Monday, November 22, 2010

The Blur Between Spending and Taxes

While Congress is getting back to work, and deficit reduction is a high priority, there’s a lot of rhetoric being bandied about. Spending cuts and tax cuts are a big focus. But what does it really mean? The NY Times tries to deep dive to see what the big difference really is.


Should the government cut spending or raise taxes to deal with its long-term fiscal imbalance? As President Obama’s deficit commission rolls out its final report in the coming weeks, this issue will most likely divide the political right and left. But, in many ways, the question is the wrong one. The distinction between spending and taxation is often murky and sometimes meaningless.

Imagine that there is some activity — say, snipe hunting — that members of Congress want to encourage. Senator Porkbelly proposes a government subsidy. “America needs more snipe hunters,” he says. “I propose that every time an American bags a snipe, the federal government should pay him or her $100.”

“No, no,” says Congressman Blowhard. “The Porkbelly plan would increase the size of an already bloated government. Let’s instead reduce the burden of taxation. I propose that every time an American tracks down a snipe, the hunter should get a $100 credit to reduce his or her tax liabilities.”

To be sure, government accountants may treat the Porkbelly and Blowhard plans differently. They would likely deem the subsidy to be a spending increase and the credit to be a tax cut. Moreover, the rhetoric of the two politicians about spending and taxes may appeal to different political bases.

But it hardly takes an economic genius to see how little difference there is between the two plans. Both policies enrich the nation’s snipe hunters. And because the government must balance its books, at least in the long run, the gains of the snipe hunters must come at the cost of higher taxes or lower government benefits for the rest of us.

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