November 15, 2018

Today’s Economist: Taxing Employers and Employees

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Casey B. Mulligan is an economics professor at the University of Chicago. He is the author of “The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy.”

The delay of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate is a favorable development for the labor market, but the employer mandate is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the labor-market distortions that the law has scheduled to come on line next year.

Today’s Economist

Perspectives from expert contributors.

The Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate will eventually levy a penalty on large employers that do not offer affordable health insurance to their full-time employees. The penalty is based on the number of full-time employees and adds about $3,000 to the annual cost of employing each person.

Employers have been complaining about the penalty, saying it will reduce the number of people they hire and cause them to reduce employee hours. Even economists and commentators supporting the law acknowledge that per-employee penalties reduce hiring by raising the cost of employment.

Economists have traditionally recognized that it hardly matters whether a tax is levied on employers or on employees, especially in the long run. In the employee-tax case, the employee pays the tax directly. In the employer-tax case, the employee pays the tax indirectly through reduced pay, because employer penalties reduce the willingness of employers to compete for people (Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided some good evidence in support of this widely accepted economic proposition).

Among other things, employment, employer costs and employee take-home pay would be essentially the same if the government levied a $3,000 fine on workers for having a full-time job with a large employer that does not offer health benefits, rather than levying the fine on employers on the basis of their full-time personnel, as the Affordable Care Act does.

But the political optics of the two policies are dramatically different. Large businesses can supposedly afford $3,000 per employee, while many employees could not afford another $3,000 bite out of their paychecks. Like it or not, economics’ equivalence results tells us employees will have to afford what amounts to a tax on them beginning in 2015, pursuant to the Treasury Department’s decision to begin collecting the employer penalty in that year.

For the purposes of understanding the state of the labor market, it doesn’t really matter whether individuals would be paying a tax for having a full-time job or receiving a subsidy for not having a full-time job. Either policy would reduce the gap between the income of full-time employees and everybody else. The ultimate result will be less full-time employment, in an amount commensurate with the size of the tax or subsidy.

The Affordable Care Act offers subsidies for people without work or in part-time positions that far exceed $3,000 per employee per year, which makes the employer mandate only a small piece of the law’s employment effects.

The law’s other new work-disincentive provisions, still on schedule for next year, include (i) a sliding income scale that sets premiums for people who buy health insurance on the new marketplaces, (ii) a plan for premium assistance that essentially resurrects the Recovery Act’s subsidy for what are known as Cobra benefits, allowing employees who have left a job to continue to participate, for a limited time, in their former employer’s health plan, in a more comprehensive form and (iii) hardship relief from the individual mandate.

As an example of these provisions, I explained last week how, even without the employer penalties, the premium assistance plan sharply penalizes full-time employment in favor of part-time employment. In combination, the provisions going into effect next year are two or three times larger than the employer mandate by itself, depending on the type of worker and the industry of employment.

Proponents of the Affordable Care Act, including a number of economists, have yet to acknowledge that so many provisions of the act have, from a labor economics perspective, so much in common with the employer mandate. But labor-market distortions are a common feature of several significant parts of the act and are an important part of what has happened in our labor market.

Whatever labor market benefits accrue from delaying the employer mandate could be had many times over by delaying the entire Affordable Care Act.

Article source: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/taxing-employers-and-employees/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Finance Committee Asks Senators to Start Tax Reform Process

WASHINGTON — The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday began a legislative push to simplify the tax code, asking all senators to identify tax breaks, deductions and credits that they believe should be spared and giving them until July 26 to produce their “pardon” list.

In effect, Senators Max Baucus of Montana, the committee’s chairman, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee’s ranking Republican, said they would start the process by clearing the tax code of all special breaks. They then told senators who have lamented the complexity of the tax code to offer their ideas.

“To make sure that we clear out all the unproductive provisions and simplify in tax reform, we plan to operate from an assumption that all special provisions are out unless there is clear evidence that they: (1) help grow the economy, (2) make the tax code fairer, or (3) effectively promote other important policy objectives,” the senators told their colleagues. “Today, we write to ask you to formally submit legislative language or detailed proposals for what tax expenditures meet these tests and should be included in a reformed tax code, as well as other provisions that should be added, repealed or reformed as part of tax reform.”

The leaders of both the Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee have promised a robust effort this Congress to overhaul the tax code, but they face long odds. President Obama has expressed only tentative interest.

Senate Democratic leaders have offered little support, and although Republicans say it is a top priority, they have been loath to say which breaks they would sacrifice or curtail.

In concept, a simplified tax code has bipartisan appeal. In practice, the biggest tax breaks — the mortgage interest deduction, employer tax breaks for healthcare benefits, deductions for state and local taxes and deductions for charitable contributions — may prove politically more popular than true tax reform.

“America’s tax code is broken,” the committee’s letter reads. “The last major reform of the tax code was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which is considered by many as the gold standard for tax reform. However, since then, the economy has changed dramatically and Congress has made more than 15,000 changes to the tax code. The result is a tax base riddled with exclusions, deductions and credits.”

Rather than having senators identify the tax breaks they want to eliminate, Senators Baucus and Hatch decided that it would be politically easier to ask them which breaks should be saved. But they said saving tax breaks come at a cost: Every $2 trillion in individual tax breaks added back to their “blank slate” would raise tax rates 1.3 to 2.2 percentage points. In other words, senators must decide between popular tax breaks and low income tax rates.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/us/politics/finance-committee-asks-senators-to-start-tax-reform-process.html?partner=rss&emc=rss