I generally identify three big problems with the tax code.
- High tax rates on productive behavior.
- Double taxation of saving and investment.
- Loopholes to encourage inefficiency.
But it may be time to include another item. Politicians have learned how to use “refundability” as a tool to redistribute income through the tax system.
A “refundable” provision gives money to selected people who file tax returns, even if they don’t pay any tax.
In other words, refundability isn’t the same as over-paying your taxes and then getting your money back after filing a tax return.
With refundability, you get money even if your tax liability is zero.
For instance, the “earned income tax credit” is now the federal government’s fastest-growing redistribution program and 88 percent of the money is actually spending rather than a tax break.
Writing about this issue back in 2010, I referred to refundability as a form of political alchemy. Politicians can increase spending but pretend they are cutting taxes.
The most-recent example is a proposal by Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), and I’ve highlighted the relevant portions of their press release.
Create a New Young Child Tax Credit: Create a new tax credit of $2,500 per child for children up to age six. The first $1,500 would be fully refundable, meaning that every taxpayer receives that amount regardless of income (up to the current law phase-out levels of $200,000 for individuals and $400,000 for couples). The next $1,000 would phase in at a 15 percent rate beginning at the first dollar of income, and begin phasing down at current law income thresholds. Reform Existing Child Tax Credit: Make critical reforms to a key measure that provides a $2,000 credit per child for children from age six up to age 17, including eliminating the current $1,400 cap on refundability, making the first $1,000 per child fully refundable regardless of income up to the phase-out threshold, and making the next $1,000 per child phase-in at a 15 percent rate starting at the first dollar income.
To make matters worse, Romney and Bennet want to finance this additional redistribution spending by imposing capital gains taxes on the assets of dead people.
I’ll close with a comment about political honesty and transparency.
If Senators Romney and Bennet proposed to have the government send checks to people for having kids, I wouldn’t support that idea. But I would give them credit for introducing an honest proposal for more redistribution.
But they instead chose to mask their agenda by laundering additional redistribution through the tax code.
The bottom line is that we already have record amounts of redistribution in America. And refundable provisions of the internal revenue code are the fastest-growing type of redistribution.
Adding to the problem is not a good idea.