Tag Archives: New Research

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction: A Bad Deal for Taxpayers

A new policy brief released by the Mercatus Center and co-authored by Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles analyzes one of the most popular—and therefore one of the most difficult to reform—subsidies in the tax code: the home mortgage interest deduction. This study touches on many of the points that Emily talked about in her op-ed on the subject last month; namely, this policy’s failure to achieve its intended effects and the fact that a lion’s share of the benefits go to high-income homeowners. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the home mortgage interest deduction, the authors argue that the benefits of this policy are overstated and the consequences are understated.

The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the largest tax expenditures in the U.S. tax code, second only to the non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. Proponents of the home mortgage interest deduction argue that this policy provides needed tax relief to the middle class and encourages the oft-invoked American dream of homeownership. These folks may be surprised to learn, as Horpedahl and Searles point out, that a mere 21.7% of taxpayers even claim this benefit. What’s more, most of these benefits don’t go to the middle class, but rather to households with incomes of over $200,000. Here’s a breakdown of the tax savings from the brief:


The claim that this policy is necessary to encourage home ownership is dubious as well. The authors explain:

Empirical evidence supports the claim that the mortgage interest deduction has little effect on homeownership rates in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997, homeownership rates stayed within a narrow range of 62 to 66 percent, despite the fact that the implicit tax subsidy fluctuated dramatically. During the recent housing bubble, the homeownership rate rose to 69 percent, but it has since returned to the historical range. This rise appears to have been unrelated to the mortgage interest deduction, though it was almost certainly related to other housing policies that encouraged the bubble. More sophisticated analysis suggests that the homeownership rate would be modestly lower without the deduction, by around 0.4 percent.

Ironically, the home mortgage interest deduction likely creates the perverse effect of discouraging homeownership by artificially raising home values. Economic intuition suggests, and empirical studies have supported, that the deduction does not provide much in the way of savings at all since the value of the deduction is simply capitalized into the value of home prices. The artificially higher house prices prevent would-be home owners on the margins of affordability from purchasing a home within their price range. This effect, combined with the low rates of deduction claims and concentration of benefits to high-income earners, likely contributes to the inefficacy of the home mortgage interest deduction to boost homeownership to the degree that its proponents envisioned.

Additionally, countries like Canada and Australia have managed to produce comparable rates of home ownership as the US without the crutch of a mortgage interest deduction.

While the home mortgage interest deduction doesn’t do much for increasing the number of houses, it has a knack for increasing the size of houses, as a study by Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out. The deduction has had the unintended consequence of directing capital and labor to high-income residential housing projects that might not have been taken without government intervention—and the benefits overwhelmingly go to the wealthy.

This is all before considering the regressive effects of the policy by design: low- and middle-income renters are made to subsidize the increasingly opulent residences (and sometimes the extra vacation homes!) of their more well-off peers while they struggle to make ends meet in a sometimes-inhospitable economy. This injustice, combined with the inefficacy of the tax deduction to increase homeownership in any meaningful way, causes the justifications for the mortgage interest deduction to grow scarce.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that this policy, which evaded the fate of its similar counterpart—the credit card interest deduction—during the tax fight of 1986, continues as law not because of good economics but because of bad political incentives.

Horpedahl and Searles offer three proposals for scaling back the home mortgage interest deduction: policymakers could 1) eliminate the deduction entirely, 2) eliminate the deduction while simultaneously lowering marginal income tax rates to compensate for the virtual tax increase, or 3) stop the deduction and replace it with a tax credit that taxpayers could redeem upon purchase of their first house. Horpedahl and Searles demonstrate that while this deduction is popular with the public and the real estate industry, it is simply a bad deal for most taxpayers.

New Research on West Virginia’s Medicaid Reforms

Today, the Mercatus Cetner released a new policy brief by Tami Gurley-Calvez on Medicaid reforms implemented in West Virginia, based on a working paper she wrote this fall.  In 2007 the state enacted a Medicaid redesign with one objective being to reduce the rate at which Medicaid patients visited emergency rooms for non-emergencies. Additionally, the plan, called Mountain Health Choices, was intended to incentivize healthy behaviors among Medicaid recipients.

The “choice” in the new plan was an option for women and children to opt into an enhanced plan or default into a basic plan. The enhanced plan offered greater benefits but required participants to agree to “doing [their] best to stay healthy’ and to agree to visit their primary care physician for non-emergency treatment. The objective of reducing ER visits was to both reduce healthcare costs for state taxpayers and to improve healthcare outcomes.

Gurley-Calvez finds that with the Mountain Health Choices reforms, patients on this enhanced plan did visit the emergency room at lower rates. However, patients who defaulted into the basic plan began to visit the emergency room at a higher rate, potentially because they were not eligible for treatment for some illnesses with a primary care doctor. She explains:

Based on this research, states should consider whether they can create a greater connection between health providers and members’ involvement in their own health care. However, policymakers must be cognizant of what drives member decision making in their policy designs. In the West Virginia case, a majority of members did not enroll in the enhanced plan in the short term despite additional health coverage and no direct monetary costs to enrollment. Further, states should consider the possible costs, both near term and future, of restricting treatment options by limiting coverage levels.

This case of attempted cost savings by changing incentives represents an ever-present challenge in public policy. Predicting how people will react to new policies in a changing world is difficult, and policymakers should not be overly confident that the incentives that they design will result in the outcomes that they anticipate.

New Research on Streamlining Commissions

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Fall Research Conference to present research on streamlining commissions with Carmine Scavo. Carmine and I have written one paper developing a methodology for studying these commissions, and we’re now working on case studies of commissions in nine states.

Well over half of states have appointed one or more streamlining commissions in efforts to find budget savings or to improve state programs. We’re studying streamlining efforts in California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, New York, Maine and Virginia. We hope to get an idea of how effectively these commissions have reduced the size of state government and found efficiencies in existing programs. We also hope to identify the characteristics that make commissions most likely to meet their goals.

In our first paper, we hypothesized that commission success would depend on the following characteristics:

1) clearly defined objectives regarding their final product;

2) a clear timeline for this deliverable with an opportunity to publish interim advice. Preliminary findings indicate that the commission should have at least one year to work;

3) adequate funds to hire an independent staff to study some issues in depth;

4) a majority of the commission members from outside the government. The commission chair certainly should be from outside the government in order to help to get around the challenges that inherently restrict the ability to find streamlining opportunities while working in government. Preliminary findings indicate that representatives from the state legislature and administration should be involved as a minority of the membership to ensure that the commission’s recommendations have buy-in from policymakers.

So far, our research indicates that funding for commissions may not be as important as we’d though. Some commissions have achieved successes with essentially no budgets while others that were well-funded developed recommendations that didn’t go anywhere.

Tomorrow we will be presenting our preliminary findings on the California Commission on the 21st Century Economy, the Colorado Pits and Peeves Roundtable Initiative, and the Virginia Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring. Once we finish this research I will write up our findings in more depth here. If any of you will be attending the APPAM conference, I hope to see you there.

New Research on Dedicated Taxes

Earlier this week, George Crowley and Adam Hoffer published new Mercatus research on dedicated tax revenues in the states. The practice of dedicating tax revenues to a specific purpose is popular among both politicians and voters. Dedicating new taxes to a specific program gives the illusion of fiscal discipline by making it appear as if the new revenue is not contributing to the overall growth of government.

As an example, policymakers may implement a cigarette tax dedicated to funding public health programs. On the surface, such a program appears to achieve many laudable goals. It could curb smoking rates and improve health without a big increase in the size of government or increasing the tax burden for nonsmokers.

As Crowley and Hoffer demonstrate, though, dedicated tax revenues don’t actually go to the programs they are said to support. Say that a policymaker implements a 1% tax on cars to fund bike lanes and that this tax generates $1 million in revenue. Without the tax, the state would have spent $5 million on bike lanes. Without violating any budget laws, the state could spend, say, $5.1 million on bike lanes under the new tax and then spend the rest of the “dedicated” revenue on whatever programs they like.

The practice is perhaps easier to see at the household level. Governments can give low-income food stamps, as a subsidy “dedicated” to food. If a household gets $100 in food stamps per week, it’s easy to sell the program as providing $100 of additional food per week. This is an inaccurate way to look at it though. Without the subsidy, the household will spend some money on food, say $80 on food per week. With the subsidy, they now spend an extra $20 on food and have $80 left over for other goods. At the state level and the household level, this effect takes place because money is fungible. Specific dollars cannot be dedicated to specific uses.

Crowley and Hoffer’s research is important because the revenue from dedicated taxes is difficult to follow. Policymakers can take advantage of this characteristic to mask the growth of state government. Crowley and Hoffer suggest that voters should seek to ban the practice of earmarking tax revenues for specific programs to make the growth of state governments more transparent.

New Research on Freedom and Entrepreneurship

Here are a few findings from my recent paper with Joshua Hall and John Pulito titled “Freedom and Entrepreneurship: New Evidence from the 50 States”

  • Humans are entrepreneurial by nature. We desire to improve our material well-being, which drives us to innovate, often through new business creation. Despite the ever-present tendency toward entrepreneurship, public policy can have a significant impact on the incentives for entrepreneurial activity. Economists often call these incentives the “rules of the game.”
  • When making the decision to take on a new business, entrepreneurs must weigh the risks against the potential payout. Policy makers have the power to raise the cost of starting a new business by raising taxes or increasing regulatory costs, and they have the power to lower the cost by pursuing stable and consistent public policy initiatives consistent with economic freedom, such as low, broad-based taxes and prudent regulation.
  • Previous research has demonstrated that “rules of the game” favoring lower taxes and limited regulation—as measured by economic freedom indices—encourage entrepreneurship. Studies have found similar results both in comparisons across the states and in comparisons across countries. “Freedom and Entrepreneurship: New Evidence from the 50 States” uses an index of freedom, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Freedom in the 50 States by Will Ruger and Jason Sorens. The study confirms earlier results: economic freedom permits higher levels of entrepreneurship, as measured by the creation of new businesses.
  • Freedom in the 50 States includes measures of both economic and personal freedom. Personal freedom had not previously been studied as a factor in the entrepreneurship level, and this study found that it did not in fact have a significant impact on business creation. Only economic freedom appears to have a positive impact on entrepreneurship, although personal freedom is of course important for other reasons.
  • This additional evidence that economic freedom is correlated with entrepreneurship should encourage policy makers to pursue changes that increase their states’ economic freedom. The evidence suggests that by increasing economic freedom, policy makers have significant power to improve their states’ climate for new business creation. For example, if policy makers in Ohio— which currently ranks 32nd in the Freedom in the 50 States’ Economic Freedom index—increased the state’s ranking to the level of Nevada, which ranks 23rd, Ohio residents could expect to see a 33 percent increase in new business creation. Lower tax rates, lower regulatory burdens, and lower barriers to trade can all encourage citizens to pursue their drive toward entrepreneurship.

Click here to read the paper in its entirety.

New Research on Immigration Policy

Immigration reform is something that has already surfaced in the recent GOP debates and will certainly receive more attention in the coming months as we make our way further into another presidential election year. The Cato Institute recently released a special edition of the Cato Journal titled “Is Immigration Good for America” in order to influence this debate and help individuals better understand the possibilities for reform.

Each of the 13 articles in this edition of the journal provides a unique insight into a wide variety of issues concerning current immigration policy. Here are a few summaries of some of the arguments I found particularly interesting.

In his article titled “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” Bryan Caplan explores many of the prominent objectives to the liberalization of immigration policy through a moral lens. He concludes his argument with the following:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint [against liberalization]. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.

In his article titled “Immigration and the Welfare State” Daniel T. Griswold, the editor of this edition of the journal, provides an interesting argument concerning the assertion that immigrants impose extreme long term fiscal burdens on U.S. taxpayers. He concludes with the following:

For those concerned about the fiscal impact of immigration, the goal should be to wall off the welfare state, not our country. As far as constitutionally possible, Congress and the states should deny welfare payments to non-citizen immigrants. This would be good for the immigrants because they could more easily avoid the disincentives to work and family formation caused by welfare payments. It would be good for U.S. taxpayers because it would reduce demand for welfare spending. And it would be good for the U.S. economy because it would remove one of the more potent political arguments against expanded legal immigration.

In our article titled “U.S. Immigration Policy in the 21st Century: A Market-Based Approach,” Joshua Hall, Richard Vedder, and I argue that visas should not be allocated based on arbitrary political criteria but instead through the price system. Our proposal has several components but consists largely of creating an NASDAQ-style international market for visas. From our paper:

The United States is the light of the world, a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Immigration is both a cause and a consequence of this reality. It is obvious that high volumes of immigration can lead to cultural clashes and can challenge our infrastructure. Thus realistically the body politic will insist that limits be placed on it. Let’s allocate access to our great country on the basis of supply and demand, reflecting the intensity of preferences of immigrants themselves and potential employers, rather than on a political process that is simply not as good as the market in allocating resources.

I think these articles, along with the other articles in this edition of the Cato Journal, are definitely worth a read and hopefully we will see these ideas influence the coming debates.