Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two steps forward, two steps back

When Ed Kleinbard was the Chief of Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, he led an effort to update tax expenditure analysis and make it more intellectually coherent as well as useful. See, for example, the pamphlet here and the speech here.

I have self-centeredly tended to view this as influenced by my work on tax expenditures, which I confess to regarding as a major intellectual step forward. (See the working paper version here and info re. the published version here.) To be sure, my suggestions were significantly modified by JCT under Kleinbard, reflecting among other things that the audience and institutional setting for their efforts differed from those that mattered to my writing an academic article.

The JCT, post-Kleinbard and under the leadership of Thomas Barthold, has now issued a new pamphlet on tax expenditures, as they do each year to update their revenue estimates. To my non-surprise but disappointment, they appear to have airbrushed the Kleinbard era out of existence on this matter, and reverted to the prior format for describing and presenting tax expenditure estimates - notwithstanding its intellectual flaws and needless controversiality in the traditional presentation, which rightly motivated the evidently short-lived revision.

The interim version of tax expenditure analysis that the JCT used in the last couple of go-rounds was not necessarily in canonically final form, and I could certainly see the point to changing it as desired under new leadership. But simply going back to the old question-begging version strikes me as a bit - oh, I don't know, perhaps closed-minded or incurious or doctrinaire. The JCT can do better.

The Treasury Department provides an interesting contrast. During the Bush Administration years, the Treasury did some interesting and valuable rethinking of the tax expenditure concept that appeared in the Analytical Perspectives section of the annual federal budget. When the Obama Administration took over, this material remained in the federal budget presentation, notwithstanding that it arguably was more politically congenial from a (sane) Republican than from a Democratic perspective (e.g., because it discusses a consumption tax as well as an income tax baseline for tax expenditure analysis). The Treasury approach to rethinking tax expenditure analysis potentially offered the JCT a further choice in how to go forward, but the opportunity does not appear to have been taken.

Tax expenditure analysis was never going to be a political game-changer, as its originator, Stanley Surrey may have fondly wished. But clear thinking has its benefits, and the latest step back isn't enormously helpful in this regard.


wilbur said...

A related question: do you know whether the Administration's approach to tax expenditure report has changed recently? I was just noticing that the main table of tax expenditure estimates, Table 19-1, in the FY10 report looks quite different, in places, from the FY09 report. The list is basically the same, but the numbers seem different in ways that don't (I think) reflect legislative changes.

Daniel Shaviro said...

I don't know. I looked at it quickly and confirmed that they still have basic discussion from earlier years about multiple baselines, etc.