So, imagine my surprise when I realized two things:
- The mortgage tax deduction is a very regressive tax break as it benefits high income earners far more than low income earners, and the size of the deduction is much higher for more expensive homes (although it does cap at $1 million).
- Many developed countries do not have a mortgage tax deduction and have just as high rates of home ownership as the USA. Canada is a good example of this.
But the bigger problem with the mortgage tax deduction is that it is a subsidy of debt, and it makes debt (and investment in debt) profitable. This, I admit, I never understood until I came upon an old (Nov 2009) article by the very clear writer, James Surowiecki, in the New Yorker. Surowiecki himself pulled from another source, the iconic John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that financial crises are the result of “debt that, in one fashion or another, has become dangerously out of scale.” Surowiecki points out that we have a tax system that subsidizes borrowing (what economists call a “debt bias”) and claims, “Debt didn’t get dangerously out of scale because the system was broken. It got out of scale, in part, because the system worked.”
For example, if a corporation wants to expand, it is cheaper for it to borrow the money than to reinvest profits or sell more shares. Business is allowed to deduct all the interest they pay, which gives highly indebted companies more deductions than those which are more profitable and debt free. And now, of course, the government is bailing out these very companies that were over leveraged!
So back to my house. It is true that we had a nice size tax deduction when we first bought the house. The longer we own it, the less interest and more principal we pay, so the savings go down every year. The total amount we will save over our current 15 year loan (we just refinanced) is about $26,000, or a little over $2,200 per year ($6.00 per day/ $42 per week) When I think about how people talk about the mortgage tax deduction, I would have predicted saving much more than that. It is less than I spent last night taking my nieces to the movies. Would I give that up for a fairer tax system? In a heartbeat.