Robert Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post, has a very important insight about tax rates and sleaze in Washington.
His column is mostly about Obama’s anti-tax reform agenda, but it includes this very important passage.
…many politicians support tax breaks for favored groups (the elderly, the poor, small business) and causes (homeownership, attending college, “green” industries). This enhances their power. The man who really pronounced the death sentence for the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was Bill Clinton, who increased the top rate to 39.6 percent rather than broadening the base. As the top rate rose, so did the value of generating new tax breaks. Ironically, many of the people who complain the loudest about Washington influence-peddling and lobbying are the same people who support higher tax rates, which stimulate more influence-peddling and lobbying.
The last sentence is key. Higher tax rates are good news for the politicians, interest groups, bureaucrats, and lobbyists that dominate Washington.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s pretend we have a modest tax rate of 20 percent. Now imagine you are part of an industry with $200 million in profits and you want a special tax break. How much are you willing to pay to get that loophole?
Well, with a 20 percent tax, the most you can save (assuming the loophole is huge and you wipe out all your tax liability) is $40 million.
So how much would you spend on lobbyists, campaign contributions, etc, in order to get that loophole? That’s hard to answer, because it would require some estimate of the probability of success. But one thing we can safely assume is that the industry would never spend more than $40 million.