July/August 2011 20,000 Leagues Under the State
Beneath the surface of American government lurks a system of social programs for the wealthy that is consuming the federal budget. It’s time for progressives to do battle with tax expenditures.
By Suzanne Mettler
Growing up during the Depression, Sam Marchesi had to drop out of school after eighth grade—soon after his father died—to work and help support his mother and his seven younger siblings. When World War II began, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Pacific. Upon his return, he took advantage of the educational and training benefits of the G.I. Bill, joining the 52 percent of fifteen million returning veterans who did so. He acquired vocational training in architectural drawing and on-the-job training as an apprentice carpenter, skills that enabled him to become a successful custom builder. When I interviewed Marchesi in the late 1990s for a study of the G.I. Bill, he reflected, “I think it was a great thing that the government did, to give us this opportunity to pick up where we left off. We had to face the world. We had to make a living. Thank God the government had the doors open for us.”
The G.I. Bill’s transformative effects on the lives of men like Marchesi have become legendary, but just as striking in hindsight is the clearly visible role that government played as the source of those opportunities. In more recent decades the federal government has expanded its efforts to provide college aid to all Americans. But instead of delivering a straight benefit, like the original G.I. Bill, most of that aid has come through roundabout means, like payments to banks to provide students with loans, or loopholes in the tax code to subsidize families to save for or pay for college. Generations of Americans have now graduated with the help of these costly-though-indirect programs. Yet over the years, in conversations with my own students, I’ve noticed that, unlike Marchesi, few of them recognize that they’ve received benefits from government. It’s hard to imagine them reflecting on their HOPE Tax Credits, or their 529 and Coverdell college savings plans and saying, “Thank God the government had the door open for us.”
And it’s not just my students. In 2008, I conducted a survey to gauge the degree to which Americans who had received various government social benefits recognized them as such. Not surprisingly, most beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill who took part in the survey acknowledged that they had been given a leg up by the government. But of the respondents who made use of tax-advantaged Coverdell or 529 education savings accounts, 64 percent said they had “not used a government social program,” as did 59.6 percent of those who used HOPE and Lifelong Learning Tax Credits.
This disparity has far less to do with some inherent difference in character between the Greatest Generation and their grandchildren than it does with a fundamental change that has taken place in the relationship between citizens and the welfare state. Over the past few decades, while many standard social benefits have atrophied in real value, those packaged as “tax expenditures”—the formal name in federal budgeting parlance for subsidies provided through the tax code—have flourished, growing rapidly in value and number. These tax expenditures for individuals and families represented 7.4 percent of GDP in 2008, up from 4.2 percent in 1976. (Tax expenditures for business, such as those for the oil and gas industry, made up another 1 percent.) By way of comparison, Social Security amounted to 4.3 percent of GDP in 2008; Medicare and Medicaid, 4.1 percent.
These social tax expenditures comprise a major part of what I call the “submerged state.” By that I mean that they are public policies designed in a manner that channels resources to citizens indirectly, through subsidies for private activities, rather than directly through payments or services from government. As a result, they are largely hidden from the public: through them, government benefits people, providing them with opportunities and relieving their financial burdens, often without them even knowing it. Appearing to emanate from the private sector, such policies obscure the role of the government and exaggerate that of the market.
What’s more, the vast majority of Americans garner only modest assistance, if any, from the submerged state. In the case of social tax expenditures, that’s because the most expensive of these subsidies shower their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans.
The great drama now unfolding in Washington over how to deal with the government’s deficits and growing debt tends to be framed in conventional ways. Conservatives aim to use this moment to reduce the size of “big government” while liberals find themselves on the defensive, hoping to limit the damage and furious at the president and Democratic congressional leaders for not fighting harder. But these negotiations can actually be an important opportunity to advance progressive goals, if—as the Bowles-Simpson Commission and others have recommended— we scale back tax expenditures. Doing so could improve the nation’s balance sheet and restore some fairness to the tax code. Even more, it could address the real if inchoate sense many Americans have that government has been “growing,” as measured by deficits and new programs, but in ways that don’t benefit them. Saying good-bye to the submerged state could reconnect citizens with government and reinvigorate our democracy.
The clarion call of the conservative approach to governance that has dominated American politics for much of the past thirty years has been the demand to rein in the welfare state. Although few provisions have suffered outright termination, average benefit rates for several traditional and longstanding policies—such as welfare, unemployment insurance, Pell grants, and food stamps—have deteriorated in real terms, and in some cases the scope of coverage has atrophied. As deficit hawks continually remind us, costs have grown for the “entitlement” programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid— owing to inflation-protected benefits, soaring health care costs, and the sheer numbers of Americans aging into eligibility. Generally ignored, however, have been the rapidly escalating costs of tax expenditures for social welfare purposes—the sine qua non of our submerged state.
Known in informal parlance as “tax breaks” or “tax loopholes,”
these policies permit households to pay less in taxes if they are involved in some kind of activity or belong to a class that policymakers deem worthy of public support. From the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 until 2010, the number of such tax subsidies had increased by 86 percent, from 81 to 151. As of 2011, the federal government annually doles out more than $1 trillion in these tax expenditures.
Understandably, to many people tax breaks may seem substantively different from traditional social benefits. The latter are funded by tax revenues collected from the public and delivered through checks or services to particular citizens, whereas tax breaks function by allowing recipients themselves simply to keep more money, reducing the amount that they would otherwise owe. Traditional social programs also require the development of a bureaucracy to determine eligibility and deliver benefits, whereas the tax expenditures do not. For these reasons, many libertarians and conservatives object to the term “tax expenditures.” While conceding that tax loopholes constitute government intervention in the market, such thinkers equate closing them with raising taxes, unless the changes are offset by lower rates.
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