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Nation/World

December 8, 2012

Higher rates or fewer tax breaks?

WASHINGTON — In the fiscal cliff wars, a pivotal battle is raging between Democrats demanding to raise revenue by boosting tax rates on the nation’s highest earners and Republicans insisting on eliminating deductions and other tax breaks instead. Which is better for the economy? Analysts say it depends.

Economists generally agree that a simpler tax code with lower rates and fewer deductions, exemptions and credits would help the economy. With fewer tax preferences, people would be more likely to seek the best investments for their money instead of the most lucrative tax breaks. And lower rates would leave them more money to spend. Both would add oomph to the economy.

But ask whether the higher tax rates that President Barack Obama wants would hurt the economy more than curbing deductions, as Republicans assert, and the picture is less clear. While many economists say the economy theoretically would work more efficiently if the tax code provided fewer preferences, many said it would depend on which deductions lawmakers curb — a complicated exercise in a world where one person’s wasteful loophole may be viewed by others as an economic lifeline.

For example, one of the biggest tax breaks is the widely popular deduction for interest on home mortgages below $1 million. Because of it, the government this year will take in $87 billion less than it would if the deduction didn’t exist.

That deduction allows many to buy homes they otherwise couldn’t afford and is strenuously defended by the housing industry. But critics say it does little to help lower-income people while it encourages others to go into debt for costlier homes than they need — an activity they say taxpayers should not subsidize.

“I’d definitely go for cutting deductions first, especially if I have the opportunity to make the choices about which deductions go,” said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley.

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