Stimulus tax breaks: going for the capillaries instead of the jugular

The tax cuts included in the current version of the stimulus bill deserve the resounding “thud” that they’ve been getting.

Setting ideology aside and just resorting to basic arithmetic reveals the plan’s glowing deficiency: it is so “in the box” and marginal that it is unlikely to have any measurable effect on the economy.  Rather than slashing at the economy’s jugular, the tax cuts barely scratch the capillaries.

For example, take President Obama’s pride and joy, the $500 refundable tax credit.  Does anybody really believe that $1.37 per taxpayer per day is going to jump start the economy?    Or, will an extra $40 per month save many struggling mortgage holders from foreclosure? 

Similarly, take the GOP’s idea of a $15,000 tax credit on the purchase of a new home.  Somebody buying a $150,000 home with a 5%, 30 year mortgage would save about $80 on their monthly mortgage payment (getting it down to about $750) and provide a $15,000 equity cushion, just in case home values fall further.  Is that really enough incentive to pull job-threatened folks off the sidelines? 

The annual AMT adjustment would have happened later in the year anyway, especially since its greatest impact is in Democratic strongholds with high state income taxes (think NY, CA. NJ, and CT). That said, its average impact is about $2,400 for affected taxpayers.  These folks earn enough to have an AMT problem, so an extra $200 per month isn’t likely to change their shopping behavior, let alone their life style.

The biggest business tax break is the tax loss carry backward which allows retroactive tax credits (refundable I assume) for companies that made money during the boom but are tanking during the bust.  Again, the extra money may keep some marginal companies on life support for awhile, but isn’t likely to turn a struggling company into a jobs creator.

Congressional thinking has been trapped in partisan boxes.  Many ideas have been death-branded as either old and tired, or as favoring the rich.  No big ideas have been proposed that could realistically get the economy moving again.

There are big ideas for the politicos to consider if they are really serious about moving the economy forward.

First, there is the tried and true investment tax credit.  Give companies a 15% ITC for investment spending in 2009, and a 10% ITC for investment spending in 2010.  If necessary, sweeten the pot by allowing 2009-2010 investments to be written off on a very accelerated basis (say, over 3 or 5 years).

Second, give multi-nationals a tax holiday on repatriated earnings.  Cut the 2009 rate from 35% to 5% or 10%.  Such a move could bring over $500 billion back into the U.S. from foreign stashes, and generate $25 to $50 billion incremental tax revenue.  Otherwise, companies will use the money in their foreign operations and the U.S. tax take will be zero.

Third, give companies that maintain or grow their workforce a payroll tax rebate.  For example, a company that contributes the same amount of payroll taxes in 2009 as it did in 2008 might get 25% of its aggregate contributions rebated; a company that pays in10% more payroll taxes year-to-year might get a 50% rebate. A company that shrinks its workforce gets no rebate.

Fourth, since a depressed housing market is the root cause of the economic turmoil, adjust the standard income tax deduction a bit and allow the two-thirds of all taxpayers who use it to deduct their home mortgage interest payments.  This move alone would put money into more than 35 million pockets, might save a few people from foreclosure, and could coax some new buyers into the market.

Fifth, eliminate capital gains taxes on all residential real estate purchased in 2009 that is held at least 18 months. This initiative would certainly get investor-landlords back into the market.  They could buy some of the existing excess homes’ inventory, and deploy it as affordable rental housing.

Sixth, eliminate capital gains on all stocks bought in 2009 and held for at least 18 months.  Doing so would jolt the stock market upwards.  Would it favor the rich? Sure.  But it would also help restore the value of soon-to-retire baby boomer’s IRAs.

These ideas are representative of the pool of big ideas that have been overlooked in the stimulus package. It is time for Congress and the President stop playing small ball and go for the fences.  Give us something that we can believe will work.

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