Tax Expenditures Are a Poor Way of Subsidizing Infrastructure Investment

The intuitive consequence of the U.S. political system’s aversion to taxes is lower levels of public services and public infrastructure. In reality, however, one major consequence is a tendency to provide services and infrastructure through relatively inefficient methods. The reason is that there are two ways for the government to try to finance things. One is to spend more money and the other is to create a special tax break. Either of these things implies offsetting tax increases in the long run. But the tendency is for conservatives and centrists to treat “tax cuts” as good and “spending” as bad, thus putting a big thumb on the scales in favor of using tax expenditures rather than spending.

One special case of this is the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance infrastructure investment. The federal government exempts certain classes of bonds from income taxation, typically bonds issued by state and local governments to finance investments in school construction or transportation. This subsidizes infrastructure investment and it costs money. A different approach would be to just spend federal dollars on subsidizing infrastructure investment. The CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation have a new study out on the issue concluding that this tax expenditure approach is highly inefficient. As the Director’s Blog explains:

That study concludes that the amount that the federal government forgoes through tax-exempt bond financing is greater than the associated reduction in borrowing costs for state and local governments. Some analysts have estimated the magnitude of that differential and conclude that several billion dollars each year may simply accrue to bondholders in higher income-tax brackets without providing any cost savings to borrowers.

The reason is that the value of the subsidy is shared between the infrastructure project and the buyer of the bond. Consequently $1 in federal tax expenditure generates less than $1 in reduced borrowing costs. In fact, according to the report “only about 80 percent of the tax expenditure from tax-exempt bonds actually translates inot lower borrowing costs for states and localities, with the remaining 20 percent simply taking the form of a federal transfer to bondholders in higher tax brackets.”

In other words, the approximately $7.5 billion in annual lost tax revenue is generating only $6 billion in additional infrastructure investment.


I originally had the math wrong in the final paragraph. This is a corrected version.


,I originally had the math wrong in the final paragraph. This is a corrected version.