Governments can also raise money through user fees, the money charged to citizens for doing certain things. Examples include fees for using public parks, fees for obtaining licenses (such as a driver’s or hunting license), or charging tolls for using certain roads. User fees are a popular way to raise revenue because they are not technically taxes, and they only affect those who use the particular government service.
Governments use tax credits to alleviate the income tax burden for some activities. A tax credit is deducted from the amount of taxes a person owes. A good example is the Earned Income Tax Credit program in the United States. The EITC gives lower-income workers back some of the money they paid in payroll taxes. Tax credits are also known as tax expenditures.
A loophole is a specific provision within a tax law that allows individuals or corporations to reduce the amount they owe in taxes. Politicians put loopholes in tax law in order to reward certain types of behavior (investing in alternate fuel sources, for example). In the United States, the number of loopholes has expanded greatly since the last major tax reform of 1986.
Loopholes and tax credits mean that a person usually does not pay the given tax; he or she usually pays less. The effective tax rate is the percentage of income that one actually pays in taxes.
Example: In the United States, few people pay the basic rate on their income tax. Every taxpayer is allowed a deduction (standard or itemized), and most are allowed to deduct certain exemptions from their taxable income. Other deductions and credits can reduce the tax burden further. In some extreme cases, people making millions of dollars pay very little in tax because of tax loopholes, deductions, and shelters (a catch-all term for anything that reduces the amount of taxable income).
Government spending and borrowing affect the economy. Most governments spend a great deal of money in their annual budgets. How that money is spent affects people in different ways. Some expenditures create jobs, thereby lessening unemployment. Other expenditures subsidize certain industries, as when a government buys a fleet of cars to aid the automotive industry. Governments also spend money on infrastructure (such as building roads) and defense (such as counterterrorism and the military). Other expenditures, such as worker training, can boost the economy too.
When a government spends the same amount of money it takes in, the government has balanced the budget. A surplus arises when a government receives more money than it spends.
When a government spends more than it takes in, it runs a deficit. Taxes raise only a limited amount of money, so if governments wish to spend more than they have made, they must borrow the difference. The total of all deficits owed by a government is the national debt (also called the public debt), which must be repaid eventually. Generally, governments tolerate and accept some debt, but too much debt carried for too long causes serious problems.
Example: As of February 2010, the United States had a national debt of over $12 trillion.
Governments most often borrow money by issuing government bonds. When a person buys a bond, the government promises to pay back the purchase price plus interest to the owner. In the United States, bonds are sometimes called T Bonds or T Bills because they are issued by the Treasury Department.
Large-scale government spending can increase inflation. If the government buys a lot of goods, it causes an increase in demand for those goods, which causes prices to rise. Sometimes governments are willing to tolerate some rise in inflation to stimulate the economy, but over time, excessive spending and high inflation can create problems.
Government borrowing sometimes creates problems because it drives up interest rates. Interest, or the price of borrowing money, goes up when there is an increase in demand for borrowing, which is why heavy government borrowing often drives up interest rates. High interest rates, in turn, hurt the ability of citizens and businesses to borrow money. This chain reaction slows the economy.
In the early years of the twentieth century, economist John Maynard Keynes argued that governments should step in to actively help the economy. According to Keynesian economics, government spending during a recession shortens the length of the recession and keeps the recession from becoming severe. Often this process entailed deficit spending, or intentionally spending more money than the government has.
Keynesian economics is categorized as demand-side economics. It stimulates consumer demand by putting more money into consumers’ hands in order to improve the economy. In contrast, supply-side economics tries to improve the economy by providing big tax cuts to businesses and wealthy individuals (the supply side). These cuts encourage investment, which then creates jobs, so the effect will be felt throughout the economy. Supply-side economics is sometimes called trickle-down economics. Although demand-side economics has worked very successfully in much of the world since World War II, some economists and policymakers favor supply-side economics. Also, a number of recent American presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, have relied on supply-side economics to pull the economy out of recessions.