Rules of Thumb for Least Harmful Ways to Raise New Revenues

November 12, 2012

With the fiscal cliff looming in the near distance, House Speaker John Boehner has signaled a willingness to accept new revenues as a measure of good faith in negotiating a meaningful deal to reducing the federal deficit.

While raising new revenues may be the politically necessary to seal a deal with President Obama, the Speaker and his colleagues must keep in mind that not all revenue raisers are equal. Some methods of raising revenues will have far more harmful economic consequences than others.

Indeed, after careful study, OECD economists have established a hierarchy of which taxes are most and least harmful for long-term economic growth. They determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful for long-term economic growth, followed by high personal income taxes. Consumption taxes and property taxes were found to be less harmful to economic growth relative to taxes on capital and income.

Why this hierarchy? It is determined by which factors are most mobile and, thus, most sensitive to high tax rates. Capital is the most mobile factor in the economy and, therefore, most sensitive to a hike in tax rates. Naturally, land is the least mobile and less sensitive to high tax rates. This is not to say that high taxes won’t affect consumption and property patterns, but simply less so than the impact of taxes on capital and income.

With these rules of thumb in mind, here is a short list of ways of raising new revenues listed from least harmful to most harmful:

#1 Least Harmful: Pro-growth Reform

This may seem like a no-brianer, but whether or not we have enough new economic growth to generate more revenues for the Treasury is directly dependent upon some of the policy choices listed below.

#2 Asset Sales

The U.S. federal government owns hundreds of billions worth of assets that it can, and should, sell off in order to pay down the national debt. As of 2008, the Office of Management and Budget reported public lands worth $833 billion and loans worth $209 billion. Other state-owned enterprises such as Amtrak, the Power Marketing Administration utilities, and the Tennessee Valley Authority could all generate considerable cash on the open market. The biggest benefit of asset sales is turning tax-subsidized enterprises into tax-generating ones.

#3 User Fees and Leases

Lawmakers could raise billions with no harm to the economy by raising user fees for many of the goods and services it provides (such as flood insurance, inland waterways, National Parks, and loan originations) and opening up more public lands for oil and mineral leasing. In 2008, OMB reported that federal mineral rights were worth $1.062 trillion. They are probably worth more today.

#4 Premium and Co-pay Increases

Increasing Medicare premiums and co-payments are not likely to be politically popular, but asking seniors to contribute more toward their federal health insurance would be far less harmful to the economy than a broad-based income tax. Even if these policies were means-tested, they might actually add a measure of market forces into a system that has few. According to CBO, increasing the Medicare premium for Part B to 35 percent from 25 percent, could raise more than $240 billion over ten years. (Again, Congress’s arcane budget rules count these payments as a reduction in mandatory spending, not new revenues, but the effect is the same.)

#5 A Federal Employee Contributions

As most private employers are now doing, the federal government should ask federal employees to contribute more to their own health care and retirement costs. (Congress’s arcane budget rules also count these contributions as a reduction in spending, not new revenues, but they are good policy anyway.)

#6 Sales/Excise Taxes

Unlike the states, the federal government does not rely much on sales or excise taxes – excise tax revenues amount to about 3 percent of total federal revenues. The largest of which are the federal gasoline tax ($38.7 billion), tobacco taxes ($16.5 billion), airport and ticket taxes ($11.6 billion), and alcohol taxes ($9.6 billion). Increasing current excises or creating a new one would not be costless, but less so compared to higher income taxes.

#7 Base-broadening

This is a tricky one because while everyone talks about broadening the tax base and eliminating “spending” in the tax code, the truth is that not all tax preferences are created equal (see untouchables below). From an economic perspective, eliminating tax preferences produces less harm than increasing marginal tax rates, but caution is also in order.

  • Eliminate industry subsidies, targeted tax preferences, and refundable credits first: Industry subsidies can include such things as the special exemption for credit unions, credits for hybrid vehicles and energy efficient windows; and tax-exempt bonds for private nonprofit educational facilities. The IRS now gives out over $100 billion in refundable credits to taxpayers who have no income tax liability. Limiting those to the most needy could save billions.
  • Tax employerprovided health care benefits: This exemption is the single largest tax preference at roughly $128 billion per year. Taxing these currently untaxed employee compensation would be good policy, but should be paired with other market-based reforms.
  • Restoring PEP and Pease: Tax Foundation economists have estimated that restoring the phase-outs of personal exemptions and itemized deductions (the PEP and Pease provisions) for taxpayers with more than $250,000 in AGI (joint filers) and $200,000 (single filers) would lower GDP by 0.03 percent over a five to ten year period. These measures typically raise the effective marginal tax rates by about 1 to 4 percent for families of various sizes while their incomes are in the phase-out range, above which rates return to the normal statutory levels.
  • Capping deductions: Mitt Romney’s proposal to cap itemized deductions at $17,000 or $25,000 may have been crude tax policy, but it had the political advantage of avoiding a direct fight with powerful interest groups and it gave taxpayers the choice in deciding which deductions were best for their situation.
  • Untouchables: For individuals, don’t eliminate or scale back broad-based savings vehicles such as 401ks, Roth IRAs, or investment incentives such as the reduced rates on dividends and capital gains. For businesses, don’t lengthen depreciation schedules, eliminate business expensing or depletion, or eliminate deferral.

#8 Allowing “Temporary” Expensing to Expire

The 2010 tax deal gave businesses full expensing in 2011 and 50 percent expensing in 2012. These temporary measures are considered “tax cuts,” but in reality they are more like tax shifts. Instead of businesses taking their deductions in future years, they take them now. This timing shift actually produces a long-term revenue loss of nearly zero. The idea behind bonus depreciation is to encourage capital purchases earlier and hopefully encourage the use of that capital to increase production. This is what happened in 2003, leading to an immediate rebound in investment and GDP. But because it was temporary, it mainly borrowed investment from future years when it expired. Full expensing on a permanent basis would permanently shift investment forward, leading to permanently increased production and income. Making full expensing permanent could boost GDP by more than 2.7 percent over the long run, while 50 percent expensing could boost GDP by 1.36 percent.

#9 Raising Top Individual Income Tax Rates

In an analysis of President Obama’s tax proposals, Tax Foundation economists estimated that increasing the marginal tax rates in the top two tax brackets from 33 percent to 36 percent and from 35 percent to 39.6 percent would lower long-term economic growth by 0.44 percent. Our model also showed that for every $1 such a policy would raise for the Treasury, GDP would fall by $2.77. That would seem to be a poor tradeoff.

#10 Raising the Tax Rate on Estates

This ranks worse than raising top individual rates because it is a revenue-loser not a revenue gainer. President Obama’s budget proposed increasing the federal estate tax from the current 35 percent top rate with a $5 million exempt amount to the 2009 levels of a 45 percent top rate and a $3.5 million exempt amount. Tax Foundation economists estimated that this policy would lower GDP by 0.23 percent. While this may seem like a small effect, the loss in GDP is nearly five times the amount of new tax revenue gained from this policy.

#11 Raising Tax Rates on Capital Gains and Dividends

When Tax Foundation economists modeled the long-term effects of increasing the capital gains top rate to 20 percent and letting the tax rate on dividends revert to 39.6 percent for people in the top two brackets, they found that this policy would lower GDP by 2.15 percent and that it would not raise any new tax revenues because of its depressive effects.

#12 Most Harmful: Raising Corporate Income Tax Rates

Because the U.S. currently has the highest corporate income tax rate in the industrialized world, no one is proposing to boost the corporate tax rate. However, President Obama’s Framework for Corporate Tax Reform did contain a number of base-broadening measures to offset his proposed reduction in the corporate tax rate. After modeling these proposals, Tax Foundation economists concluded that these measures would more than erase any of the positive economic benefits of cutting the corporate tax rate.


If lawmakers are convinced that new revenues must be part of any long-term effort to solve the budget crisis, they must choose the least harmful way of raising new revenues or else they risk compounding the crisis by slowing economic growth. The above list of revenue measures is hardly complete, but it should give lawmakers some rules of thumb on how to avoid the most economically harmful revenue options.

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