July/August 2011 20,000 Leagues Under the State

Beneath the surface of American government lurks a system of social programs for the wealthy that is consuming the federal budget. It’s time for progressives to do battle with tax expenditures.

By Suzanne Mettler

Photo: Mark Thomas

Growing up during the Depression, Sam Marchesi had to drop out of school after eighth grade—soon after his father died—to work and help support his mother and his seven younger siblings. When World War II began, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Pacific. Upon his return, he took advantage of the educational and training benefits of the G.I. Bill, joining the 52 percent of fifteen million returning veterans who did so. He acquired vocational training in architectural drawing and on-the-job training as an apprentice carpenter, skills that enabled him to become a successful custom builder. When I interviewed Marchesi in the late 1990s for a study of the G.I. Bill, he reflected, “I think it was a great thing that the government did, to give us this opportunity to pick up where we left off. We had to face the world. We had to make a living. Thank God the government had the doors open for us.”

The G.I. Bill’s transformative effects on the lives of men like Marchesi have become legendary, but just as striking in hindsight is the clearly visible role that government played as the source of those opportunities. In more recent decades the federal government has expanded its efforts to provide college aid to all Americans. But instead of delivering a straight benefit, like the original G.I. Bill, most of that aid has come through roundabout means, like payments to banks to provide students with loans, or loopholes in the tax code to subsidize families to save for or pay for college. Generations of Americans have now graduated with the help of these costly-though-indirect programs. Yet over the years, in conversations with my own students, I’ve noticed that, unlike Marchesi, few of them recognize that they’ve received benefits from government. It’s hard to imagine them reflecting on their HOPE Tax Credits, or their 529 and Coverdell college savings plans and saying, “Thank God the government had the door open for us.”

And it’s not just my students. In 2008, I conducted a survey to gauge the degree to which Americans who had received various government social benefits recognized them as such. Not surprisingly, most beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill who took part in the survey acknowledged that they had been given a leg up by the government. But of the respondents who made use of tax-advantaged Coverdell or 529 education savings accounts, 64 percent said they had “not used a government social program,” as did 59.6 percent of those who used HOPE and Lifelong Learning Tax Credits.

This disparity has far less to do with some inherent difference in character between the Greatest Generation and their grandchildren than it does with a fundamental change that has taken place in the relationship between citizens and the welfare state. Over the past few decades, while many standard social benefits have atrophied in real value, those packaged as “tax expenditures”—the formal name in federal budgeting parlance for subsidies provided through the tax code—have flourished, growing rapidly in value and number. These tax expenditures for individuals and families represented 7.4 percent of GDP in 2008, up from 4.2 percent in 1976. (Tax expenditures for business, such as those for the oil and gas industry, made up another 1 percent.) By way of comparison, Social Security amounted to 4.3 percent of GDP in 2008; Medicare and Medicaid, 4.1 percent.

These social tax expenditures comprise a major part of what I call the “submerged state.” By that I mean that they are public policies designed in a manner that channels resources to citizens indirectly, through subsidies for private activities, rather than directly through payments or services from government. As a result, they are largely hidden from the public: through them, government benefits people, providing them with opportunities and relieving their financial burdens, often without them even knowing it. Appearing to emanate from the private sector, such policies obscure the role of the government and exaggerate that of the market.

What’s more, the vast majority of Americans garner only modest assistance, if any, from the submerged state. In the case of social tax expenditures, that’s because the most expensive of these subsidies shower their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans.

The great drama now unfolding in Washington over how to deal with the government’s deficits and growing debt tends to be framed in conventional ways. Conservatives aim to use this moment to reduce the size of “big government” while liberals find themselves on the defensive, hoping to limit the damage and furious at the president and Democratic congressional leaders for not fighting harder. But these negotiations can actually be an important opportunity to advance progressive goals, if—as the Bowles-Simpson Commission and others have recommended— we scale back tax expenditures. Doing so could improve the nation’s balance sheet and restore some fairness to the tax code. Even more, it could address the real if inchoate sense many Americans have that government has been “growing,” as measured by deficits and new programs, but in ways that don’t benefit them. Saying good-bye to the submerged state could reconnect citizens with government and reinvigorate our democracy.

The clarion call of the conservative approach to governance that has dominated American politics for much of the past thirty years has been the demand to rein in the welfare state. Although few provisions have suffered outright termination, average benefit rates for several traditional and longstanding policies—such as welfare, unemployment insurance, Pell grants, and food stamps—have deteriorated in real terms, and in some cases the scope of coverage has atrophied. As deficit hawks continually remind us, costs have grown for the “entitlement” programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid— owing to inflation-protected benefits, soaring health care costs, and the sheer numbers of Americans aging into eligibility. Generally ignored, however, have been the rapidly escalating costs of tax expenditures for social welfare purposes—the sine qua non of our submerged state.

Known in informal parlance as “tax breaks” or “tax loopholes,”
these policies permit households to pay less in taxes if they are involved in some kind of activity or belong to a class that policymakers deem worthy of public support. From the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 until 2010, the number of such tax subsidies had increased by 86 percent, from 81 to 151. As of 2011, the federal government annually doles out more than $1 trillion in these tax expenditures.

Understandably, to many people tax breaks may seem substantively different from traditional social benefits. The latter are funded by tax revenues collected from the public and delivered through checks or services to particular citizens, whereas tax breaks function by allowing recipients themselves simply to keep more money, reducing the amount that they would otherwise owe. Traditional social programs also require the development of a bureaucracy to determine eligibility and deliver benefits, whereas the tax expenditures do not. For these reasons, many libertarians and conservatives object to the term “tax expenditures.” While conceding that tax loopholes constitute government intervention in the market, such thinkers equate closing them with raising taxes, unless the changes are offset by lower rates.

Suzanne Mettler is Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University. Her latest book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, will be published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.


  • Pat on June 28, 2011 2:53 PM:

    Excellent explanation of which most citizens ought to be cognizant, but few are. Thanks so much for your astute observations and perspectives.

  • Christina Morris on June 28, 2011 2:58 PM:

    Making the government invisible is a major part of what Republicans are aiming for with their whole drown the Government in a bathtub mentality. If people don't see/feel the Government when its doing work, then why support it, and the Tea Party is born.

    One major issue with spending via tax expenditures is a complete lack on accountability, of being able to trace if its actually working. Then again, that is one of the selling points, if you give money away to Exxon via tax expenditures, you can't look into what they really do with the money. Where as if you actually give money to a University to do research in alternative energy, you can judge if it was successful or not.

  • Ed on June 28, 2011 3:21 PM:

    With respect, Ms. Mettler, an elected leader would have to be much more convincing in arguing this.

  • Alan on June 28, 2011 3:34 PM:

    The university I worked for before retiring, in setting tuition and fees did an analysis of the typical tax credits available to students and their families and explicitly increased charges to capture the credits. In talks with other universities, it was clear that this was standard practice.

    Only if one has evidence that the increased charges improved the education of the students can one say their was an educational benefit. My anecdotal evidence from one institution would conclude that most of the benefit of the tax credits went elsewhere than to the benefit of the students.

  • Susan Hecht on June 28, 2011 3:39 PM:

    Thank you for this excellent article—it's important reading for anyone interested in economic fairness.

    I'm also worried that the invisibility of benefits to the affluent work to maintain racial wealth inequality and racism. Policies in the 1950s that supported home ownership and education were often applied along clearly racial lines, enabling the building of wealth in white communities while excluding others, and over generations that inequality of opportunity to build wealth has been magnified.

    Today's policies enable predominantly white, affluent people to protect and further build wealth under the fiction that they've done it all themselves, while condemning the poor and people of color for needing undeserved hand-outs.

  • Robert on June 28, 2011 3:45 PM:

    A cleverly written but ultimately disingenuous and demagogic article. You betray yourself by using the quote from Sen. Long about "government money." Of course, a Democrat will view it as the government's money. But in fact it is the money that was earned by individuals. It is the government that should have to justify every penny it takes from individuals; the individuals have no need to justify keeping their money at all (unless you do assume that all money in America actually belongs to the government, as Sen. Long's statement seems to suggest). Thus, the so-called tax "expenditures" are mostly just examples of the government not taking your money away from you (except of course for the earned income tax credit and student loans, in which case the government actually does take away from someone else in order to give something to the recipient). I have no qualms about saying I receive nothing from government social programs--and strongly resisting any changes that would, in the end, force me to pay higher taxes than I do now. No matter how you spin the description, such a change would indeed be a tax increase.

  • dbs on June 28, 2011 3:57 PM:

    The author misses huge differences between GI Bill recipients and today's "college" students
    1. GI's did something to deserve this benefit: They put their lives on the line for their country
    2. They had spent several years in the Army and were more mature than today's recipients
    3. They did "expect" these benefits as their right. They had lived through the Depression and knew they were getting an opportunity
    4. Many were already family men and used the benefits to study something useful and productive to themselves and society -- not subsidized gender studies

  • dbs on June 28, 2011 4:02 PM:

    The author misses huge differences between GI Bill recipients and today's "college" students
    1. GI's did something to deserve this benefit: They put their lives on the line for their country
    2. They had spent several years in the Army and were more mature than today's recipients
    3. They did NOT "expect" these benefits as their right. They had lived through the Depression and knew they were getting an opportunity
    4. Many were already family men and used the benefits to study something useful and productive to themselves and society -- not subsidized gender studies

  • Andy Martin on June 28, 2011 4:14 PM:

    Nice try. Next thing the author (statists and democrats), will posit is that none of the money an individual earns is theirs, only what the government allows you to keep, ie Mortgage deduction as social spending.

  • Robert on June 28, 2011 4:16 PM:

    Only a Beltway liberal could use the phrase "tax expenditure" with a straight face. Letting someone keep the money they earn rather than taking it from them in tax isn't an expense. It's revenue forgone.

    Unless you presume that our government, by default, is the true earner of all national income. Then yes, letting someone actually keep their income does become an expense.

    A fair tax code would benefit us all. Having some people pay more than others because of lobbying clout is manifestly unfair. But it's the Beltway gurus who draft tax codes running into the thousands of pages, full of sweetheart deals, "social policy", and hundreds of other gimmicks that make paying taxes a legal and administrative nightmare as well as a loss of your earnings.

    Be honest about the source of the problem. It's an over-mighty federal government being bossy and playing favorites.

  • wog on June 28, 2011 4:29 PM:

    I'm with Robert -- disingenuous to say the least; outright socialist to call it what it is. The entire premise of this article is that all of the wealth generated by hard working Americans is somehow owned by the government. And the government must spend it by not forcibly taking it from the most productive among us. Then it 'costs' everyone else in increased taxes? ...but the wealthy are already paying the bulk of the taxes so... wait, am I missing something? the target audience of this article seems to be the 48% of American workers who do not pay any taxes, or get back more than they pay through the EITC, so... what is the point?

  • winterhead on June 28, 2011 4:29 PM:

    Jesus, that is one long explaination. As a conservative I'll go with your "tax expenditure" definition. Your 3 big ones account for $340 Billion in deficit reduction. Simpson Bowles wanted to lower the top rate to 22%. No problem on my side. How about your's? Also we're running a $1.5 Trillion deficit. Where you going to get the other $1,200 Billion? PER YEAR?

  • dlo on June 28, 2011 4:46 PM:

    The gov't allows me to keep more of the money i've earned and you call that a gov't benefit.

    What a joke....and not even an original joke.

    What did obama say a few months ago in his big budget speech…”to reduce spending in the tax code”

    good luck peddling such nonsense.
    pure garbage.

  • pacraft35 on June 28, 2011 5:01 PM:

    I'm surprised. I just walked by a guy without taking any of his money. He didn't seem in the least grateful. Doesn't he realize that I could have taken part or all of his money? The fact that I didn't should fill him with an appreciation for my benevolence.

    Only a socialist thinks that letting someone keep more of the income they've earned is the same as giving someone money that has been taken from someone else.

  • John Davis on June 28, 2011 5:05 PM:

    Suzane, maybe you haven't noticed, but we actually have record numbers of people on welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.

    I'll all for eliminating the "submerged" benefits too.

    Frankly, we need to take a chain saw to the Federal budget and quit picking at it with tweezers.

  • Mark Crawford on June 28, 2011 5:09 PM:

    " tax breaks function by allowing recipients themselves simply to keep more money, reducing the amount that they would otherwise owe."
    Do you realize how riduclous this persistent argument from the left really is? Oh please Mr Taxman - take more money from me because you have a right to do so and spend it on others. Good grief - no wonder this country is so screwed up with thinking like yours. Following this logic, fundamental fairness will only be achieved when all prices and services are based on base income. Make more money - pay more for groceries so others can pay less. Make more money - pay more for electricity so others can pay less. and so on. I love you redistributionists and your hypocracy. Let me call your bluff - my son has no car and makes minimal wages as a server. I want every one of you progressives to donate every car beyond 1 to my son and others like him. My guess is that won't happen. You are quite happy to take other peoples money, but never your own. And before you call me heartless, ask yourself how much you contribute from your personal wealth to charities as opposed to thinking the government should take care of it. My guess is that most of you are in the Biden/Obama 2-4% range. And finally, if you are going to slam me as many of you will, at least have the temerity to use your real name instead of an alias that you can hide behind.

  • Ellen K on June 28, 2011 5:33 PM:

    How much of our submerged tax revenue goes to the government without ever being returned to the states? Consider the price of gas. While liberals rail about pricing, they ignore the various local, state and Federal taxes that are imposed at the pump in direct relation to the cost of the sale. And that doesn't take into account the many and varied transportation, storage, inventory and other taxes on oil as it is refined and transported. The one key fact that liberals all ignore is that any tax or any fee or any penalty levied against a company is paid for BY THE CONSUMER in the form of higher costs. Until liberals understand that, they will continue to bleat about raising taxes. And until the recipients of government largesse realize that it comes at a cost across the boad, nothing will change.

  • mnemos on June 28, 2011 6:26 PM:

    You might have missed something... It is conservatives who are lobbying for the flat tax which would get rid of all this "submerged state" that you are talking about. Progressives won't support a flat tax, though, since more of the lower middle class would start paying taxes, and thus have some interest in government efficiency. That will quickly lower support for progressive government. Thus the article needs a double-speak term: "tax expenditures". Take heart - there is a recognizable issue here, and it is being dealt with - it's just being addressed by conservatives who are more open and honest about it.

    Personally, that's not my position. I think some tax breaks are a good deal for the government, and that makes them acceptable. For example, a tax break for interest on the first $100K of a home mortgage would make sense to me. It's simple, serves a purpose of encouraging home ownership, without becoming a boondoggle on $1M mortgages or skewing the real estate market. Same thing has happened with FDIC which was supposed to cover the first $40k in an account but has gotten warped out of proportion by being raised to $250k - reducing large depositor oversight of banking. A good thing on one scale can be a bad thing on another.

  • Matt on June 28, 2011 8:14 PM:

    so you equate allowing someone to keep their own money by taking advantage of tax credits and other deductions with welfare? So if the government reduced tax rates to 5 per cent and I used the money I earned but didn't pay tax on to buy a car you would think I should thank the government for allowing me the opportunity to buy a car? What about the increase in tax revenue the government gets as a result of all these folks getting college educations and better jobs (well, before the screwed even that up). Your logic mystifies me.

  • Matt on June 28, 2011 8:21 PM:

    so you equate allowing someone to keep their own money by taking advantage of tax credits and other deductions with welfare? So if the government reduced tax rates to 5 per cent and I used the money I earned but didn't pay tax on to buy a car you would think I should thank the government for allowing me the opportunity to buy a car? What about the increase in tax revenue the government gets as a result of all these folks getting college educations and better jobs (well, before the screwed even that up). Your logic mystifies me.

    Should have read the comments first - wouldn't have wasted my time as others have said it better. Get a job Suzanne

  • EJM on June 28, 2011 8:48 PM:

    Why stop at just trying to get more gratitude for government largesse (i.e. for giving us back our own money after taking a nice cut)?

    Why not go all the way with the statists of the twentieth century "progressives" obviously admire? Like Mao, Castro, Mussolini, Hitler and Uncle Joe Stalin? All of these great leaders made sure that there was an active and well-promoted cult of personality, so that the peasants, i.e. people, directly thanked the Leader himself personally for anything and everything and every tender mercy or crumb granted by the Leader. You could have Obama Hope and Change stamps on every 529 or Coverdell credit application, and of course embossed on every IRS form, with a picture of the first family sent to everyone filling out their 1040, especially if they paid more than their assessed taxes by a voluntary contribution.

    Uh-uh, I wonder if the "progressives" realize this is sarcasm, or have now gotten a new "good" idea.

  • David on June 28, 2011 9:12 PM:

    I love it when statists talk about not taxing as a an expenditure as thouh all money is the governments which, by its good graces it allows us to keep a bit. What a crock. All money taxed is money confiscated.

  • crt on June 28, 2011 9:16 PM:

    Wow I get to keep some of the money I earned and I am to stupid to appreciate it...I should run out and buy her book to see what else I am missing.....

  • Lee Moore on June 28, 2011 9:31 PM:

    When I read this

    Beneath the surface of American government lurks a system of social programs for the wealthy that is consuming the federal budget

    just below the headline, I thought we'd be getting an expose of how state funding of colleges had created a glut of college professors, living leafy and expensive lives unjustified by a real market for their services. But apparently not.

    But to be fair, although the general thrust of the article is simply trying to frame the deficit debate in a liberal direction, there are several ggod points in there about why tax expenditures / tax reliefs targeted by politicians are a bad thing (the fact that they arise from politics, have a tendency to grow uncontrollably, suffer from indirectness and doubtful accuracy at hitting their desired targets etc.)

  • Rick on June 28, 2011 9:37 PM:

    "Tax expenditure" is another liberal new-speak term that has no place in rational discussion of taxes. So-called "tax expenditures" could be easily eliminated by getting rid of all the exclusions, deductions, credits, and other games that Congress loves to play with the tax code. A flat tax of 10% on all income, regardless of source, no deductions, exceptions, or exclusions, the same rate for everyone, would eliminate the problem that liberals created in the first place by gaming the tax code.

  • Lance on June 28, 2011 11:31 PM:

    Wow- this is flatly comical. All money belongs to the government, not the person who earned it, and any left the government does not take is a "tax expenditure." If only the government made fewer "tax expenditures" (that is took more of our money) we could pay for everything. Right now Federal expenditures are 25% of GDP. No tax scheme in US history has created Federal Revenues in excess of about 20% of GDP. No matter what title you use, there is no closing loopholes taxing the rich solution that will allow us to cover the existing tab, more or less the much larger tab coming as the baby boomers retire. Thinking up new words to hide your tax schemes and new language for your class warfare won't make your dream of a welfare state any more sustainable than it was in Greece.

  • Dean on June 28, 2011 11:53 PM:

    Comically socialist.
    1. WWII vets were drafted. Today's veterans are all volunteers.
    2. I worked one, sometimes two, part time jobs as a young man to make ends meet. Not so today, 15 bucks an hour to start at a BBQ joint to slice meat, benefits, and they will feed you twice a shift. There are always openings and the only folks continually working are folks working the position as a 2nd or 3rd part time job.
    3. Very little personal responsibility for one's plight anymore; govt programs make it to easy to blame the "man".

  • BCanuck on June 28, 2011 11:53 PM:

    I don't consider myself a progressive or a conservative but I think ALL 'tax expenditures' should be eliminated immediately. All means all. NO mortgage interest, no kids, education fees/tuition, spousal, old age related deductions, NOTHING!

    The government should be about providing services and paying for those services with taxes. With the submerged State it is impossible to have a debate between left and right. All the little favors to various lobbies and interest groups turns your typical politicians into a bootlicking hypocrite. Tax favours corrupt absolutely - both left and right.

    The tax code needs to be radically and permanently overhauled. It's has to be simplified drastically. Ideally, there would be ONE rate and ONE basic personal deduction. That's it. A politician could stand up and simply state what rate and what deduction they stand for. Progressives could ask for a 70% rate with a $20,000 personal deduction. Conservatives could stand up for a 10% rate with a $10,000 basic deduction. Moderates could split the difference and may the most popular compromise rule. This scheme would be extended to corporations: one rate, standardized deductions for all busineses of any size in all industries.

    All this would have to be locked in with a Constitutional Amendment otherwise the back-sliding would start immediately and the tax code would be thousands of pages again in no time.

  • cwgf on June 29, 2011 12:53 AM:

    "Inflation is not caused by the actions of private citizens, but by the government: by an artificial expansion of the money supply required to support deficit spending. No private embezzlers or bankrobbers in history have ever plundered people’s savings on a scale comparable to the plunder perpetrated by the fiscal policies of statist governments."-- Ayn Rand

  • zandru on June 29, 2011 1:06 AM:

    Man, there sure are a lot of reactionary trolls defending the bank accounts of the rich! Here's the deal: you get to pay more of YOUR money to the federal government, so the well-off can pay less of THEIRS - AND they get a bunch of YOUR money back.

    Unless some of you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet posting incognito, you're all being taken for a ride.

  • wbuden on June 29, 2011 3:26 AM:

    She is not saying you should be grateful to the government for not taking your money. She is saying you should be grateful to your fellow taxpayers who are paying more so that you can be paying less.

  • Rick on June 29, 2011 4:27 AM:

    @zandru & wbuden

    Then let's all pay the same amount. Every person, 1 equal share of the budget.

  • zandru on June 29, 2011 11:14 AM:

    @Rick thinks everyone should pay the "same amount" to the government. Fine.

    He makes $25,000 a year, which is good because he lives in Mommy's basement. I make $150,000 a year as CEO of a small company. We each pay $2500 in taxes: 10% for him and 1.7% for me. I like it!

    Or maybe by "equal", Rick means an equal percentage. Fine. He pays his $2,500, leaving him 22,500 to spend on videogames; I pay $15,000 and have $135,000 left over. A good deal for me, for sure!

    The civilized world long ago realized the benefits of progressive taxation: the more you make, the higher the marginal percentage you pay. It makes sense on at least two fronts: the more you have, the more you use the infrastructure of society to support and protect it; and the more you have, the more you can part with and still have more than other folks.

    The US has been devolving back to the 19th century and third world status. Tax policy has been a big part of it.

  • Jes Lookin on June 29, 2011 12:08 PM:

    The main problem is that the mythic 'tax break' social support is given away to institutions like banks and insurance corprocracies. So it benifits the wealthy with little (or abnoxious) results for regular people. To say the incredibly stupid and mismanaged 529 accounts are a 'benefit' is a great example... prove that it's anything but an annoying rip-off. Health reform - the same. 'Investment' reform - a joke.

  • CRA on June 29, 2011 2:18 PM:

    Conservative "all money belongs to the government" fearmongering about liberal views is incredibly disingenuous. There is no "tax expenditure" the elimination of which would drive ones' taxes above established rates. Established by our system of representative/democratic government, flawed though it is. Ignoring differences between tyranny, theft, and the rightful operation of OUR form of government is shameful.

    Finally, in what fantasy world does Mettler ask citizens to "thank" THIS republican democracy for not taking every penny? Too many of you wingnuts took this as an opportunity to vent, without clear reference to Mettler's arguments.

  • The_Overdog on June 29, 2011 3:25 PM:

    CRA, that there is no "tax expenditure" the elimination of which would drive ones' taxes above established rates." may be technically true, but since rates are variable over time(creation/expiration of the Bush tax cuts for example) is largely irrelvant.

    I don't see the social cuts vs tax expenditures to be a very difficult problem to solve though. Simply add it as a line item to everyone's tax form. should be pretty easy to calculate. then the data miners could simply report on it.

  • beejeez on June 29, 2011 5:22 PM:

    Jesus, federal taxes are lower than they have been in generations and people have never whined louder about them, with Wall Street providing plenty of amplifiers.

    Look, hardly anybody in America has gotten what he has without government help, from schools to highways, cops to military defense. Shut up, pay your share and let the next generation have a crack at a decent life, too.

  • Jon on June 30, 2011 7:49 AM:

    It seems that many conservative commenters are missing the essential point of the article. Yes, the author probably has a liberal bias, but that too is not the main point. To the degree that there exists (or should exist) a federal government, and taxes are above zero to support the infrastructure and services that it provides, selective tax breaks redistribute benefits in much the same way that direct spending does, but does so less transparently.

    Yes, giving a tax break to a selective constituency is "letting them keep money that they've earned," but not uniformly across the taxpaying citizenry. Many government programs do the same thing, namely provide benefits to a selective constituency. Even if your political beliefs are that the overall government should be small, the author's point is that you should prefer a flatter uniform tax and transparent direct spending over more nebulous tax breaks to provide the governments services.

    Now, if you believe there should be no taxes at all, then there is no government, and everyone reverts to paying economic rents to private entities for everything beyond their driveway (and even within their driveway, if one feels the need for private security to protect oneself from marauding hordes of anarchists that would result from no government, a la Somalia).

  • HenryEdward on July 01, 2011 9:42 PM:

    The real issue is differential access to these benefits for middle and upper classes, not the actual benefits.

    We have a company that provides products and services to people as they age or live with disabilities to enable them to continue living in their homes. Alongside our private pay business, we are contracted with municipal governments in 6 states to provide these services to economically disadvantaged folks -

    This is awesome, until you hear the only other qualification - they must be homeowners. In other words, the middle class and upper class - $4,000 monthly with no mortgage is decidedly upper class retirement - qualify easily, while middle class or poor renters cannot even access the benefit. Importantly, there is no equivalent program for renters. Period.

    This skew further reinforces and develops the economic advantages/disadvantages of each group. In the area of aging and disability policy there are hundreds of these kind of examples. The size of all the programs in aggregate is simply astonishing, the program I referenced above is only worth about $800M annually nationwide, but every drop of the funds is structurally denied to a non-homeowner.

    There are dozens of programs in the $150-500M range that operate similarly, creating differential outcomes that are attributed to individuals, markets, and other nonsense. It is all a bit disheartening, but I am in the position of benefiting from it. The constituencies will never let the programs disappear, a better strategy may be coupling direct government programs with the expenditure strategies.

    The direct expenditures for no service return are what need to be challenged - finance, oil, etc. ... .

    This is one of the biggest issues that no one is talking about kudos to Suzanne and WM for addressing it. That there are only 38 comments is appalling.

    I can share better thought later if anyone wants - servicing too many swamp-coolers on hot roofs for seniors today. Right now cold beer and dulling my progressive guilt over rabid participation in the capitalist enterprise is of the first order.

  • HarvH on July 02, 2011 1:05 PM:

    I continue to be puzzled by conservative opposition to the idea of tax expenditures. Liberal and conservative economists used to agree - maybe still do - that a tax expenditure is when, GIVEN A CERTAIN LEVEL OF INCOME TAXATION, there is a deviation from taxing all income. So the conservative objection raised above just shows ignorance of a basic concept. The idea of tax expenditure does NOT assume all income belongs to the government. it assumes that the decision to tax income has already been made, and any carve-outs are a deviation from a comprehensive tax base. The flat tax and fair tax people, who last I looked were mostly conservative, implicitly accept this idea by proposing lower rates but a broader base of what is taxed. It is impossible to have an intelligent debate about the use of the tax code to hide subsidies for various behaviors if SOME - not all - conservatives will not recognize this idea. Conservatives should be the MOST vocal opponents of tax expenditures (and some are) because subsidies in the tax code are held to less accountability than actual budgetary expenditures - just look now, with a huge deficit and debt most public discussion ignores even putting any tax expenditures on the table.

  • Sandio on July 04, 2011 1:37 PM:

    If Alan is correct and universities inflate fees to recover tax credits, what can only follow is inflation of universities! This is evident enough in silly courses, trivial degrees and inflated academic egos.

    The bubble now bursts in Bonfire of the Vanities II: Californication as pharmaceuticals abandon the original illusion called psychology (or more properly, the error of psychologism).

    Where benefits attach to home ownership, they erode the value of housing stock, which ironically makes the benefit more democratic. A wave of such democratization bought Obama to the presidency, and now passes the cost on to municipal bonds.

  • Trevor Ten Brink on July 06, 2011 12:40 PM:

    Apparently a lot of tax-haters here. Taxes are essential for running a government that maintains functionality and performs its duties (ie. protection, providing for the general welfare, etc. etc).

    Hardly anyone could reasonably argue that our tax code is not chock full of goodies and giveaways to the rich and little-to-nothing for the middle class and poor. Obama's argument that deductions for charitable organizations should be capped to be more fair, is spot on. Why should a person in an upper bracket "deserve" a higher-percentage deduction than someone in a lower bracket? How is that fair? Also, why should the rich be allowed to deduct a higher percentage of their mortgage payments? Why should we the taxpayers subsidize their grandiosity? It's just not right.

    The tax-haters here who spew their same-old tired arguments (it's the individual's money, not the government's) forget one thing: the tax rate is set at a certain level and from there the taxpayer is ALLOWED to keep certain amounts through deductions. If you hate taxes, come out and say it. Don't give us spin by saying that it's the individual's money. The taxable income is EVERYONE'S money (ie. the Government's....you know, for the people, by the people, of the people?) That money is for the benefit of the public good. If you cannot comprehend that, I'm sorry. We are not a nation of individuals, we are a nation of the united (if the name of our country is any indication)--at least that's what the founders intended.

  • AnonyMoo on July 06, 2011 2:54 PM:

    Progressive taxes simply warp the scale of rewards, which then inflates the tax base, government, the arms race, global paranoia, video gaming, etc.

    Its a drug, and there's no way out short of flat tax, and that is already the way out, East of Eden. Which made the Euro the new reserve currency, and now drives Old Money to attack it. Now Tony Blair is back bleating about these set piece replays of the Civil War. Did you know Formosa (Taiwan) was supplying the Yankees? And Confederacy was an ancient Greek idea, submerged by the Athenian Empire, WHICH IS NOW AT LAST BANKRUPT AND UP FOR SALE?

  • audrey on July 11, 2011 11:15 AM:

    A Real Eye Opener … WHY is the Mighty USA BANKRUPT?

    You think the war in Iraq was costing us too much? We have been hammered with the propaganda that it was the Iraq war and the war on terror that is bankrupting us.
    $11 Billion to $22 billion is spent on welfare to illegal aliens each year by state governments.

    $2.2 Billion dollars a year is spent on food assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and free school lunches for illegal aliens.

    $2.5 Billion dollars a year is spent on Medicaid for illegal aliens.

    $12 Billion dollars a year is spent on primary and secondary school education for children here illegally and they cannot speak a word of English!

    $17 Billion dollars a year is spent for education for the American-born children of illegal aliens, known as anchor babies.

    $3 Million Dollars a DAY is spent to incarcerate illegal aliens. 30% percent of all Federal Prison inmates are illegal aliens.

    $90 Billion Dollars a year is spent on illegal aliens for Welfare & social services by the
    American taxpayers.

    $200 Billion dollars a year in suppressed American wages are caused by the illegal aliens.
    The illegal aliens in the United States have a crime rate that’s two and a half times that of white non-illegal aliens. In particular, their children are going to make a huge additional crime problem in the US

    In the year of 2005 there were 4 to 10 MILLION illegal aliens that crossed our Southern
    Border also, as many as 19,500 illegal aliens from Terrorist Countries. Millions of pounds of drugs, cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana, crossed into the US from the Southern border.

    The National policy Institute estimated that the total cost of mass deportation would be between $206 and $230 billion or an average cost of between $41 and $46 billion annually over a five year period.

    In 2006, illegal aliens sent home $45 BILLION in remittances to their countries of origin.
    The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration: Nearly One million sex crimes Committed by Illegal Immigrants In The United States



  • Big Z on July 12, 2011 7:13 PM:

    It never ceases to amaze me how Tea Partiers want poor folks to serve in the military, serve as police and firefighters, fix their streets, provide water and sewage, keep airports safe and working, guard their prisoners, etc. etc. etc.; yet they don't think that they should have to pay for it.

  • walt on July 12, 2011 9:55 PM:

    The federal government has few duties: protect the nation, uphold the constitution. Seems like a simple enough mandate.

    Unfortunately, her citizens have collectively turned over their rights to the government. The feds now regulate all aspects of private life. They subsidize, tax, collect fees, search your property and otherwise interfere with your life. All of this to provide 'benefit' and purported equality to all.

    Best of all, the citizens have enabled this abhorrent behavior through taxes. We (certainly not me personally) instituted the IRS and personal income taxes. So we hustle through history jockeying for a more favorable tax rate. We are beholding to the government for every bit and piece we can wrangle from them.

    Compound the intrusions into personal business by the intrusion into corporate business. Who drove Stanley Tools out of the country? The very business that helped build the United States found it could no longer afford to be based here.

    What non-sense. All this talk about taxing the rich, blah, blah, blah. How bout eliminating personal and corporate taxes.........NO flat tax either. Consumption tax. Pay as you go. Everybody gets affected to the same degree. No tax on food, clothing, or maybe even shelter. That way when the rich guy buys a yacht or a plane, he pays. The poor guy who buys a car, he pays. Adjust the rate to provide enough revenue to staff the military for superior effect when needed, maybe even a few more shots to the moon. Upon critical examination of the rest of the government we would probably find few other programs worthy or justified for their continued existence.

    And yes, the money I earn (and I say earn), belongs to me. I decide what to do with my money. I certainly don't like having my money taken from me without my consent and being spent wastefully on typical federal subsidies and grants. I certainly don't like funding all those who don't work via welfare and food stamps. It is not the federal governments job to be a charitable warehouse.

    And that social security thing. The federal government stole money out of my paycheck against my will. They started the world's biggest ponzi scheme......why did we incarcerate Madoff and not the thieves in the federal government?

    Addressing Audry's comment about the cost of illegal immigration: Why are we paying for them? Must be something to do with the progressive's notions.

    Big Z: I'm kind of thinking a similar thought, but it's more like why do all the poor, down and out, disadvantaged, incapable leeches on society believe they are entitled. Entitled to me working on their behalf? I don't think so. I think the rich are probably getting tired of having to pay for the things the vast majority won't pay for.

  • Nick on July 13, 2011 7:29 AM:

    As a political independent, I don't have an axe to grind vs. progressives or conservatives. However, though I do find some of the Professor's numbers eye-opening (though we all know statistical presentations can hide what prove to be highly selective data points); her presentation seems incredibly skewed, and if I was spending all that dough to send my child to Cornell; I don't know that I'd be very happy.

    First, I find it incredible that an academic has the temerity to discuss a 'submerged' state that 'undermines' our democracy. Let me paint this scenario for you: let's take away all the elements she talks about-the Home Mortgage Deduction, tax-free retirement benefits, etc. Suddenly, $70k to send one's child to Cornell starts looking MUCH pricier, and when the good Professor is faced with a drop in income, what will she say? I doubt the answer will be 'wow, now THIS is how democracy is SUPPOSED to work!'. And about the incredible inflation in higher education costs-and how THAT is contributing to income inequality, etc. I could go on and on-of course, but the Professor wouldn't want to go there.

    The problem with analyses like this to me, is that whatever percentage you'd like to agree upon, (47%, 30%, etc), there is a huge population of this country that pays NO personal TAXES. I think her efforts would be better spent on how corporations and Wall St traders are avoiding tens of billions in taxes by outwitting a feckless tax code, and in some cases, even PROFITING from their tax depts (a la GE) to the tune of millions in tax rebates. As a small business owner, I'm as free market as anyone, but THAT'S an issue I think we all need to get behind-income redistribution platforms are dead in this country, the sooner those who call themselves 'progressives' understand that, the better off we'll all be.

  • Steve in Blackberry on July 14, 2011 6:11 PM:

    I am a user of a submerged benefit, my health care premium, the 80% my company pays. So that is an $11,200 reduction in my income since it is pre-tax. Cool, I would have never known if not for this story. The mortage deduction, only got it a few years early in our mortage. In the spirit of self interest keep the health one and eliminate the mortage deduction. At least now I understand the issue and could if necessary defend Obama if the subject came up. Thanks I have learned something.

  • sandio on July 15, 2011 4:33 PM:

    A weary old bandwagon punting population paranoia in the vein of Malthus has now infiltrated climate science! Yup, the hidden logic behind extreme global warming scenarios and carbon tax is just the population explosion, last seen fading in Nigeria, kept alive by real book-burning Islamic fundamentalism. And all the while, pension schemes wilt under the reverse effect, of aging populations, now a looming in China.

    Hey, grow up guys, you can't have it both ways! That's a failing grade for think-tanks, big science, and universities too!

  • Casius on July 17, 2011 6:03 PM:

    Not sure that posting a comment here is worth the time, but this is a tremendously important topic. I work in affordable housing development, where a wide variety of both direct and indirect subsidies exist to support programs for a range of income levels and special needs populations (like the elderly, persons with HIV/AIDS, mental health, etc). Mixed-finance projects typically combine these subsidies to produce mixed income projects, and so allow a nice comparison of attitudes toward direct and indirect subsidies.

    The low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) is the largest single source of funding for affordable housing in the US (costing the Treasury approx $7 billion/year, versus well above $70b for the mortgage interest tax deduction). Rather than altering behavior to qualify for these tax credits, companies--mostly banks--purchase them from developers, with the purchase price serving as an investment in the project. As a result, the money comes into the project from a private entity and is seen as "private equity" distinct from the money from local and state government agencies.

    This private equity is in fact distinct from public grants, and I am a big fan of the LIHTC program. But no question that this program has created a powerful lobbying group of private "investors" who lobby to strengthen and expand this particular program over and above other subsidies in the same industry. And no question that not having to wrestle over annual appropriations is one of the major benefits to the affordable housing industry of the LIHTC program.

    The question raised by this article is simply whether the nation as a whole benefits in the long term from insulating and effectively removing government programs from the larger political and budget decision-making process. I'm surprised how many people (especially folks who don't trust the government) seem to answer that question in the affirmative.

  • Leroy on July 20, 2011 11:11 PM:

    Big Z wrote:

    "It never ceases to amaze me how Tea Partiers want poor folks to serve in the military, serve as police and firefighters, fix their streets, provide water and sewage, keep airports safe and working, guard their prisoners, etc. etc. etc.; yet they don't think that they should have to pay for it."

    Not onlt are most of those things not federal, the 'poor' don't pay income taxes, and the military is much more representative of the entire population than you have been lead to believe.

  • Richard Rice on July 21, 2011 3:33 PM:

    I don't know how Ms Mettler interprets messages from the Tea Movement, Leroy, but if you substitute "elected Federal officials" for "Tea Partiers" in Big Z's comment you are quoting, I think I could agree with all 3 of you.

  • Ron Warrick on July 22, 2011 7:38 PM:

    Very interesting article. There is, unavoidably, a psychological difference between money the government let's you keep at the expense of all other taxpayers, and money the government sends you as a check, also at the expense of all other taxpayers. It takes a well informed and open minded public to see that this is pretty much a distinction without a difference. And it takes an intellectually honest person to admit he or she is a priviliged beneficiary of a tax policy. And if there is anything we know about Tea Party politics, it's that it isn't about being well informed, open minded and intellectual honesty.

  • Airport Engineer on July 25, 2011 8:37 PM:

    It is this kind of thinking that is killing America! How dare you compare hand-outs to UN-TAXABLE Spending on things that drive the economy and keep it stable. Idiotic thinking like this one, has caused TRILLIONS in deficit. We can't throw out money that doesn't exist, and this moron thinks that we should just tax more? Well, do that, and as a small business owner I will just lower my salary and lay off 1/3 of my employees that I pay full benefits. That will happen to more businesses and business owners than me. We didn't get where we are by being dumb! You, however, wouldn't hand over the key to your car because someone that doesn't work doesn't own one! You wouldn't turn over 1/2 the rent to your apartment so somebody else that doesn't WANT to work can have the other 1/2! Would you turn over 1/2 of your college credits, and go to college 2 years more, so somebody else can graduate sooner? He!! NO! That's what you think I should do, and it's ridiculous for you to say who should pay for those that don't want to pay. We pay people years and years for sitting on their butt, and it's crumbling the country. These people won't work, so long as they can collect a check, food stamps, and Section 8, or and a cell phone paid by the taxpayer. The day you take it away, they will suddenly find a job the next day. Look at studies of unemployment benefits in other countries, and they ALL have the same thing in common! If people can collect 3 years of unemployment, then they will find work in exactly 3 years! If people can collect work for 5 years, the will find work in exactly 5 years! When will people like you figure out that handing out money to ridiculous things is not going to bring down our debt, and get this country out of financial crisis? When will you figure out that the reason we are STILL in recession is OBAMA and his failed social MANDATES!?! Business Owners and the Free Market is what has made America living so great, and it is American Business Owners that is scared to death to hire and make the next move until this idiot leadership of ours is out of Office.

  • Zak on July 28, 2011 10:09 AM:

    I remembered reading this piece a while back, and would like to add it to the discussion because I think it helps make clear the extent to which personal prosperity is dependent on the health of the nation as a whole. Yes, it may be "your" money, but your ability to earn it came from "our" wealth.

    Essay:A Day In The Life of Joe Conservative (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Essay:A_Day_In_The_Life_of_Joe_Conservative)

    Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards. With his first swallow of water, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to ensure their safety and that they work as advertised.

    All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer's medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance -- now Joe gets it, too.

    He prepares his morning breakfast: bacon and eggs. Joe's bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

    In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

    Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some environmentalist wacko liberal fought for the laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

    He walks on the government-provided sidewalk to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

    Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe's employer pays these standards because Joe's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union.

    If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he'll get a worker compensation or unemployment checks because some stupid liberal didn't think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.

    It is noontime and Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal wanted to protect Joe's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression.

    Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist liberal decided that Joe and the government would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. Joe also forgets that in addition to his federally subsidized student loans, he attended a state funded university.

    Joe is home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards to go along with the taxpayer funded roads.

    He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers' Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans.

    The house didn't have electricity until some big-government liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification.

    He is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating liberal made sure he could take care of himself so Joe woul

  • Zak on July 28, 2011 10:58 AM:

    To Airport Engineer and followers of his writing style"

    If you have to rely on putting words in all caps to make a point, you're not making it.

  • Brian on August 03, 2011 3:19 PM:

    Specifically in response to Audrey's comments. The payments for food stamps, for education, for incarcerating inmates etc. All of those things are paid for by taxes collected.
    the two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) were paid for by borrowed money by the administration of George W. Bush. His administration was the FIRST in history to fight not one war but two without a war tax to pay for them. Every president who has guided our country into war or assumed responsibility for an ongoing war has had a war tax put in place to pay for those conflicts. That includes perhaps our greatest president Abraham Lincoln--THE first Republican president i might add.

  • Kelvin on August 09, 2011 9:48 AM:

    This is actually an area where I, as a conservative, could mostly make common cause with my progressive friends. I think both sides of the aisle have discovered how tax credits & deductions are a good way to hide the cost of their pet preferences. (Then the Democrats complain that GE pays no taxes, because they took advantage of Democrat-sponsored credits for environmentally-friendly appliances.) And the endless chase for tax deductions and credits means that many people make irrational economic decisions, buying houses they can't afford "for the tax deduction," spending money on business expenses (especially people with part-time businesses, like MLM franchises) because "it's all deductible," only getting health care when they can get it covered by insurance, etc.

    In theory, making certain expenses tax deductible seems reasonable. But in practice, it ends up skewing the tax code, because deductions are worth more the higher your tax bracket. (And that's why really high rates, like the 70% bracket Robert Reich is calling for, are self-defeating; it gives huge incentive to look for loopholes, even if it requires a lot of nonproductive accounting/legal games.) And as others have said, it often just ends up bidding up the prices--does anyone think the housing bubble would have gone so high without the mortgage interest deduction?

    There are so many entrenched interests, each with their own pet preference, that it's really hard for the common good to win out. But it has happened before; the 1986 Tax Reform Act cleaned out a mess of credits and deductions in exchange for lower rates. The economy responded strongly. Not that there were no pockets of pain--most real estate investors lost the ability to deduct their losses, and that hurt the condo market in particular (I owned the condo I lived in at the time). But overall it was a big win (and it was a bipartisan success). It's time to clean out the Augean stables again.

  • Valerie Manenti on August 11, 2011 12:39 PM:


  • Ritxard el Vasco on August 16, 2011 9:18 PM:

    This is one of the most thought-provoking essays I have read -- especially on public policy or tax policy in many a year. Perhaps equally fascinating, even if sometimes eye-crossingly maddening have been the comments.

    Another, perhaps equally important area of budget and tax expenditures that our government needs to take a long look are are subsidies to suburban sprawl in the form of public expenditures for infrastructure development which mainly benefit new sprawl housing developers and the upper and upper--middle class homebuyers. Research shows that while the public feels that most of the costs of new infrastructure should be charged to the developers and homeowners who mainly benefit from the expenditures, in most states between 75-90% of new infrastructure costs are "socialized" into the general budget. Of course the current housing "situation" has cut back on the total cost of these subsidies and the unfairness to those who must live in inner city areas out of economic necessity yet must pay for the costs of suburban sprawl. However, the recession and decreased consumer demand does effectively establish two positives -- more sustainable land-preservation (though unfortunately not by intentional policy) and slowing the increase in income inequality, determined by net wealth. I would like to think every cloud has a silver lining.

  • John Cowan on August 17, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Here's a little parable for people who think "it's all our money." Instead of comparing American rich and poor, let's compare old and young in Lower Slobbovistan.

    The country of Lower Slobbovistan is the world's most evil dictatorship. They solve their retirement issues not with Social Security but with the Sixty: everyone is put to death at age 60. Obviously this is horrible and tyrannical and everyone has a right to all of their lives, not just part of it. We all agree on that.

    But if it just so happened that members of the Zlazdek family were allowed to live out their natural lives, don't you think that would count as a considerable advantage in their favor? Of course you wouldn't! That would be equating not having your rights taken away from you with some kind of positive benefit.

    And yet.

  • jdmeth on August 21, 2011 12:40 AM:

    If a small government operated with a surplus then any tax deduction would not "add" to the deficit. Saying that the tax code obligates us to a certain tax contribution and a deduction re-leaves us of some of it makes sense in a weird sort of way. So let's change the tax code to obligate us to less taxes.

    In today's computerized world every tax paid in and every benefit paid out should be available online. Then we would know who is doing the taking and who is paying for it. Put it in the tax code and everyone would be obligated to observe it.

  • John K on August 27, 2011 10:17 AM:

    Why not make charitable contributions a 40% tax credit, payable even to those who don't pay income taxes. That way, everyone gets the same benefit as the wealthiest donors.

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