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The Politics of Tax Expenditures: Three Essays on Policymaking Through the U.S. Tax Code Open Access

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In recent decades, American policymakers have often used tax breaks (or tax expenditures) to pursue goals that could be achieved through more direct and transparent government action. Why has the tax code become such a popular policy tool for lawmakers? And what are the implications of this practice for the politics of established programs? My dissertation examines the impact of policy design on political support for and durability of government programs. In the first essay, I use a newly expanded longitudinal dataset to demonstrate that tax expenditures are more vulnerable to elimination than other types of policies. Moreover, among tax expenditures, those that serve narrower or wealthier constituencies are not as long-lived as those that serve broader populations. In the second essay, I use historical case studies to examine these dynamics qualitatively, and find that in at least some legislative contexts, policymakers are more concerned with avoiding the blame of the general public than with preserving benefits for favored interests or industries. The third essay examines the special appeal that tax breaks seem to hold for American citizens. Using a series of survey experiments, I demonstrate that Americans are more favorably disposed toward government interventions in three different policy areas when they are carried out through the tax code, even when the costs and other policy characteristics are held constant. I demonstrate the complex interplay between what government does and what citizens think government should do. Taken together, these essays contribute significantly to our empirical and theoretical knowledge on tax expenditures and indirect governance by testing hypotheses about indirect governance and tax expenditures with new and systematic data. In so doing, it yields new theoretical insights.

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