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Use of Tax Benefits Hampered by Complexity, Uncertainty: Senate Hearing

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A Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday revealed that poorly understood, confusing and impermanent tax policies muted the effectiveness of beneficial tax policies in ways that affect both businesses and individuals.

These factors also have an impact on the effectiveness of government spending and cost factors, and could be an avenue for the government to save money by transferring its focus to programs that are more easily understood and more often utilized.

Testimony at the hearing, titled “How Do Complexity, Uncertainty and Other Factors Impact Responses to Tax Incentives?” by Dr. Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Harvard University, demonstrated that policies and benefits as diverse as Pell grants and green incentives, sales taxes and the Earned Income Tax Credit are little used by groups who do not understand them or the impact they can have on their income and tax base.

Chetty also pointed out that the government could save money by cutting back on programs whose demonstrated effectiveness was poor compared to other programs seeking to accomplish similar goals. The most effective programs, he said, were the simplest; he added that automatic opt-in plans, such as for 401(k) participation, were far more effective than anything to which an individual had to opt in on his own.

Dr. Robert Carroll, principal, quantitative economics and statistics at Ernst & Young LLP, tackled the uncertainty factor, pointing out that provisions that were or might be short-lived affected the decisions of businesses and individuals alike. He also said that some items classified as expenditures were in fact surtaxes, since corporate and individual taxes are viewed independently of one another; this is evident, he said, in the case of the capital gains tax assessed on funds that have already been subject to corporate income tax.

In his testimony, Carroll used as an example the tax on corporate profits and the tax on investor-level taxes, the latter of which is lower. He asserted that the investor-level taxes are viewed as expenditures instead of as surtaxes.

Dr. Eric Toder, institute fellow and co-director at the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, testified regarding tax incentives and behavioral economics. He too pointed out the complexities of such programs as Pell grants, and said that the tax system’s complexity was such that even simple provisions were poorly utilized because individuals are less aware of such provisions that may benefit them.


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