It’s been said before, and I’ll reiterate it now, that if you want to reduce the amount of influence that money and special interests have over the federal government, then you need to reduce the amount of power that Washington wields. Without the power, the politicians have nothing to sell.
In that vein, Jon Henke takes a look at how politicians dole out tax breaks as a means of garnering the favor (or repaying past favors) of special interests.
I favor tax cuts, but – unlike Milton Friedman – I don’t favor “any tax cut, under any circumstances, in any way, in any form, whatsoever“. There are a variety of reasons why I don’t, among them the fact that many tax breaks are subject to the problems outlined by Public Choice Theory – i.e., they incentivize corruption, bribery and the misallocation (deadweight loss) of resources, as politicians seek their own benefit and private interests expend resources to help them do so.
As far as it goes, this is right on. Although I think what Friedman was commenting upon was purely as a matter of tax policy, Jon is correct that targeted tax breaks, just like targeted tax impositions, have distorting effects on the market. Law makers are undeniably aware of such effects as evidenced, for example, by laws creating “sin taxes” (designed to curb an undesired behavior), and enviro tax credits (designed to encourage desired behavior). But, just as Jon notes, “targeted” means that politicians are in charge of deciding who gets what. When a reduction of tax liability is on the table, there is the demonstrable danger that only certain politically favored groups will benefit while others are forced to shoulder more of the burden.
Where Jon misses slightly, IMHO, is in concentrating too much on the “breaks” part of the equation and not enough on the “tax” side of it. Take a look at an example he provides regarding tax breaks:
Generous tax breaks given to companies that threaten to take their business elsewhere are coming under increasing scrutiny from state and local officials who say taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth.
Critics say the tax breaks and other financial incentives have gotten out of hand, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and doing little for the economy. [...] Academics say there is little evidence to show that tax breaks have a lasting effect on a local economy.
Is this necessarily a market-distorting tax break? It’s hard to say for sure, but if the breaks are targeted to just a few companies, while others are still burdened with the tax, then it probably is. However, is it really the “break” that’s doing the distorting, or the tax?
Take another example, from the turn of last century:
At the turn of the 20th century, most American companies were incorporated in the state of New Jersey. Today, of course, public companies are typically chartered in Delaware.
How did New Jersey lose the valuable corporate charter business to its southern neighbor? As New Jersey’s governor, Woodrow Wilson led a crusade to “trust bust” big businesses through the state’s unique position as the incorporation state of choice. Predictably, however, businesses chafed at the new restrictions and moved to Delaware, which had incorporation laws identical to New Jersey’s old regime. Today, Delaware’s low taxes are due in part to Wilson’s folly; the state earns over 40 percent of its general revenues from incorporation fees.
In more recent times, during the governorship of Pete du Pont, a change in banking policy resulted in Delaware adding another jewel to its crown as a business capital for the world:
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the time was the result of du Pont’s response to the desire of a couple of New York banks to relocate their credit card business to a more convivial business location. Immediately recognizing the opportunity to broaden the economic base of the state, du Pont used his considerable powers of persuasion to make the deal. With the cooperation of the leadership of both parties and many others in state and local government, and working against a deadline, the Financial Center Development Act was passed, effective June 1, 1981. Intended to attract 2 banks that would hire at least 1,000 employees, it actually brought over 30 banks to the state and created some 43,000 new finance related jobs.
Although these business-friendly Delaware policies were not about tax breaks per se, they had generally the same effect as taxes. If those policies had been targeted to favor just a certain few favored interests, they would not have had anywhere near the same positive results. Even with the example involving the Financial Center Development Act, which was initially meant to attract just two institutions to the State, the general application of the policy turned Delaware into the credit card capital of the world.
None of this is meant to take away from Jon’s point that tax breaks are as liable to being used to reward political allies as tax levies are to punished disfavored ones (which, of course, are also a sop to favored interests). But I think a distinction is needed between creating general tax incentives that attract business and/or citizens, and targeted tax policies that are merely intended as vote-buying behavior. In fact, Jon writes that:
The problem here is not tax cuts in general, which would surely have a positive effect on local economies, but tax cuts given to specific, well-funded interests. Such tax cuts create a distortive effect on economic incentives.
In other words, the problem is that governments have the plenary power to tax at all, and more importantly that they can specifically tax anyone or anything. If governments were constrained to either levying or repealing taxes that apply to all persons/industries equally, then there would be no favors to dole out. Instead, a tax break for one “well-funded” interest would be a break for all similar businesses. In the example that Jon highlighted regarding businesses threatening to leave because of the costs of operating in a certain location, the history of Delaware shows how the government’s answer to such threats can be beneficial for all, without the need to single out any particular interest.
Of course, some will say that these example merely illuminate why governments should not be allowed to tax in the first place. I disagree primarily because I’m not very convinced that a place run entirely on private contract would have as much wealth-producing potential as a place with a minimal amount of public services. Those public services need to be paid for through taxes, so the government having such power is a necessary evil in my opinion.
But that does not mean that such power can’t be limited in order to avoid exactly the sorts of abuses that Jon describes. It just seems to me that the way to accomplish that is by making the power to tax a much blunter instrument. When entire industries are affected instead of merely a few favored or disfavored constituents, competition between tax jurisdictions will decide which policies are best. Just ask Delaware.
Technorati Tags: tax policy, economics, Delaware history, corporate law, incorporation, banking regulation, Pierre S. du Pont IV, New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, tax breaks, tax subsidies
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