Posts tagged with: Public economics

parsonage (1)A federal court of appeals has rejected an atheist group’s lawsuit seeking to strike down a 60-year-old tax provision protecting ministers, notes the Becket Fund. The ruling allows ministers of all faiths to continue receiving housing allowances. “This is a great victory for separation of church and state,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund of Religious Liberty. “When a group of atheists tries to cajole the IRS into raising taxes on churches, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows. The court was right to send them packing.”

Aside from the question of constitutionality, the clergy exemption raises a question that many people — whether religious or not — are likely to be wondering: Why exactly do ministers receive a tax exemption for their housing allowance?

To answer the question we must first consider how taxation of church property, including clergy housing, has historically been considered.
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basic-income-guaranteed-and-minimum-wage_thumb1For decades conservatives and libertarians have pondered ways to replace the defective American welfare state. One of the boldest and most controversial ideas is to simply give everyone a basic guaranteed income. Instead a variety of ad hoc welfare programs, people would simply be given cash.

Matt Zwolinski outlines an example proposal that includes an unconditional cash grant — no strings attached. Just give people cash and leave them “free to spend it, or save it, in whatever way they choose.” Zwolinski outlines a number of benefits we could gain by replacing welfare programs with a guaranteed income.
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What just happened with Obamacarehealthcaregov site?

In a two-to-one decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dealt a serious blow to Obamacare by ruling the government may not provide subsidies to encourage people to buy health insurance on the new marketplaces run by the federal government.

What did the court decide?

Section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code, enacted as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) makes tax credits available as a form of subsidy to individuals who purchase health insurance through marketplaces—known as “American Health Benefit Exchanges,” or “Exchanges” for short.

This provision authorized low-income Americans to receive tax credits for insurance purchased on an Exchange established by one of the fifty states or the District of Columbia. (The credits were for household incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line.) But the Internal Revenue Service interpreted the wording broadly to authorize the subsidy also for insurance purchased on an Exchange established by the federal government.

The court ruled that a federal Exchange is not an “Exchange established by the State,” and section 36B does not authorize the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased on federal Exchanges.

Can you explain that without the legalese?
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Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 24, 2014
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cittfcSpeaking of Thomas Piketty, here’s a very helpful and revealing interview with Matthew Yglesias, “Thomas Piketty doesn’t hate capitalism: He just wants to fix it.” (HT: PEG)

A few highlights with some comment:

On the need for a historical perspective in economics:

Thomas Piketty: … It’s not only economists’ fault. Historians and sociologists are too often are leaving the study of economic issues to economists. Sometimes nobody does it.
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29taxes.2-500In an attempt to trap Jesus, some Pharisees and Herodians asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” In response, Jesus said,

“Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Pharisees and Herodians “marveled” at Jesus answer, but had they asked an agent of the Roman IRS they likely would have been given a similar answer.

Governments have always had to contend with citizens who make what are considered “frivolous tax arguments” to avoid complying with tax laws. Such arguments rarely work (it’s usually not effective to try to present a creative interpretation of tax law to the people who interpret tax laws) but people keep trying.

The IRS has an entire list of responses to the most common frivolous tax arguments. Here are four of my favorites:
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Over at the IFWE blog, Elise Amyx takes a look at Brian Fikkert’s argument about the origins of the modern American welfare state:

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”

While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.”
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Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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My friend John Teevan of Grace College sends out a monthly newsletter, “Economic Prospect.” He passes along this in the current edition:

I found this note from a newly retired accountant (age 66) who has not gone on social security yet. His income as a part-time accountant in his town was $60,000.

“My income is $60,000 and my IRS taxes are 10,000, my FICA deduction is $8,000, my state income tax is $2500, and my property tax is $6000. So I pay a total of $26,500 in taxes leaving me $33,500.

However, I have additional costs that I would like to (but can’t) deduct from my income. As I watch ‘government accounting’ I realize that these should be considered real costs.

I have saved $200,000 and invested the money in bonds earning 1% ($2000).

I could have invested that money in CDs earning 5% (10,000), but as the Fed has lowered the interest rate the cost to me is the difference: $8000.

In addition I am now entitled to social security and at my level of income over the years I would have received $28,000 this year, but I have chosen not to take Social Security saving Uncle Sam that money.

So I have contributed a total of $36,000 to Uncle Sam in foregone interest and foregone Social Security payments. Who got the benefit of that $36,000?

Uncle Sam; not me.

So if I add up my total contributions to the government this past year I paid $26,500 in taxes and paid $36,000 in lost income. These two come to $62,500…more than the $60,000 I earned.

While I enjoy my new job, when I think about this, I start to feel like one of Pharaoh’s slaves toiling to roll immense stones up from the Nile to his pyramid.”

Send John a message if you’d like to be added to his “Economic Prospect” list. It’s always a great read.

As occurrences of preventable diseases increase and the debt deepens, some look to “sin taxes” as an easy to solution to both problems. Thirty-three states have even gone as far as to implement a soda tax in an attempt to curb obesity. At first glance sin taxes seem to be a good idea, but they can actually cause more harm than good.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just published a working paper on sin taxes and their negative effects. The study was conducted by Adam J. Hoffer, William F. Shughart II, and Michael D. Thomas.  They have found that taxing specific goods or services based on perceived “negative externalities their consumption generates”  is an ineffective source of revenue.

The authors summarize their findings in a recent U.S. News and World Report op-ed:

  • Lobbying: Millions of dollars have been spent to thwart taxation of the soft drink industry’s products and to prevent existing taxes from being raised. In 2009 alone, the industry spent more than $57 million on lobbying. Such lobbying expenditures are socially wasteful. How much money is now being spent attempting to block Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on 32-ounce soft drink containers?
  • Regressive taxation: Far from being income-neutral, such taxes are regressive because their burden falls most heavily on people with the fewest options—the poor. Low-income households who continue to purchase goods that are sin-taxed will have even less money left over to spend on other items.
  • Revenue not used for its intended purpose: Sin taxes raise revenue by transferring money from those who continue to buy the taxed items straight to the coffers of the public treasury. Taxing sin might be reasonable if the revenue from these taxes was used to address the underlying negative consequences of consumption. In the real world, however, money generated by the tobacco settlement financed general spending and not smoking cessation programs or treating smoking-related diseases. The social security trust fund has been replaced with treasury IOUs, and the highway trust fund filled by taxing the sin of driving will fail to meet obligations as early as 2015.

You can read the entire working paper, “Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and the Creation of the Sindustry” here. Acton president and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico has also written about the consequences of sin taxes. You can read his “Hate the Sin, Tax the Sinner?” here.

Is spartan austerity driving us over the fiscal cliff?

The latest step in the budget dance between House Republicans and the White House has to do with where tax increases (or revenue increases in general, depending on what is called what) fit with a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” As Napp Nazworth reports, President Obama has apparently delivered an ultimatum: “there would be no agreement to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ unless tax rates are increased on those making more than $250,000 per year.”

On one level it seems reasonable to talk about addressing a deficit from both directions: cutting spending and raising revenue. But as Ray Nothstine put it so well earlier this week, without some structural (and cultural) changes to the way Congress works, it would be insane to think that giving politicians more money is going to change how they spend it. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Historically “politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in – and a little bit more.” Without some kind of balanced budget agreement, something with real teeth, why should we think things will be any different this time around? (I’ve talked about a more promising “both/and” budget solution before.) As Ray and I have concluded elsewhere, “In the case of the federal spending, the government has proved to be untrustworthy with very much. It’s time to see if the politicians in Washington can learn to be trustworthy with less.”
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This week I wrote about the dignity of paying taxes (among other ways of contributing to social flourishing). But as we know, not all taxes are created equal. Indeed, as Antony Davies and James Harrigan write this week at US News, “Politicians are in the business of buying votes with tax breaks and sweetheart deals for their preferred constituencies, and they have to offset these deals by taxing disfavored constituencies at increased rates. The longer this game is played, the more convoluted the tax code becomes.”

As I argued previously at Capital Commentary, this amounts to a kind of back door social engineering (as well as playing favorites, picking winners, and so on). The fundamental purpose of taxation is not to buy votes and give preference to lobbies and special constituencies. Instead, as I write, “The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities.” Such a view is ultimately at odds with a Utilitarian theory, which considers taxation to be a tool rather used “to maximize overall well-being in society.” Matthew Weinzierl argues for greater attention to a theory of Equal Sacrifice, which on Weinzierl’s account “assumes individuals have the first claim to their output, and that they voluntarily agree to form societies that collect taxes in order to purchase public goods.”
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