Ryan’s budget proposals belie concerns about inequality

The Congressional Budget Office recently released a comprehensive report on income distribution and inequality trends of the last three decades. The report was widely viewed as an affirmation that the Occupy Wall Street movement’s concern with the distribution of economic rewards is well-founded.

Strikingly, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) interpreted the report as an affirmation that his budget policy wish list is a panacea for the societal challenges of income inequality and economic mobility. The House Budget Committee Majority Staff’s 17-page rebuttal dodges the broad takeaway of CBO’s report by distinguishing between economic mobility and absolute well-being versus relative inequality, but Ryan’s own budget proposals belie this distinction.

As Ezra Klein points out, Ryan’s report presents a false dichotomy between closing the income gap (i.e., redistribution through a progressive tax) and growing the economic pie (i.e., regressive tax cuts for upper-income households). Implied is that redistributive policies increasing taxes on upper-income households would sharply reduce economic activity, making all households absolutely worse off. But this premise is contradicted by recent experience: President Bush cut taxes for upper-income households and we got the worst economic expansion since World War II, in which the ‘economic pie’ grew a meager 2.6 percent annually (and 65 percent of national income gains went to the highest-income 1 percent of households). The failure of the supply side experiment is unsurprising given ample evidence in the economics literature that the elasticity of taxable income is relatively low, changes in the top marginal tax rate have little impact on productive investment, and marginal tax rates are well below optimal rates.

Yet there is a more fundamental problem with Ryan’s analysis. Ryan is for redistribution, but the kind of redistribution that shifts the burden of taxation from upper-income households to the middle class. Just look at the Ryan Roadmap, his 2010 budget that served as a blueprint for the House Republican 2012 budget. The figure below depicts how the Roadmap would change shares of federal taxes paid and average federal tax rates paid by cash income levels, relative to current policy (from this Tax Policy Center table). Households with income above $1 million would see their average tax rate plummet from 29 percent to 13 percent, lowering their share of federal taxes paid by 10 percentage points. On average, households earning between $20,000 and $200,000 would see their taxes rise, subsidizing the upper-income tax cut. More than two-thirds of households would see a tax increase.

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This redistribution will not close the income gap or foster economic mobility; this will merely confer a tax cut of $500,000 to households earning over $1 million annually. And for the reasons noted above, these tax changes are unlikely to spur long-term growth (any more than the public investments that Ryan’s budget would instead cut).

Finally, Ryan’s rhetorical support for economic mobility is contradicted by his oppositions to the very policies that promote mobility. Education and training provide a means by which low-income Americans can climb the socioeconomic ladder, and the social safety net helps that climb by lowering its risk. Yet Ryan supports massive cuts to these government functions and programs, such as Pell Grants helping low-income students pay for college.

Ryan’s acknowledgment that income inequality is a problem is certainly appreciated, but one wonders if the staffers who wrote this rebuttal are actually familiar with his policy positions.


  • Benjamin Hodes

    A political Elmer Gantry who peddled what Paul Krugman called the “ludicrous and cruel” budget proposals (N. Y. Times,  04/08/2011). In evidence of his hypocrisy, It should be pointed out that he voted for TARP.

    His rise in the Republican party, despite any real economic gravitas, is indicative of the intellectual vacuousness of the vast majority of Republican ideas about how to deal with our economic problems.

    Benjamin Hodes
    Pittsburgh, PA

  • Brent Pittman

    Paul Ryan, the Republicans and the Democrats  are going in the wrong direction. To SAVE the US entrepreneurial ranking, credit rating, stock market, the $, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and the police, fire, k-12 public school, library, military, defense and homeland security budgets while CUTTING government spending, debt and present tax rates without causing inflation or high interest rates; both State and Federal parties would be winners if they would compromise with the following strategies: Create good paying American jobs with good benefits for American citizens by repealing all sales taxes & replace the lost revenue with an import tax/tariff on imported labor (India) & manufactured goods (Mexico, Communist China & Vietnam). Increase the federal income tax deduction from $5700 (2010) to $15000 for American citizens. Increase the IN state income tax exemption for non-dependent adults from $1000 to $5000, up to $15,000; depending on disabilities and age. All standard deductions and exemptions should be adjusted for inflation. Collect an export tax on natural resources/commodities such as coal, oil, natural gas & grains. Repeal all wealthy individual, business and new development/construction tax incentives such as tax abatement, tax increment financing, grants, deductions, credits, tax free bonds, earmarks and loopholes that are creating poverty wage American jobs or exporting jobs. OR, require these corporate welfare kings to pay a living wage, minimum wage of $15/hour with good benefits; adjusted for inflation. Collect mandatory impact fees (IN code: 36-7-4-1300, only infrastructure today); but, expand the code to collect impact fees for schools, libraries, parks, police and fire. Search for Brent Pittman Brownsburg, IN at flyergroup.com, LinkedIn.com and google.com for more information and details.

  • Rsfenwick2

    Hi Andrew.  Are you familiar with economic historian James Livingston?  An article of his http://hnn.us/articles/55368.html makes a strong argument that there’s no empirical evidence that surplus capital fuels economic growth, especially in this global, financialized economy.  You obviously already know this, but Livingston brings historical context in a powerful way.

  • Dale David Mills

    Hi Andrew.  Are you familiar with The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx?
    One of the key planks to destroy the free enterprise system is a progressive income tax.  Why not replace the income tax with a national sales tax?