a simpler tax code, some of them in support of a flat tax that would eliminate most tax expenditures. This would, of course, work to increase the vast inequality in income and wealth that plagues the nation and increase poverty. When these "reformers" have actually gotten down to discussing the details, however, the tax breaks that go to making up these expenditures tend to creep back into the picture. It's not hard to figure out why. Dumping most of these breaks would mean raising almost everyone's tax bills.
••• ••• •••

Jon Perr has posted a diary on the subject here.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Economics on Thu May 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm shocked, shocked (8+ / 0-)

    Not.

    "If you tell the truth, you'll eventually be found out." Mark Twain

    by Steven D on Thu May 30, 2013 at 12:17:41 PM PDT

  •  You know this graph (6+ / 0-)

    is going on Fox with a taxes paid title.

  •  The way I'm reading this is that the term (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sunbro, SpamNunn, Tonedevil

    "tax expenditure" is equivalent to "tax break" - is that correct?

    If so, the only thing surprising is that the top 20% receive only 50% of these perks - I would have guessed it would be more like 80 to 90%.

  •  I Recall My Father When He Worked For The DoD (6+ / 0-)

    used to do his own taxes. Then his father passed away and he became a rich, rich man. Now he has like a team of folks that work on his investment AND taxes. With more homes, cars, land, stocks and bonds, and investments of all kinds, pretty stunning all the tax loopholes and deductions he gets. He says he has tried to have his day-to-day CPA explain his returns and he has no clue what is going on.

  •  Tax reform, lowering rates and eliminating (6+ / 0-)

    deductions, can be a good thing, if it eliminates vast differences in what different households at the same income level pay.  And I'm strongly in favor of that.  

    With respect to the data above, comparisons on a simple dollar basis don't make much sense, it seems to me.  OF COURSE any tax issue is going to be much bigger, in terms of dollars, for top incomes, because they pay most of the taxes.  You can have a 10% tax cut for a family at $50,000  and a 3% tax cut for a family at $500,000 -- a tax cut that, in percentage terms, clearly is directed to the $50,000 family -- but, because the DOLLAR AMOUNT will be bigger at higher incomes, argue that it's a "tax break for the wealthy."  That makes no logical sense.  

    I'd like to see what the tax expenditures for the mortgage interest deduction, and -- the biggest of all -- the exclusion for health insurance benefits -- amounts to in terms of a percentage of income at various levels.  OF COURSE most of the charitable deductions go to people at higher income levels, because they have the most money to give to charity.  Let's say family 1 earns $50,000 and gives $1000 to charity, and gets a charitable deduction for that.  Family 2 earns $500,000 and gives $2000 to charity.  Under this analysis, I'm supposed to be horrified because twice the "tax expenditures" for charitable deductions go to the second family, when both the charitable donation, and the deduction, are far more significant, in terms of a percentage of income, to family 1.  

    At any rate, this kind of analysis, it seems to me, argues for a combined approach of (1) a lower marginal rate; (2)  with virtually no deductions.  That way, the marginal rate would be close to the effective tax rate, and it's the effective tax rate that matters more than anything else.  Very high marginal rates combined with all these deductions results in the most unfair situation of all -- two households with about the same income in actual dollars can pay a vastly different effective tax rate.

    For example, in 2009, the top 1% paid an EFFECTIVE individual federal income tax rate of about 21% -- see the SECOND chart here.  After the fiscal cliff deal, that is probably going to go up to about 24 - 25% or so (on households above $400,000, which is about the top 1%, we are reverting to Cllinton era rates with some of the deductions available during the Clinton era having been phased out).  That means that, in two households each earning $500,000 (say, married proffessionals earning $250,000 each) one household might pay an EFFECTIVE tax rate of 15%, and one might pay an EFFECTIVE tax rate above 30%, depending on how their income is structured and what deductions are available.  That's vastly unfair.  We should reduce marginal rates  and eliminate deductions so that all the households in the top 1% pay an EFFECTIVE tax rate of about 25% (the highest it has ever been since the CBO began keeping track in 1979, and what many families subject to the AMT pay), and you don't have this vast swing in what households pay.  You could also have perhaps an EFFECTIVE tax rate for income over $1 million or so at 30% (i.e., the "Buffet Rule").

  •  This is NOT outrageous (5+ / 0-)
    50% of government tax expenditures go to top 20% of earners.  
    When you consider these facts, as supported by IRS data, which can be found here.  That same data is  summarized in an easier to read chart here (so you can check the accuracy yourself).

    The top 10% is a two income household of about AGI $112,000 and up (in other words, two incomes each of $60,000 or more) and the top 10% has 43% of the income and pays 70% of the federal income taxes.  The top 25%, a two-income household of about $66,000 and up, has about 65% of the income and pays about 87% of the federal income taxes.  

    So, the CBO says that the top 20% of households, which is maybe a middle-aged couple each earning $40,000 - $50,000 or so, and which pays maybe 75% of the federal income taxes in this country, gets 50% of the deductions for things like health insurance benefits, mortgage interest, and charitable deductions.  

    And why is that outrageous?  (1) The top 20% is NOT the rich in the eyes of most people; and (2) They pay 75% or so of the federal income taxes, so there's nothing unfair about them getting 50% of the federal income tax deductions.  

    I agree wholeheartedly that our federal income tax system is a complete mess, and needs a major overhaul, including vast simplification (as I discuss in my comment above).  But this particular data is not outrageous if you look at the facts behind the data.  

  •  Leona Helmsley's famous conversation with a maid: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ShoshannaD, Tonedevil
    I said: "You must pay a lot of taxes".

    Helmsley said: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes."

    –Elizabeth Baum, former housekeeper to Helmsley (October 1983)

    -4.75, -5.33 Cheney 10/05/04: "I have not suggested there is a connection between Iraq and 9/11."

    by sunbro on Thu May 30, 2013 at 12:58:50 PM PDT

  •  The term "expenditure" is a technical term. (0+ / 0-)

    "Expenditures" are not monies paid out.  Rather, they are a number of exclusions, deductions, preferential rates,and credits in the federal tax system that cause revenues to be much lower than they would be otherwise for any given structure of tax rates.

    It's not surprising that the people who pay the most taxes derive the most benefit from them, given what the CBO reports says about them:

    Some of those provisions—in both the individual and corporate income tax systems—are termed “tax expenditures” because they resemble federal spending by providing financial assistance to specific activities, entities, or groups of people. Tax expenditures, like traditional forms of federal spending, contribute to the federal budget deficit; influence how people work,save, and invest; and affect the distribution of income.

    Those expenditures are grouped into four categories:

    Exclusions from taxable income—

    - Employer-sponsored health insurance,

    - Net pension contributions and earnings,

    - Capital gains on assets transferred at death, and

    - A portion of Social Security and RailroadRetirement benefits;

    Itemized deductions—

    - Certain taxes paid to state and local governments,

    - Mortgage interest payments, and

    - Charitable contributions;

    Preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividendsand
    tax credits—

    - The earned income tax credit, and

    - The child tax credit.

    The patellar reflex is a deep tendon reflex which allows one to keep one's balance with little effort or conscious thought.

    by SpamNunn on Thu May 30, 2013 at 01:08:40 PM PDT

    •  but that's the point (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tonedevil, nominalize

      I'm not sure that you're arguing.

      A solid portion of US fiscal policy is designed around giving tax breaks. (About half of Obama's stimulus was tax breaks.) Fiscal policy designed around tax breaks benefits the rich disproportionally.

      If instead US fiscal policy was designed around expenditures, the policy would be more equitable. (And probably more effective.)

      For example, in health care, a big expense is the insurance tax credit, which benefits the rich disproportionally for no good reason. If we spent the exact same amount, but split the spending per-capita, the spending would be more equitable, and probably more effective. (There's no reason to believe there's an added value in spending more gov't money on rich people's health care.)

      •  In France, for instance, (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ferg, Cassandra77

        nearly everyone has "allocations" of some sort, because the government does that to incentivize certain behaviors, instead of giving tax breaks.  Here, we give tax breaks for child care.  In France, you get a monthly check.  (Also, a lot of child care is part of the school system so it's already free.)

        And so forth.  

        Whether that's the model we want or not, I just provide information.  

        That said, in economic terms, a $1000 tax cut that your neighbor doesn't get is the same as a $1000 government check that your neighbor doesn't get. The only difference is in our perception (and self-esteem).

        Conservatives need to realize that their Silent Moral Majority is neither silent, nor moral, nor a majority.

        by nominalize on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:44:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Congress is in the habit of doling out benefits (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tonedevil

      And punishments for the purpose of one thing only -- enhancing their tenure in office. Since bribes are illegal and immoral, they've developed this marvelous strategy of not collecting taxes from whichever segment of the electorate is likely to return them to office. It's the "unjust steward" strategy, elucidated in the biblical parable by that name. The brilliance of this strategy lies in the fact that a steward has been hired to do just that -- supervise expenditures and revenues. If his judgement/decisions are bad and favor his master's debtors, rather than his master, the master has only one recourse, firing, doing what you've been hired to do, but doing it badly is not a crime, even if the doing is designed to garner a personal advantage somewhere down the line (the revolving door).
      That the agent will prove incompetent is one of the pitfalls of agency. On the other hand, since each person's time is limited, having agents is more beneficial than trying to do everything oneself.
      The founders structured the Constitution to have agency review every two years. If we don't review and don't remove, whose fault is that?

      We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

      by hannah on Thu May 30, 2013 at 02:47:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I object. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tonedevil

    A failure to collect is not the same as an expense. Putting those two on a par disguises the fact that for there to be revenue (dollars coming back) there first has to be an expense. It is a sequential process and the sequence is important, even if some people are unaware that a proper sequence even exists.
    It should be noted that this sequential process only applies to the national corporation which issues its own currency. States are in another situation. States have to get income, either by collecting taxes and fees or by borrowing from banks or getting federal grants, before they can spend. Congress is different. Congress spends dollars into existence. If Congress doesn't spend, nobody gets. The Congress can authorize the Treasury to distribute dollars to banks as loans or grants and they may call it something else, but it's an expense. The Treasury laundering dollars through the Fed and then borrowing them back via bonds is just a circuitous expense. Again, they can call it a national debt, but what it really resembles is the marital obligations owed by husband to wife and vice versa. In a stable marriage these will cancel each other out over time, but will never disappear.
    Why is it that the Cons don't understand this? I suspect it is because they are people who simply don't get the sequential and alternating relationship of give and take. That may account for why so many of them don't have stable marriages either. They're "takers" and don't know what giving involves.
    Willard Romney clearly though that give and take referred to "orders." He gave orders and people were supposed to take them. And then he had the gall to look down on them as "takers."

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Thu May 30, 2013 at 02:29:30 PM PDT

    •  The fungibility of money says otherwise (0+ / 0-)

      A tax cut of $1000 is economically equivalent to a check from the Treasury for $1000, once all is added up.  If I get that and you don't, I have an extra $1000, and you don't.  What's different is our perception--- it's not a handout, we tell ourselves, we're not dependent, we tell ourselves, "I didn't get any help", and so on.

      Also, a large amount of tax credits and deductions have been paid through withholding, and are disbursed as a refund.  So the sequence you mention is maintained in large part, in any case.

      Or am I missing something?

      Conservatives need to realize that their Silent Moral Majority is neither silent, nor moral, nor a majority.

      by nominalize on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:49:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  "Give unto Caesar the thinge that are Caesars." (0+ / 0-)

        This whole rigamarole of using our currency to reward and punish has got to stop. Dollars are a utility, a unit of measure, a tool. Doling them out and withholding them differentially to manipulate the populace, which is supposed to be served, is an abuse of authority. If people don't want to pay taxes, send dollars back as revenue to be counted and sent out again, they should simply not use them. They can, after all, rely on hand shakes and barter and company shares. And, indeed, an increasing number are working around the hassle of Congressional rationing of the currency -- which is over and above the shadow or underground economy that uses cash, but doesn't file reports with the IRS. The latter is now estimated to account for 18% of GDP. Which is not as "bad" as the Greeks' shadow of 40% or Italy's 30%.  The banksters and bean counters who are trying to not just monitor exchange and trade but control its flow are undermining their own intent by prompting this evasion of monitoring.
        Edgar Feige, whose been trying to track the shadow economy for many decades by following things like the use of cash for various kinds of transactions, not only asserts that, contrary to all predictions, more and more cash is in use, but that the numbers suggest a real unemployment rate closer to 5%. While this is good news for people, if it is true, it means much of the economic data collection is getting more and more unreliable and people trying to make adjustments to the economy are doing it blind.
        Our data collection more and more resembles the medieval counting of angels dancing on heads of pins.

        We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

        by hannah on Fri May 31, 2013 at 04:33:35 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Hardly a rigamarole (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          socindemsclothing
          This whole rigamarole of using our currency to reward and punish has got to stop.
          Governments find it easier to affect public policy by nudging individuals via allocations or tax breaks than by simple coercion via mandates or regulations.  

          For instance, governments with extremely low birth rates tend to be very generous towards people with children, in the hopes of granting an incentive to have more.  The alternatives are: Force people to have children, or do nothing about the extremely low birth rate.

          The same goes for other examples, in business, home-ownership, etc.  You might find it unnecessarily complicated, but there is a purpose behind it.  

           

          Conservatives need to realize that their Silent Moral Majority is neither silent, nor moral, nor a majority.

          by nominalize on Fri May 31, 2013 at 07:54:32 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  The agents of government, to my way of (0+ / 0-)

            thinking, have no business directing the behavior of the individual persons who govern. The agents of government  are to serve and manage our common assets. They are not to be a secular moral force to either bribe or coerce.
            That governments are organized to rule is, of course, the Cons' assumption. Progressives are committed to individuals ruling themselves. Only those who offend, not just be words, but by deeds, are subject to restraint.
            Of course, if one proceeds from the notion that public corporations are organized to coerce, then, in the interest of liberty, the use of force needs to be minimized.

            We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

            by hannah on Fri May 31, 2013 at 10:19:27 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Bring back those types of shelters for the rich (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    thestructureguy, dfarrah

    that were eliminated in the 86TRA, that incentivized domestic investment. And while were at it, bring back the 70% top rate, that made those shelters work.

    .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Thu May 30, 2013 at 03:02:28 PM PDT

  •  Repugs will completely ignore this and Dems (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    socindemsclothing

    will half-heartedly squawk about it for a week or so and that will be that.  Every Dem SHOULD talk about this at length every time they're near a microphone and/or in front of a TV camera from now until November 2014.  But we don't know how to market/message.

  •  Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! (said a wise man) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Meteor Blades

  •  Not sure that's the whole story. (0+ / 0-)
    It's not hard to figure out why. Dumping most of these breaks would mean raising almost everyone's tax bills.
    A lot of these deductions also have their own constituencies fighting to keep the deductions intact.

    Having said that,  I don't have a problem with the charitable deduction.

  •  I don't care how you structure the tax system as (0+ / 0-)

    long as the money in the pockets of the 1 percent end up in my pocket.  

    Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    by thestructureguy on Thu May 30, 2013 at 04:51:07 PM PDT

  •  That's actually a lot less than I would expect, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WillR, hmi, Cassandra77

    considering how much of the taxable income is earned by the top 20% of earners, and how that report defines "expenditures". Specifically, tax deductions are counted as expenditures.  

    The authors engage in a little bit of fiction: they presume that

    a) There is a natrual tax rate, and
    b) it is the rate before, not after, a host of available tax deductions.

    Consider this: The top 1% of earners earn about 24% of all the income earned.

    By the way: the single most represented profession in that 1% is doctors.  Makes you wonder why we could go through so much health care reform and never touch on things that might actually address that issue.

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:10:27 PM PDT

  •  I'm shocked! Shocked I say! (0+ / 0-)

    I would never in a million years guess that the wealthy benefit the most from government spending.
    [/snark]

    “Wall Street had been doing business with pieces of paper; and now someone asked for a dollar, and it was discovered that the dollar had been mislaid.” ― Upton Sinclair

    by gjohnsit on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:30:59 PM PDT

  •  I Have The Perfect Flat Tax (0+ / 0-)

    The first X-amount everyone makes is not taxable with "X" being $100 more than I make.

    That works for me.

    "Look here," he was yelling. "Look here, the bunglers—"

    by The Lone Apple on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:51:29 PM PDT

  •  That report is fascinating. Who would (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    socindemsclothing

    Have thought that the government considers  tax free corporate health plans as an employee benefit, not an employer benefit.  Why am I not surprised that the CBO fails to explain the true inequality inherent in these 10 tax expenditures.  Why am I not surprised that there are Americans who still believe that the poorest of the poor in America are getting some kind of handout or special gift because they don't earn enough to justify paying federal income tax?

    When the preferential tax rates on capital gains for the wealthy is equal to earned income tax credits for the poor something truly stinks.

  •  Just reread Grapes of Wrath (0+ / 0-)

    Found it pertinent to today a few ways:
    One of those is that people like to dump on the poor...the down and out...probably because they know that there but for the grace of luck or birth or whatever...

    But it also shows how humans can and do cooperate successfully even or especially when they under great duress.

    Cooperation rather than Competition was a Steinbeck theme that is also on the rise again today with Gar Alperovitz &  Mondragon  etc.   Maybe when wealth gets so overweighted to the top...we begin to think about it more.

    “... there is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

    by leema on Thu May 30, 2013 at 06:54:26 PM PDT

  •  Of course, we have to confess that this sort... (0+ / 0-)

    ...of thing is very popular here.

    There is a car company owned by a billionaire that makes electric cars for, um, billionaires and millionaires.

    It's called the Tesla electric car.

    You can get lots of applause here, using servers that mostly run on coal, and (fracked) gas for an absurd claim that the manufacture of a few thousand of these toxic nightmares for, um, again, millionaires and billionaires is a real blow against climate change.

    If I recall correctly, there was endless cheering here for throwing government money to a billionaire so he could continue to make cars for, um, billionaires and millionaires, a few thousand of them, this on a planet with over a billion cars, and two billion people who have never seen, never mind operated, a flush toilet.

    Are we now claiming that subsidizing billionaires making products for millionaires and billionaires exclusively is, um, questionable?

    As for the effect of the grand success of the Tesla electric car company there's noise in a place called the "scientific literature" that, um, the scientific literature that, um, lithium batteries could, um, be bad for you:

    Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (10), pp 5495–5503: Potential Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Rechargeable Lithium Batteries in Electronic Waste

    But we don't care, because, um the Tesla Car will save humanity, we, um, think.

    February 2013, March 2013 and, as now seems likely, May 2013 are each the worst months ever recorded at Mauna Loa when compared to the same year of the previous year for increases in dangerous fossil fuel waste in the planetary atmosphere.

    2012 was the second worst year ever recorded over all, after 1998, the year that Joe Romm, anti-nuke, was running the climate office.

    The year to date in 1998 showed an average increase (measured weekly) over 1997 of 2.30 ppm.

    The year to date in 2013 - same calculation - shows an increase of 2.74 ppm.

    I'm so glad we fought so hard for the Tesla cars, because, difficult to imagine, things could have been worse.

    By the way, in California, who gets the most tax breaks for installing solar cells - which the New York Times reported yesterday are failing at wholly unexpected rates and transforming into toxic electronic waste - billionaires and millionaires living in McMansions in gated communities or, um, farm workers picking artichokes and strawberries?

    It never ceases to amaze that the people who engineer these sorts of things complain the loudest about their results.

    Have a wonderful Friday and a great weekend.

  •  informative thank you (0+ / 0-)

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Fri May 31, 2013 at 06:17:14 AM PDT

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