On Tuesday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) marked up, but didn’t vote on, a budget modeled off of the report by National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson (often called the “Bowles-Simpson” report), which failed to garner the requisite support of a super majority of the Fiscal Commission’s members in Dec. 2010.
A budget alternative based on (albeit significantly to the right of) the Bowles-Simpson report recently went down in flames in the House of Representatives—by a crushing vote of 382-38. Stan Collender recently published an excellent piece on the cult-like efforts and failed politics of resurrecting the Bowles-Simpson report since its demise. Essentially, politicians and pundits cling to the Bowles-Simpson report as a talisman to signal their “seriousness” about reducing budget deficits. But it’s worth looking at the dismal economic fundamentals behind the Bowles-Simpson grandstanding, because the report’s recommendations were and remain terrible economic policy. It’s just one more reminder that “popular among Washington pundits” rarely correlates with “good economic policy.”
In Dec. 2010, my colleague Josh Bivens and I estimated that the Bowles-Simpson report would have sharply reduced aggregate demand and employment by failing to accommodate near-term stimulus and prematurely moving toward deficit reduction:
“One of the guiding principles of the Co-Chairs’ plan reads “Don’t Disrupt a Fragile Economic Recovery,” but the details make clear that this is nothing but lip service to the persistent economic challenges this country will face for years. Rather than budgeting for more desperately needed fiscal stimulus in the near-term, their sole acknowledgement of the Great Recession and the painfully slow recovery since it ended over a year ago is to “start gradually; begin cuts in FY2012.”
That diagnosis has only solidified in the interim. Here was the Bowles-Simpson four-pronged approach to supposed economic stewardship:
- Reduce the deficit gradually, starting in FY2012
- Put in place a credible plan to stabilize the debt
- Consider a temporary payroll tax holiday in FY2011
- Implement pro-growth tax and spending policies
How prudent would it be to have begun deficit reduction in fiscal 2012? At the start of the fiscal year (Oct. 2011) the unemployment rate stood at 8.9 percent and real GDP had grown a meager 1.6 percent in the year to 4Q 2011—not exactly the robust recovery that could accommodate deep fiscal retrenchment. Fiscal stimulus required more than consideration and a fully paid for payroll tax holiday—bigger deficits and a mix of spending measures and targeted tax cuts were needed (and actually enacted, albeit on a vastly insufficient scale). And it’s downright disingenuous to pawn off big spending cuts, particularly to the non-security discretionary budget, as a pro-growth spending policy. Collectively, this amounts to economic pain with little to no budgetary gain: Berkeley economist Brad DeLong estimates that in light of current growth and interest rates, fiscal expansion is entirely self-financing with regard to the long-run fiscal outlook; conversely, fiscal contraction would be largely to entirely self-defeating.
Beneath this pretense, Bowles-Simpson proposed $50 billion in primary spending cuts for FY12 and $138 billion for FY13 (as well as $4 billion and $29 billion, respectively, in tax increases which would have exerted a much smaller fiscal drag per dollar than spending reductions). Further obstructing recovery, the Bowles-Simpson report would not have accommodated the piecemeal stimulus that Congress has enacted since Dec. 2010, including $227 billion for payroll tax cuts, $95 billion in emergency unemployment compensation, $44 billion for expanded refundable tax credits, and $22 billion for (admittedly less effective) business investment incentives.
Relative to the course Congress has taken, the adverse economic impact proposed by the Bowles-Simpson report is stark. The Moment of Truth Project rescored the Bowles-Simpson report based on the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2011 baseline. For an apples-to-apples comparison, I’ve adjusted non-interest outlays and revenue for economic and technical—but not legislative—changes to the CBO’s budget projections since that March 2011 baseline. Relative to current budget policy, the Bowles-Simpson plan would have reduced non-interest spending by $53 billion in FY12 and $79 billion in FY13 and increased revenue by $107 billion in FY12 and $167 billion in FY13 (largely reflecting the payroll tax cut). As a result, economic output would be 1.3 percent lower in FY12 and 2.0 percent lower in fiscal 2013. This shock to aggregate demand would reduce nonfarm payroll employment by 1.6 million jobs in FY12 and 2.4 million jobs in FY13, again relative to current budget policies.
Piecemeal stimulus was far from optimal—but also unequivocally preferable to a deficit reduction grand bargain that would have thrown recovery off track. This isn’t to suggest that Congress has done a bang-up job with economic policy since Dec. 2010; the Budget Control Act (i.e., debt ceiling deal) was terrible fiscal policy and passing the entire American Jobs Act would have done substantially more to reduce joblessness than merely continuing the payroll tax cut and emergency unemployment compensation. But the public should be relieved that American policymakers haven’t fully embraced European-style austerity, thereby choking off economic recovery with nothing to show for it. It’s time for Washington to stop trying to breathe life back into the Bowles-Simpson plan and let it die the obscure death it deserves.
So far this year, the IRS has received 99 million tax returns and distributed an average refund of $2,794. If you still haven’t submitted your return, or filed an extension, you have until midnight to do so. Thankfully, there’s no such deadline for looking over these tax figures — as depressing as they might be:
1. The 400 highest income filers paid an average tax rate of 16.6 percent in 2007 (before the Great Recession). Dividends and net capital gains accounted for 73.4 percent of the adjusted gross income for these filers, explaining why their average effective tax rate is just a shade above the 15 percent preferential rate on unearned income.
2. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has an estimated net worth between $190 million and $250 million, paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent in 2010 on $21.7 million in income because of the carried interest loophole and the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends.
3. In 2011, the top 1 percent of households by cash income received 75.1 percent of the benefit from the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends. The middle class, meanwhile, received only 3.9 percent of that benefit.
4. Over the past 35 years, Congress has gradually lowered the top tax rate on capital gains from 40 percent in 1977 to the preferential rate of 15 percent today, courtesy of the Bush-era tax cuts. The Bush tax cuts also lowered the rate on qualified dividends—previously taxed as ordinary income—from 39.6 percent to just 15 percent.
5. The Bush tax cuts cost $2.6 trillion over the last decade, accounting for roughly half of the increase in the public debt over this period, while failing to generate a robust (or even mediocre) economic recovery.
6. Roughly half of the Bush tax cuts went to the highest-income 10 percent of earners, even though these earners captured more than 90 percent of national income gains between 1979 and 2007.
7. The top 1 percent of earners received 38 percent of the Bush tax cuts, despite capturing 65 percent of income gains during the Bush economic expansion (2002-2007).
8. Continuing the Bush-era tax cuts would cost $4.4 trillion over the next decade, which would single-handedly move the country from a sustainable to unsustainable fiscal path.
9. The additional tax cuts in Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget—beyond continuing the Bush tax cuts, which would be financed with deep spending cuts—have no offset and would lose $4.6 trillion in revenue over a decade, blowing a huge hole in the budget.
10. Massive, unaffordable tax cuts were also the currency of the Republican presidential primary race, with proposed tax cuts that would lose up to $900 billion annually—which at 4.9 percent of GDP would more than double projected budget deficits under a continuation of current policies—above and beyond the costly Bush tax cuts.
Follow Andrew Fieldhouse on Twitter: @A_Fieldhouse
In all seriousness, when did singlehandedly “fixing the deficit” become a necessary criterion for each and every tax and budget policy proposal? David Fahrenthold and David Nakamura invoke this strange new rule in an article in today’s Washington Post.
“Neither [the Paul Ryan budget nor the Buffett Rule] will fix the deficit problem anytime soon: The GOP’s proposal wouldn’t balance the budget until 2040. By itself, the Buffett Rule wouldn’t do it ever.”
There is a lot wrong in this sentence.
First, comparing a comprehensive budget proposal to a single tax reform is an apples-to-oranges (or apple-to-bushel-of-apples) comparison. Second, the Ryan budget doesn’t actually balance the budget until … well ever. The too-often cited Congressional Budget Office’s long-term analysis evoked here is based on the false premise that revenue will magically hold at 19 percent of GDP, ignoring the trillions of dollars of budget-busting, gimmicky tax cuts (Ryan assures that this money and more can be made up by “broadening the base” of taxation but offers no specifics). Lastly, nobody invokes the Buffett Rule as the single instrument for balancing the budget—very few fiscal policies have that reach. Take an extreme example: Immediately abolishing the Department of Defense would not balance the budget within a decade, relative to current policies. That’s besides the point–cutting more than $7 trillion in non-interest spending over a decade would produce a sustainable fiscal trajectory (ignoring sizable second-order cyclical budget effects from the massive hit to aggregate demand). The trajectory for debt held by the public is the relevant metric of fiscal sustainability, not a binary for budget deficit/budget surplus.
Fahrenthold and Nakamura double-down on brushing off non-trivial budgetary savings, also missing the broader fiscal implications of the Buffett Rule: “Even if it passed, the [Buffett Rule] would not likely make a serious dent in the country’s deficit. It might add up to $162 billion over 10 years. The national debt grows fast enough to wipe that out within two months.”
So $162 billion in budgetary savings is something to laugh at? I’ll remember that next time conservatives propose to reduce the deficit by drug-testing unemployment insurance recipients, eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, or defunding Planned Parenthood. To be more concrete, these savings would more than supplant the draconian $134 billion 10-year cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) proposed in the Ryan budget.
Further, the criticism that $162 billion is dwarfed by this year’s budget deficit is doubly misleading. For one, budget deficits have swelled in recent years because the economy is so weak. Comparing a 10-year cost-estimate of just about anything to the sizable but cyclical budget deficits spurred by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is unhelpful. Further, policymakers shouldn’t be concerned at all with reducing this year’s budget deficit; serious concerns about budget imbalance are about stabilizing debt in the medium and long-term, after the economy has recovered. Revenue from implementing the Buffett Rule would be weighted toward the out years, where savings will be larger relative to projected budget deficits than today, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) echoed this very same misguided sentiment in a statement on the Buffett Rule: “The President’s so-called Buffett Rule is a dog that just won’t hunt. It was designed for no other reason than politics – there is no economic rationale for it. It would do little to bring down the debt…” This specious “if it doesn’t fix the entire problem, it’s not worth doing,” objection to raising more revenue and increasing tax progressivity was similarly trotted out in defense of the upper-income Bush-era tax cuts, the expiration of which would raise $849 billion over a decade. Luckily, Jon Stewart decided to smack at this bad argument. He probably won’t have time to go after this latest Washington Post article, which is a shame because it’s about as silly.
Note: Since this blog post was first published, the Tax Policy Center has updated its revenue scoring of the tax provisions in the Ryan budget. Numbers and figures have been revised to reflect the more recent score.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget, which passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote last week, continues to receive deserved criticism for its thoroughly dishonest treatment of the sweeping tax cuts it proposes. In a scathing critique, Paul Krugman honed in on its “fraudulent” nature: “The Ryan budget purports to reduce the deficit — but the alleged deficit reduction depends on the completely unsupported assertion that trillions of dollars in revenue can be found by closing tax loopholes.” William Gale of the Brookings Institution similarly concluded that “Ryan is gaming the system in creating budget estimates. … This is smoke and mirrors.
The contours of the Ryan budget’s tax cuts, as scored by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (TPC), are as follows:
- Cut and consolidate individual income tax rates to 25 percent and 10 percent brackets: $2.5 trillion
- Repeal the alternative minimum tax (AMT): $670 billion
- Repeal the surcharges included in the Affordable Care Act: $351 billion
- Cut the corporate rate to 25 percent and end taxation of multinationals’ foreign income: $1.1 trillion
- Allow Recovery Act expansion of refundable tax credits to expire: $210
= $4.5 trillion in revenue loss
Ryan’s budget blueprint describes these offsets this way: “Broaden the tax base to maintain revenue growth at a level consistent with current tax policy and at a share of the economy consistent with historical norms of 18 to 19 percent in the following decades.” And the budget totals in the Ryan budget reflect revenue averaging 18.3 percent of GDP over FY2013-22; similarly, the Congressional Budget Office’s long-term analysis of Ryan’s budget is predicated on the false assumption—provided by Ryan’s staff—that revenue will somehow total 19 percent of GDP over the long run (FY2025 and beyond).
This is simply dishonest. TPC’s analysis of the Ryan budget shows revenue averaging only 15.5 percent of GDP over FY2013-22, short of unspecified offsets.1 Yet Ryan wanted nearly $5 trillion in tax cuts and wanted revenue levels above 18 percent of GDP. Honest budgeting would force Ryan to choose between these two preferences (trade-offs being the whole point of budgeting). So Ryan chose dishonest budgeting, instead of changing the policy, he just changed the numbers.
We do know one thing about Ryan’s magic asterisk: it wouldn’t come anywhere close to raising revenue equivalent to roughly 3 percentage points of GDP over the decade (or roughly $6 trillion). For starters, he’s ruled out eliminating the preferential tax treatment of capital gains—the tax loophole most skewed toward the very top of the income distribution and estimated to cost $533 billion over the next decade, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Furthermore, a new analysis by Jane Gravelle and Thomas Hungerford of the Congressional Research Service concluded that, “given the barriers to eliminating or reducing most tax expenditures, it may prove difficult to gain more than $100 billion to $150 billion in additional tax revenues through base broadening.” Adjusting for this range of feasible base broadening, the Ryan tax cuts would still require somewhere between $2.6 trillion and $3.2 trillion of deficit-financed tax cuts.2 Look at what happens to Ryan’s fiscal trajectory based on three alternative scenarios adjusting for: 1) no base broadening; 2) the low-end of feasible base broadening; and 3) the high-end of feasible base broadening.3
By 2022, public debt under the Ryan budget would be between $3.0 trillion (+19.6 percent) and $5.3 trillion (+34.2 percent) higher without the magic asterisk—a significant margin of dishonesty. This is not meant to breed fiscal alarmism or validate Ryan’s purported debt target; big budget deficits are inevitable in the aftermath of the Great Recession and premature fiscal retrenchment would jeopardize economic recovery. This is merely to prove that Ryan’s entire claim to fiscal responsibility rests on his tax gimmick.
With these tax cuts blowing the lid off of Ryan’s deficit reduction, his proposed evisceration of Medicaid, the social safety net, and public investments is exposed for what it really is: An attempt to gut the federal government and refund the tax bill to the highest-income households, not reduce the deficit. Some $5.3 trillion in non-defense spending cuts—nearly two-thirds of which come from programs for lower-income households—would roughly finance the $5.4 trillion cost of maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts, reduced estate and gift taxes, and the AMT patch. Ryan’s additional $4.5 trillion in tax cuts—two-thirds of which would go to households earning over $200,000—would be financed with a combination of increasing deficits and reducing tax expenditures other than preferential rates on unearned income, thereby shifting the distribution of the tax burden toward the middle class. Nothing screams fiscal charlatan like trillions of dollars worth of tax cuts skewed toward the affluent but financed by gimmicks and abdication of longstanding commitments to seniors, children, and the disabled.
1. TPC’s analysis is based on CBO’s Jan. 2012 baseline, whereas the Ryan budget is modeled from the March 2012 baseline. Adjusting TPC’s estimate of the Ryan plan for legislative and technical changes since the January baseline, the Ryan plan would see revenue average 15.6 percent of GDP over FY2013-22.
2. The $100 billion low-end and $150 billion high-end for base broadening are both set in FY2013 and held constant as a share of GDP thereafter.
3. The baseline for revenue comes from table S-1 of the Path for Prosperity (rather than TPC’s lower revenue baseline) and has been adjusted for lines 2-6 of TPC’s revenue estimate of the Ryan budget (T12-0123). Baseline outlays and debt held by the public are also taken from S-1, and debt service has been revised accordingly.
The values and policies embodied by the Budget for All, the budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) for fiscal year 2013, offer a stark contrast with those of the budget put forth by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). First, the Budget for All protects Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and other elements of the social safety net. Second, it boosts public investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development. But the Budget for All and the Ryan budget are perhaps most diametrically opposed in their approach to economic stewardship over the weak recovery.
As my colleague Rebecca Thiess highlights, the Budget for All would finance a direct jobs program, infrastructure investments, targeted tax credits, and increased nondefense discretionary spending to ameliorate the ongoing crisis in the U.S. labor market. The Budget for All proposes increasing spending by $786 billion for job creation measures and public investments over the next two-and-a-half years (FY2012-14), relative to current law. This is critical: Expansionary fiscal policy remains the single best lever to fill the gap in aggregate demand and put Americans back to work. The Budget for All would accelerate economic recovery by increasing near-term budget deficits even while reducing longer-term deficits and sustaining primary balance over the second half of the budget window.
The Budget for All would increase mandatory and discretionary spending (excluding overseas military operations) by $259 billion in FY2013 and $261 billion in FY2014, boosting GDP by 2.3 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, relative to current policy (the relevant baseline for aggregate demand). Net of the much smaller fiscal drag exerted by progressive tax reforms being gradually phased in, we estimate that the fiscal expansion proposed by the Budget for All would increase GDP by $280 billion (+1.8 percent) and $167 billion (+1.0 percent), respectively, in FY2013 and FY2014. By substantially boosting near-term aggregate demand, we estimate that the Budget for All would increase non-farm payroll employment by 2.1 million jobs in FY2013 and 1.2 million jobs in FY2014.
Conversely, the Ryan budget would accelerate the looming economic drag from contractionary fiscal policy with deep, aggressive spending cuts—failing the “first, do no harm” principle and sharply impeding job creation. My colleague Ethan Pollack recently estimated that the Ryan budget would reduce employment by 1.3 million jobs in FY2013 and 2.8 million jobs in 2014.*
On net, non-farm payroll employment would be roughly 3.4 million jobs higher by the end of FY2013 and 4.0 million jobs higher by the end of FY2014 if Congress adopted the Budget for All instead of the Ryan budget. To put this in perspective, the economy has gained 2.0 million jobs over the last 12 months but needs more than 10 million jobs to restore pre-recession unemployment and labor force participation rates. Going forward, the CPC budget would markedly accelerate the rate of rehiring, while the Ryan budget would drastically slow—or entirely wipe out—new hiring.
Immediately slashing government spending, as Ryan has proposed, is not a game or a joke—it’s economically irresponsible budget policy that has backfired across much of Europe and would seriously aggravate un- and underemployment. And as proven by the Budget for All, racing down the austerity path isn’t required for a fiscally responsible budget. The CPC budget would reach the same debt level as the Ryan budget without jeopardizing the economic recovery.
Fiscal responsibility demands sound economic stewardship, which means addressing the jobs crisis and closing the gap between potential output and actual GDP (the economy is currently running $883 billion—or 5.4 percent—below potential). While a large output gap persists, government spending cuts will have a particularly adverse impact on aggregate demand and fiscal sustainability will remain elusive. (Again, just look to Europe.)
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has proposed a credible budget that would prioritize jobs first and phase in deficit reduction as the economy strengthens (with emphasis on policies that will have relatively little deleterious impact on aggregate demand). Ryan has produced a budget that would choke off economic recovery in an attempt to gut government and refund the tax bill. The CPC budget is credible and economically viable; the Ryan budget is not. And literally millions of jobs hang in the balance between these two competing visions for the United States of America.
*The employment impact of the Budget for All is meant as an apples-to-apples comparison with these estimates for the Ryan budget, which were also calculated relative to current policy excluding spending on overseas military operations (which has a relatively small impact on domestic output).
Earlier today, the House of Representatives passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in overwhelming bipartisan fashion (390-23). The JOBS Act is a package of six bills, four of which had already passed the House, and all of which would lift or relax Securities and Exchange Commission rules. The bill is intended to make it easier for small businesses to go public. But as the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe notes, “despite its name, Republican leaders couldn’t say how many jobs the bill would help create.” Why? Because cutting red tape doesn’t address the fundamental plight of the U.S. economy: a deep and prolonged aggregate demand slump.
As of Jan. 2012, the U.S. economy had fewer jobs than in Jan. 2001. More than 11 million jobs would be needed to return the unemployment rate to its pre-recession level (5.0 percent). Full employment would not be reached until 2019 if January’s pace of hiring (243,000 jobs added) continues. And the February employment report—due out tomorrow—is projected to show a deceleration in hiring. As of the fourth quarter of 2011, actual economic output fell $883 billion (5.4 percent) below potential economic output. Mass underemployment and a gargantuan output gap can’t be chalked up to red tape—this affliction is the byproduct of the housing market imploding (dragging down with it personal consumption and real estate investment) and fiscal contraction at the state and local level.
- Will the policy make a real difference in job creation in the next 24 months?
- Is the policy effective and efficient?
- How is the policy funded?
- Is the policy at the appropriate scale to produce a substantial number of jobs?
How does the JOBS Act stack up? Well, it won’t make a real difference in near-term hiring. There’s no cost, bang-per-buck, or funding mechanism to be evaluated, period. And rather than being of the wrong scale to produce a substantial number of jobs, the policy is on the wrong scale altogether (the supply side rather than the demand side).
In a divided Congress, bipartisanship is certainly necessary to meaningfully address the jobs crisis at hand, but bipartisan support is hardly a sufficient condition. Restoring full employment requires much more than titling an uncontroversial bill so its acronym spells ‘jobs’ – substantive job creation legislation must noticeably lower the unemployment rate. Unfortunately, the JOBS Act misses that mark altogether.
A couple days ago, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw tried his best to defend the carried interest tax loophole by blowing smoke at the debate and hoping no one would notice. The carried interest loophole allows hedge fund and private equity managers to reclassify their compensation for management services—a hefty slice of the return on their investors’ capital—as capital gains, which are taxed at a preferential 15 percent rate instead of the top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent. Mankiw is an economic adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who inadvertently thrust the carried interest loophole into the spotlight with his 13.9 percent effective tax rate. But no amount of smoke or sand can cover up Romney’s tax return or a tax code that throws fairness out the window for the millionaires and billionaires in high finance.
Rather than defending carried interest outright, Mankiw muddies the water by leading readers through five examples of varying business arrangements and their respective tax treatment, attempting to illustrate that the line between labor and capital income is often blurred. Fair point. The tax code is complicated and similar modes of economic activity are often taxed differently, violating the principle of horizontal equity. Indeed, the tax code grossly violates the principle of horizontal equity when compensation is reclassified as investment income, as the carried interest loophole allows. Inadvertently, Mankiw is making a strong case for again equalizing the tax treatment of income derived from wealth and income derived from labor (as was done under the Tax Reform Act of 1986). After all, why should the tax code incentivize one compensation arrangement over another?
And Mankiw brushes off the second half of the fairness question: The carried interest loophole and the preferential treatment of capital gains it confers also violate the principle of vertical equity (the basic tenet of a progressive tax code that effective tax rates should rise with income). Instead, he compares Romney to a carpenter specializing in business fixer-uppers, implying that this tax question is about fairness to the middle class. But this is about someone with a net worth between $190 million and $250 million paying less than 15 percent on $21.7 million in income and the principle of vertical equity being undermined where it is most needed (where the money is).
This flaw in the tax code spans well beyond the presidential campaign trail: Private equity firm The Carlyle Group recently disclosed that its three founders each received in 2011 a $275,000 salary, a $3.5 million bonus, and roughly a $134 million share of investment profits, much of which is carried interest. Additional returns on their personal investments in Carlyle ranged from $57 million to $78 million. With so much income taxed at a 15 percent rate, it’s hard to imagine their effective tax rates landing in a different ballpark than that of Romney. The carried interest loophole helps the wizards of high finance to undermine the basic principles of fairness in the tax code. And unless repealed, this Wall Street subsidy will cost taxpayers $13 billion to $24 billion over a decade (the range of estimates in President Obama’s four budget requests, all of which have proposed repealing the carried interest loophole to no avail).
As Alec MacGillis notes, Mankiw’s half-hearted defense of the carried interest loophole is odd because he had previously concluded that, “Deferred compensation, even risky compensation, is still compensation, and it should be taxed as such.” But that was before he became an economic adviser to Romney. One of Mankiw’s famous “10 Principles of Economics” is that people respond to incentives, as he’s aptly proving.
The carried interest tax loophole is simply indefensible, as demonstrated by Mankiw’s fickle muddy-the-water defense. There are certainly gray areas in the tax code, but no amount of smoke can shroud this particular loophole as anything but an egregious subsidy to high finance.
As a follow-up to my earlier post on the revenue implications of the Obama administration’s corporate tax reform framework, there is a major escape valve for turning at-best revenue-neutral tax reform into appropriately revenue-positive reform. In its framework, the administration singled out the deductibility of interest payments as one of the key imbalances in the tax code, along with distortions across industries’ effective tax rates, distortions among businesses’ organization (i.e., pass-through entities versus C-corporations), and distortions favoring offshoring. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr has a good overview of this part of the framework.) These are all key areas for improvement in the tax code, but the deductibility of interest payments also has serious potential for raising revenue and curbing systemic financial risk.
This feature of the tax code distorts corporate financing decisions by pushing the effective tax rate on debt-financed investment well below the effective tax rate on equity-financed investment. The Treasury Department estimates that the effective marginal tax rate on debt-financed corporate business investment is -4.4 percent (a subsidy), versus a 36.8 percent for equity-financed investment – quite the tax wedge. Profits from equity-financed investment will be taxed at the effective corporate rate (26 percent on average), and after-tax profits will be taxed when disbursed to shareholders as dividends or realized as capital gains, both at the 15 percent rate. Conversely, Treasury notes that “profits from the same investment funded by debt will only be taxed to the extent they exceed the associated interest payments” and the interaction with the accelerated depreciation deduction results in a big tax subsidy. This is a huge boon to industries reliant on debt, notably the highly leveraged financial sector, although the value of the so-called “debt tax shield” weighs against the costs of financial distress associated with indebtedness.
We previously proposed limiting the deductibility of interest payments in our budget blueprint Investing in America’s Economy, with emphasis on reining in financial sector leverage. (This progressive budget report was a collaboration of Demos, EPI, and The Century Foundation.) The tax code should not subsidize systemic financial risk in the form of high leverage ratios (in balance-sheet terms, the ratio of assets to net worth). Emerging from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, curbing the debt tax shield should be a no-brainer: Lehman Brothers was leveraged 30-to-1 when it collapsed in Sept. 2008. This concern should have been addressed after hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management went bust in Sept. 1998 with a balance-sheet leverage ratio over 50-to-1. (LTCM was deemed systemically important, and the New York Fed organized a bailout by private investors.)
The administration proposed “reducing the bias toward debt financing,” which, while lacking specificity, could be a major revenue source. The deductibility of interest payments is not considered a “tax expenditure” (it’s not a deviation from the tax code, it is the tax code) so this isn’t included in the Joint Committee on Taxation’s estimate that revenue-neutral tax reform could only lower the corporate rate to 28 percent rate. (As I noted, the administration wants this 28 percent rate and permanent tax breaks for manufacturing, drawing into question whether these tax changes will result in reform or a tax cut.) Broadening the tax base into interest payments could help lower the corporate rate to the targeted 28 percent, fund the proposed continuation of the research and experimentation credit, level the playing field across financing decisions, and contribute to deficit reduction. There is a huge sum of money at stake here.
The Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds data show $11.5 trillion in outstanding non-financial business debt and $13.7 trillion in outstanding domestic financial-sector debt as of the third quarter of 2011. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to conclude that there is real revenue potential in curbing the tax code’s debt-financing preference. Doing so could ensure that tax reform helps restore revenue adequacy while mitigating the subsidization of systemic financial risk.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration and Treasury Department unveiled a “framework” for corporate tax reform. Like the rest of the tax code, the corporate income tax has been riddled with ever-more loopholes since the Tax Reform Act of 1986—the last significant scrubbing of the tax code. Here’s my distilled version of their five-point framework:
- Eliminate loopholes to broaden the tax’s base, coupled with a cut to the statutory corporate rate from 35 percent to 28 percent.
- Reinstate tax expenditures for domestic manufacturers, lowering their effective tax rate from 28 percent to 25 percent.
- Establish a new minimum tax on foreign earnings.
- Ever-present nod to small businesses concerns.
- “Restore fiscal responsibility and not add a dime to the deficit.”
To lower the tax rate to 28 percent and yet keep the corporate income tax changes revenue-neutral, the framework proposes eliminating a handful of specific business tax expenditures—oil and gas subsidies, carried interest, last in, first out inventory accounting, special depreciation rules—repeatedly proposed in budget requests (summary of most of these can be found here). But the Joint Committee on Taxation recently estimated that revenue-neutral corporate tax reform could only be consistent with a top statutory rate of 28 percent if all major tax expenditures were eliminated.
The administration framework falls shy of that mark, and instead proposes new manufacturing tax incentives and a permanent extension of the research and experimentation credit (which is renewed annually as part of the “business tax extenders”). In the president’s FY13 budget, these “incentives for manufacturing” totaled $121 billion in revenue loss over a decade. The administration claims their plan will raise $250 billion—beyond offsets for the rate reduction—to pay for the permanent extension of these tax credits. JCT’s math, however, implies this figure may come from a current policy baseline assuming some of the “business tax extenders” (tax breaks which are not part of the permanent tax code but which are allegedly temporary yet extended by Congress like clockwork every year) are continued. Full continuation would reduce revenue by a hefty $839 billion over a decade.
On one hand, using this baseline seems odd; scoring any “savings” relative to current policy appears to give businesses credit for 25-plus years of successful lobbying. The bill of tax extenders includes the alcohol fuel credit, special depreciation rules for favored industries (e.g., restaurants, ethanol, race horses), special expensing rules for favored industries (e.g., film and TV production), and special foreign income deferral for the financial sector (e.g., Subpart F exception for active financing).
On the other hand, ending annual budget gimmicks (the extenders) does constitute a step toward responsible budgeting, and the depressing politics of tax reform suggests that these extenders will only be vanquished in some sort of bargain like that proposed by the administration.
But relative to current law (which does not assume the annual extension of these targeted tax breaks), Citizens for Tax Justice Director Bob McIntyre estimated that the president has proposed $1.2 trillion in tax cuts and only $0.3 trillion in offsetting loophole closers, leaving a gap of $0.9 trillion. This is hard to square with the administration’s professed intent not to add a dime to the deficit. And since when does restoring fiscal responsibility mean not adding a dime to the deficit?
Broadening the tax base and eliminating egregious preferences that have been lobbied into the tax code is good policy. But there is no reason a priori that tax reform be revenue-neutral. Indeed, the clearest flaw in the current tax system is that it simply doesn’t raise enough revenue to pay for government’s commitments. As CTJ spells out, it would be much more appropriate for corporate tax reform to be revenue-positive, relative to the much more stringent current law baseline.
Purported concern about the budget deficit always seems to vanish when it comes to tax cuts and vested business interests. “Shared sacrifice” is all the rage when it comes to reducing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, or raising taxes on the individual income side; where is the “shared sacrifice” in this framework for corporate income tax overhaul?
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a terrific piece in today’s Washington Post on European policymakers’ “fundamental miscalculation: a wrong-headed conviction, widely held across Europe, that if austerity is failing, it is because there is not enough of it.”
The failure of the “expansionary austerity” hypothesis has been growing increasingly apparent for quite some time, most recently highlighted by the euro zone economy falling back into contraction in the fourth quarter of 2011. More and more countries—including Italy and Spain—are projected to slide back into full-blown recessions. Via Ezra Klein, it’s clear to see that industrial production indices in the U.S. and the euro zone were closely tracking one-another until starkly diverging in the summer of 2011: U.S. production has continued to rebound and European output has fallen markedly.
But beyond this fiasco, Brown’s policy prescription is worth highlighting. Along the lines of advanced economies’ central banks coordinating monetary loosening and liquidity infusions during the financial crisis, Brown proposes coordinated fiscal expansion: “Europe and America should expand investment in infrastructure.” Now that would actually begin to address the global aggregate demand slump. This isn’t just Brown taking cheap political shots at Prime Minister David Cameron; this is sound macroeconomics. A massive U.S. public infrastructure project ($1.2 trillion) is also favored by prescient economist Nouriel Roubini, who similarly pegged “a front-loaded fiscal austerity that will sink us in a severe recession,” as the worst economic policy idea currently being floated.
Congress should be learning from Europe’s experience before we stray too far down the austerity path, as federal fiscal policy is all too set to do (state and local governments have already been down this path for years).
One of the best aspects of President Obama’s new budget plan is its near-term focus on job creation. This is a significant change from last year’s budget, where job creation was effectively ignored in favor of deficit reduction (likely in response to the GOP victory in the 2010 midterm elections, but that’s no excuse). This year, the president included $350 billion in job creation, $300 billion of which would hit the economy in the next year and a half. Here’s what’s in it though fiscal year 2013:
- $95 billion in the payroll tax cuts (employee-side)
- $80 billion in other business tax cuts (including a $25 billion hiring credit)
- $45 billion in emergency unemployment benefit extension
- $25 billion in transportation infrastructure investments ($50 billion over ten years)
- $20 billion in school facility repair and modernization
- $30 billion in retaining or rehiring teachers and first responders
- $25 billion miscellaneous neighborhood stabilization, job training, energy efficiency, VA conservation jobs, infrastructure bank, and manufacturing incentives
Last fall, the president proposed the American Jobs Act (AJA), a collection of policies designed to jump-start the economy. There are a few differences between the AJA and this jobs package—some policies were already enacted, some were scaled down, and there are a few new proposals—but this is essentially an updated and revised AJA.
And like the AJA, this jobs package would have an immediate positive impact on the economy and jobs. About 85 percent ($300 billion) of the package would hit the economy in the next year and a half. Using standard macroeconomic multipliers for the various policy categories, we find that the president’s job creation proposals would create 1.5 million jobs in fiscal year 2012 and 1.3 million jobs in fiscal year 2013 (through Sept. 2013).
The following graph shows by how much this proposal would lower unemployment relative to the unemployment levels under the Congressional Budget Office’s economic projections, if the historical relationship between GDP growth and unemployment held over the next two years. Note that CBO assumes that in Jan. 2013 the entirety of the Bush tax cuts will expire and the sequestration trigger will be implemented in full. A more realistic policy assumption that at least partially extends the Bush tax cuts and replaces the trigger would lower their projected unemployment levels. However, because the unemployment path under the jobs package was constructed off of the CBO baseline, the gap between the two would remain the same.
Some might argue that the full value of the $300 billion in the next year and half should not be included as “new” fiscal support, since the payroll tax cut is very likely to be extended for the full year (and full-year extension is included in the baseline of most macroeconomic forecasters’ models). In addition, the unemployment insurance extensions are also likely (though not guaranteed) to also run through all of 2012 (and many forecasts have some portion of these included in their baseline as well). Still, given the intense political pressure to move to immediate fiscal tightening, we think even just preserving the fiscal support already included in many forecast baselines is an important step in the president’s budget and should be highlighted.
For more on our job creation methodology, see our memo from last fall.
The tax policies in President Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 more closely resemble those proposed for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (i.e., the Super Committee) last September than those included in last year’s budget request. Consequently, this year’s budget raises more revenue (ostensibly to finance job creation) and does more to restore tax progressivity than previous budgets. Like the administration’s Super Committee proposals, the president’s 2013 budget proposes comprehensive tax reform, which would aim to raise $1.5 trillion over a decade, relative to current policies, from businesses and households making over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers).
In his recommendations to the Super Committee, President Obama proposed that tax reform should be guided by the Buffett Rule – that “no household making over $1 million annually should pay a lower share of its income in taxes than middle-class families pay.” The 2013 budget adopts a more clearly defined Buffett Rule from the president’s State of the Union address, which stated: “If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.” In a progressive tax code, effective tax rates are intended to rise with income, but tax code loopholes—overwhelmingly the preferential treatment of capital income over labor income—allow some millionaires and billionaires to pay lower tax rates than middle-class households. While short on details, the president’s 2013 budget suggests that the Buffett Rule would be implemented as a new minimum tax for millionaires, replacing the existing alternative minimum tax (which falls predominantly on upper-middle-class households). The budget also suggests that the Buffett Rule would give some deference to millionaires’ charitable contributions, but would nonetheless likely ensure that tax rates rise with ability to pay.
A recent Congressional Research Service report noted: “Tax reforms that are consistent with the Buffett rule would likely include raising tax rates on capital gains and dividends.” The president’s 2013 budget moves further in this direction than his previous budget requests. The 2013 budget again proposed ending the carried interest loophole and restoring the top rate on capital gains to 20 percent, but this budget also proposes taxing upper-income households’ qualified dividends as ordinary income (instead of a preferential 20 percent rate, as previously proposed). Again equalizing the tax treatment of income derived from work and that derived from investments should be at the core of progressive tax reform. This focus reflects income and inequality trends and raises revenue from those households best able to contribute to deficit reduction (the same households that disproportionately benefit from the last decade’s regressive, deficit-financed tax cuts).
To steer Congress toward tax reform, the president’s budget identifies revenue increases of $1.9 trillion, almost $1.6 trillion of which would come from sunsetting the upper-income George W. Bush-era tax cuts, capping the rate at which tax preferences reduce tax liability for upper-income households, and reinstating the estate tax at 2009 parameters, again all relative to current policy. The remaining tax proposals include closing business tax loopholes, ending fossil fuel preferences, and reforming the international tax code, which look quite familiar. (See For Joint Select Committee, many good options: Progressive revenue proposals would narrow budget gap by trillions for an analysis of the president’s tax proposals for the Super Committee.) Relative to current policies, the tax proposals in the 2013 budget would increase revenue as a share of GDP by 1.5 percentage points over the next decade – nowhere close to restoring revenue adequacy, but nonetheless an improvement over last year’s proposed 1.3 percentage point revenue increase.
Critically, the president’s tax proposals for 2013 appear to raise more revenue than those in his previous budget requests in order to finance a slew of job creation proposals closely resembling the American Jobs Act (which the president proposed financing with many of the progressive tax reforms in this budget, including caps on a wider range of tax preferences for upper-income households). The emphasis on near-term fiscal support gradually financed by tax increases on upper-income households—which will have a relatively small adverse impact on economic activity, unlike spending cuts—is good economic and fiscal policy. Federal tax and budget policy should accommodate bigger deficits today and reduce deficits as the output gap shrinks. The president’s tax policy proposals move in the right direction on this front, but they would also help to restore fairness to the tax code and begin to temper Gilded Age-levels of income inequality.
The Tax Policy Center’s new report on the distribution of tax expenditures strengthens the case for increasing tax progressivity and raising needed revenue by ending the preferential treatment of capital income (subject to a 15 percent tax rate versus a top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent). TPC’s analysis looks at seven broad categories of individual income tax expenditures: exclusions, above-the-line deductions, the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends, itemized deductions, nonrefundable tax credits, refundable tax credits, and other miscellaneous tax expenditures. Guess which category of tax expenditure provides by far the most lopsided benefit to upper-income households?
That would be the way the tax code preferences capital income over wage and salary income, compounded by the heavy concentration of capital income at the top of the earnings distribution. In 2011, the top 1 percent of households by cash income received a whopping 75.1 percent of the benefit from the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends. The broad middle class—defined here as the middle 60 percent of households by cash income—received only 3.9 percent of that benefit. Upper-income households also do well by tax exclusions and itemized deductions, but the share of these tax expenditures accruing to the top 1 percent of households—at 15.9 percent and 26.4 percent, respectively—don’t come close to the windfall afforded by a 15 percent rate on capital income.
This should come as no surprise if you’ve read about the Buffett Rule and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 13.9 percent effective tax rate: Capital income is terribly concentrated at the top of the earnings distribution and the preferential tax treatment of capital income even allows some millionaires and billionaires to pay lower effective tax rates than many middle-class households. Indeed, a recent Congressional Research Service report suggested that the tax reforms most consistent with implementing the Buffett Rule would be raising tax rates on capital gains and dividends. Additionally, TPC’s distributional analysis of taxes on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends shows that the top 1 percent of households by cash income (with income above $533,000) will pay 70.5 percent of capital gains and dividends taxes in 2011, contrasted with just 2.3 percent for the broad middle class (with incomes between $17,000 and $103,000).
Recently, the increasing concentration of capital income at the top of the earnings distribution has been the biggest driver of income inequality, followed by changes in tax policy. Since the mid-1990s, the biggest swing in tax rates has been dropping the top capital gains rate from 28 percent to 15 percent and slashing the top rate on qualified dividends from 39.6 percent to 15 percent. Today’s preferential treatment of capital gains is often considered the most regressive feature of the tax code; taxing capital income as labor income would be an extremely progressive way to raise revenue and push against after-tax income inequality. Eliminating the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends would raise effective tax rates by 4.5 percentage points for the top 1 percent of households, while raising effective tax rates by 0.1 percentage points or less for the middle class, according to TPC. Doing so would raise substantial revenue from those households best able to contribute to deficit reduction. Measured with interactions, TPC estimates that the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends cost $77.7 billion in 2011.
Comprehensive tax reform will have to raise more revenue and restore a greater degree of progressivity to the tax code, so that effective tax rates continue to rise with ability to pay. Equalizing the tax treatment of ordinary income and capital income would substantially advance both objectives.
Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office released its Jan. 2012 Budget and Economic Outlook, which showed a sustainable fiscal outlook over the next decade provided Congress leaves the budget on autopilot. The current law baseline—the legislated status quo—depicts the budget deficit averaging only 1.5 percent of GDP over the next decade (fiscal years 2013-22), public debt peaking at 75.1 percent of GDP in FY2013, and the public debt-to-GDP ratio gradually falling to a more-than-sustainable 62.0 percent of GDP by FY2022. This picture is not perfect—the fiscal drag from the debt ceiling deal and expiring tax provisions is projected to slow growth to an anemic 1.1 percent of GDP in 2013 (and unemployment projections were raised half a percentage point across the decade)—but it is certainly fiscally sustainable in the out years, after the economy has recovered.
And the single biggest policy threat to this sustainable fiscal outlook? Congress might extend all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts over the next decade, to the tune of $4.4 trillion over a decade. That’s $3.8 trillion (-9.1 percent) in revenue loss and $657 billion (+15.5 percent) in additional debt service. Yes, deficit-financed tax cuts increase spending. CBO’s current law baseline projects cumulative budget deficits of $3.1 trillion, so continuing the Bush-era tax cuts would more than double the scope of fiscal stress. (These calculations assume that Congress will continue patching the alternative minimum tax and attribute a $1.1 trillion interaction between the policies to the Bush tax cuts, which pushed more households into the AMT, significantly increasing the cost of the AMT patch.) Measured differently, the hefty opportunity cost of the Bush-era tax cuts averages 1.9 percent of GDP in revenue loss and another 0.3 percent of GDP in increased interest spending over 10 years.
Under current law, the budget will begin running sustained primary surpluses (where revenue exceeds non-interest spending) starting in FY2015. If Congress patches the AMT, primary surpluses begin in 2017. If the Bush tax cuts are extended, the budget never reaches primary balance. (Primary balance is a common metric for sustainability: while it does not necessarily stabilize debt as a share of GDP—which depends on interest rates, outstanding debt levels, and GDP growth—it’s a decent approximation.)
The Bush tax cuts remain expensive, ineffective, and unfair, and permanently extending even a portion of them—which President Obama proposes to do for 98 percent of households—makes it difficult to adequately fund public investments, economic security programs, and national security spending. Congress and the public have to accept that the federal government must either collect significantly more revenue (above that projected under current law) or renege on commitments insuring that seniors, the poor, and the disabled are provided with health care and a degree of retirement security. Like it or not, we can’t afford the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Bush tax cuts.
The Washington Post editorial board astutely notes that the budget busting tax plans of the GOP presidential candidates contradict purported concerns about the budget deficit and national debt. Relative to the inadequate revenue levels collected by current tax policies, the tax plans would lose between $180 billion and $900 billion in 2015 alone—or between 1.0 percent and 4.9 percent of GDP. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s tax plan and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s tax plans, respectively, represent the low and high end of this range, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gives Santorum a run for his money with a tax plan that would lose $850 billion, or 4.6 percent of GDP, in 2015.
Under an extension of current policies, the budget deficit is projected to average around 4.3 percent of GDP over the next decade, which is unsustainable in the sense that debt as a share of the economy will continue to rise instead of stabilizing in the second half of the decade. Despite all the fear mongering rhetoric about Washington’s fiscal malfeasance heard from the GOP campaign trail, some of the candidates’ tax plans would more than double the budget deficit over the next decade.
The Post’s editorial board notes that the revenue loss estimates (calculated by the Tax Policy Center) are static scores, meaning that they don’t include growth effects (i.e., dynamic scores). Yet the growth legacy of the last round of deficit-financed, regressive tax cuts—the kind supply-siders love and the kind being floated on the campaign trail—proved a massive flop. This new round of massive tax cuts would either be deficit financed—trading public (di)savings for private savings—and/or financed with deep cuts to public investments and economic security programs, which would drag on growth (among other adverse economic outcomes). Mr. Santorum’s proposed balanced budget amendment, for instance, would force unfeasibly draconian spending cuts across the entire federal budget. His tax plan wouldn’t raise anywhere close to 18 percent of GDP, where he has proposed capping federal spending—current tax policies will raise only 17.6 percent of GDP over the next decade.
The distributional implications of these tax plans are just as concerning as their revenue impact and are amplified by their budgetary impact, which will force spending cuts that don’t show up in TPC’s distributional table. As the Post notes: “It makes no sense to further benefit the wealthiest taxpayers at a time when spending programs for the most vulnerable would be on the chopping block — of necessity, given the candidates’ pledges to cap spending. In their fiscal consequences these cuts would be disastrous; as a matter of fairness, even more so.”
Massive tax cuts don’t square with fiscal responsibility, as aptly demonstrated during the George W. Bush administration. Massive tax cuts targeted toward upper-income households will, however, exacerbate income inequality and undercut the middle class by defunding public investments and economic security programs. But the fiscal debate is not about the budget deficit, the public debt, or the middle class: It is about federal revenue and spending levels as a share of the economy, as epitomized by Grover Norquists’ Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Until conservatives reenter the realm of reality and acknowledge that revenue levels must go up, not down, fiscal responsibility and a sustainable trajectory for debt will remain unattainable.
In issuing the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had the audacity to present himself as a fiscal conservative and lecture President Obama on economic policy. Daniels presenting himself as a fiscal conservative is farcical: The tax cuts he pushed through for President George W. Bush as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are responsible for roughly half of today’s structural budget deficit and half the public debt accumulated last decade. And as expensive as they were, those tax cuts failed to spur even mediocre job growth; Daniels and Bush presided over the weakest economic expansion since World War II, leaving Daniels with a dismal legacy as an economic policymaker.
Daniels ran OMB from Jan. 2001 to June 2003; during his tenure, he helped craft the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. (Later tax acts accelerated implementation of some of these tax cuts, but this is when the real fiscal malfeasance occurred.) When Daniels took charge of OMB, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a $5.0 trillion (4.0 percent of GDP) budget surplus over the next decade. When he left office, CBO was projecting a $1.4 trillion (-1.0 percent of GDP) budget deficit over the next decade. Roughly $4.8 trillion of the fiscal deterioration resulted from legislation enacted over 2001-2003; the tax cuts alone added $2.6 trillion to the public debt over 2001-2010. (The other major drivers of this fiscal deterioration were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Daniels didn’t bother to pay for or even put on budget.) The 2001 recession certainly contributed to the emerging deficits—just as half of this year’s deficit can be chalked up to economic weakness—but the Bush administration’s economic policies ensured a mediocre economic recovery.
Though this supply-side snake oil was peddled as economic stimulus, the Bush-era tax cuts failed every test of good stimulus: They were gradually phased-in, they were targeted to upper-income households likely to save rather than spend, and they were intended to be permanent. Better economic policy could have alleviated the ensuing ‘jobless recovery.’
These tax cuts were the dominant economic policy during the worst economic expansion since World War II, measured by economic growth, employment, or compensation (trough-to-peak from 4Q2001 through 4Q2007). Real GDP growth averaged only 2.7 percent annually, the slowest of all the post-war expansions (averaging 4.8 percent economic growth annually). The economy only gained 97,000 jobs a month on average—not even enough to keep pace with population growth. (By contrast, job growth averaged 237,000 per month under President Clinton, when we had higher tax rates.) Real total employee compensation grew only 2.3 percent annually, contrasted with average annual compensation growth of 5.0 percent growth in post-war expansions.
Instead, the Bush tax cuts exacerbated inequality with a huge giveaway to those who didn’t need it: The top 1 percent of earners received 38 percent of the Bush tax cuts even though these households captured 65 percent of income gains during this expansion, leaving just scraps for the middle class. The Bush-era tax cuts can only be characterized as a costly economic policy failure.
Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress coined the phrase “deficit peacock” for self-purported deficit hawks interested in attention but uninterested in fiscal responsibility. Paraphrasing Linden’s birding guide, these deficit peacocks: 1) Never mention revenues; 2) Offer easy answers; 3) Support policies that make the long-term deficit problem worse; and 4) Think our budget woes appeared suddenly in January 2009. This summarizes Daniels to a tee. For him to lecture President Obama on fiscal responsibility is shameful.
Mark Thoma does a terrific job explaining why the purported measure of tax progressivity favored by many conservatives doesn’t measure tax progressivity. Former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, the inspiration behind Thoma’s post, insinuated that those lucky duckies at the bottom and middle of the earnings distribution should be paying more because their share of federal taxes paid has been falling while that of the top earnings quintile has risen substantially since 1979. As Thoma elucidates, Fleischer’s captious reading of the Congressional Budget Office’s series on average federal taxes by income group ignores the heavily skewed income trends of the last 30-plus years.
This State of Working America chart depicts just how lopsided those gains have been: The top 10 percent have captured 64 percent of economy wide income gains, while the bottom 60 percent of earners received only 11 percent of income gains.
Data compiled by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty show that this trend intensified during the Bush economic expansion, when the top 1 percent of households captured a stunning 65 percent of income gains, leaving just 13 percent for the bottom 90 percent of households. (The top 1 percent of households was simultaneously rewarded with 38 percent of the Bush-era tax cuts, when fully phased in.) These data don’t square with calls to shift the tax burden from capital to labor, and correspondingly from upper-income households to the middle class.
A progressive tax system embodies the principle that groups with more resources should pay a higher portion of their income in taxes than groups with fewer resources; taxes as a share of income—or effective tax rates—are intended to rise with income. Ignoring income necessitates disregarding this proper measure of tax progressivity. By Mr. Fleischer’s concept of tax fairness, Mitt Romney’s 15 percent preferential tax rate is a non-issue and there’s no need for a Buffett Rule. Similarly, ignoring effective tax rates is terribly convenient for conservatives attempting to shift the distribution of taxation down the income distribution, as proposed in many of the former and current GOP presidential candidates’ tax plans.
Without looking at taxes paid relative to income, one ignores ability to pay and progressivity, period. This may be politically expedient for those who want to abolish the Sixteenth Amendment and replace it with a regressive flat tax, but it’s intrinsically problematic when income inequality has returned to Gilded Age-levels. A greater degree of progressivity must be restored to the tax code, which must also raise more revenue for the realities of an aging population, spiraling health care costs, and a large structural budget deficit. Specious concepts of tax fairness cannot be condoned; they mask deep, growing inequities and provide cover for regressive tax plans that would further exacerbate income inequality.
Economists were very well represented in Foreign Policy‘s annual roundup of 100 top global thinkers (accounting for 21 percent of the honorees). Among the dismal scientists recognized, economic consultant and New York University professor Nouriel Roubini was given due credit for his consistently bearish but prescient economic warnings over the past four years. Considering his prognostications regarding the housing market implosion, financial sector meltdown, prolonged high unemployment, and sickly economic recoveries in the advanced economies, among other fronts, Roubini’s economic insight clearly commands gravitas. As such, it’s worth highlighting Dr. Doom’s choices for the best and worst economic policy ideas:
Best idea: “Let’s start taxing the rich more—the Buffett Rule—as inequality is now at 1929 levels and increasing further.”
Worst idea: “A front-loaded fiscal austerity that will sink us in a severe recession.”
Hear, hear. There may be a visceral backlash against (or tone-deaf indifference to) these very same sentiments when espoused by progressive economic think-tanks, but shouldn’t everyone be listening to Nouriel Roubini?
It’s worth noting that Roubini recently articulated other pertinent policy prescriptions in a report The Way Forward, coauthored with Westwood Capital Managing Partner Daniel Alpert and Cornell University Law Professor Robert Hockett. Their three-pronged plan for economic recovery proposed:
- A $1.2 trillion, five-to-seven year program of heavy public investment, thereby putting Americans back to work building a more competitive economy (at relatively little cost).
- Comprehensive debt-restructuring to detoxify the real estate market and financial intermediation.
- Global reforms to re-balance the world economy, particularly reversing fiscal austerity programs in surplus nations (e.g., Germany) and increasing domestic Chinese demand (through a combination of currency appreciation, improved labor market standards, and budget reforms).
Yup, the global economy would be in far better shape if Dr. Doom was steering economic policymaking. It’s a pity the United States is heading further and further down the austerity path instead of learning from the dismal European experience.
In his Iowa caucus speech Tuesday evening, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) pushed for deep tax cuts for the wealthy, $5 trillion in budget cuts over five years, a cap on government expenditure at 18 percent of the economy, and a balanced budget amendment “as a guarantee of freedom for this country.”
This isn’t just radically conservative—it’s a farcical proposal bordering on Ron Paul-levels of delusion. (No, we’re not all Austrians now.) To reiterate: arbitrarily capping government expenditure at 18 percent of GDP isn’t just undesirable, it’s infeasible and absolutely crazy. Federal spending has exceeded 18 percent of GDP since 1966 (roughly the inception of Medicare and Medicaid). As the population ages and health care costs continue to spiral, federal spending will have to rise, not fall, if voters want government to continue providing health care to seniors, impoverished children, and the disabled (polling strongly suggests they do). The House Republican 2012 budget—which proposed ending Medicare and eviscerating Medicaid—wouldn’t even reduce federal spending below 18 percent of GDP by 2040. Under a current policy baseline, spending is projected to be about 22.5 percent of GDP over fiscal years 2012-21. Wrenching expenditure down to 18 percent of GDP would therefore slash nearly 5 percent of GDP, or $8.7 trillion, from the budget over the next decade (cutting $1 in $5 dollars of expenditure). But even deeper budget cuts would be needed to achieve $5 trillion in cuts over five years anytime soon (in the first five years, the cap would only cut $3.7 trillion, relative to current policy).
But it gets worse! Santorum’s spending cap is also tied to a balanced budget amendment, and his tax plan wouldn’t raise anywhere close to 18 percent of GDP in revenue. An extension of current tax policies—the starting point for Santorum’s sweeping tax cuts—is projected to raise revenues of only 17.6 percent of GDP over the next decade. From there, the alternative minimum tax would be repealed; the top tax rate would be reduced to 28 percent (while retaining major tax preferences and expanding exemptions); capital gains and dividends taxes would be further reduced to 12 percent; the estate tax would be repealed; the corporate tax rate would be halved to 17.5 percent and fully eliminated for manufacturers; and businesses would get even bigger tax breaks on foreign profits, research, and investment. Not a cheap wish list. While we haven’t scored it yet, it wouldn’t be surprising if Santorum’s tax plan fails to raise even 16 percent of GDP, forcing much deeper budget cuts. (Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute ballparks the annual static revenue loss between $550 billion and $700 billion, or between 3.4 and 4.3 percent of GDP.)
This could easily sink the U.S. economy. As Europe is discovering, the notion that spending cuts increase growth (i.e., expansionary austerity) is totally bunk in today’s context of high unemployment, low interest rates, and large output gaps. Spending caps and balanced budget amendments are terrible fiscal policies because they obstruct counter-cyclical fiscal stabilization and instead force pro-cyclical spending cuts. According to the private forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, “If actually enforced in fiscal year (FY) 2012, a [balanced budget amendment] would quickly destroy millions of jobs while creating enormous economic and social upheaval.”
Senator Santorum’s plan wouldn’t just exacerbate future recessions—it would preclude a return to full employment and likely trigger another deep recession. What part of prolonged mass underemployment, widespread economic insecurity, and trillions of dollars in forgone national income represent a guarantee of freedom?
As my colleague Monique Morrissey highlights, Jeff Madrick has a terrific (albeit somewhat depressing) list of the 10 worst economic ideas of 2011. Doubling down on the failed supply-side experiment and making taxes more regressive is honored as the fallacious economic policy coup de grâce of the year:
“At the top of the list for sheer scandalous insensitivity are Herman Cain’s and Newt Gingrich’s tax plans for America… Gingrich’s plan wins the gold medal: his plan is both regressive and a gigantic revenue loser.”
Spot on. Cain’s plan is wildly regressive. Gingrich’s plan is grossly unaffordable and irresponsible. Cain’s “9-9-9” plan would swing the average tax rate for households in the lowest income quintile (those earning under $18,000 annually) by 18.3 percentage points, from 1.8 percent to 20.2 percent. The swing at the top end of the earnings distribution is almost as wild, with rates plunging 17.2 percentage points to 17.9 percent for the top 0.1 percent of earners (those making roughly $2.7 million or more), an average tax cut valued above $1.3 million. (See this Tax Policy Center current policy baseline table.)
As for Gingrich, Madrick notes his optional flat tax would blow a gaping hole in the federal budget: $850 billion relative to current policy and $1.28 trillion relative to current policy in 2015 alone. The price tag has (extremely misguided) purpose: The highest income 0.1 percent would see their average tax rate cut by two-thirds and fall to only 10.8 percent, a giveaway averaging $1.9 million per household.
But this is more than a two-pronged onslaught of voodoo economic practitioners. Remember Rick Perry’s tax plan? Eerily similar nostrum: Gut the central tenant of a progressive tax code that effective tax rates are supposed to rise with income, give the highest income 0.1 percent a tax cut of $1.5 million, and drain the Treasury of $995 billion relative to current law ($570 billion relative to current policy) in 2015 alone. The presidential campaign trail has been inundated with plans to slash corporate tax rates, cut capital gains and dividends taxes, and eliminate the estate tax. (See this great comparison table detailing and contrasting all the GOP presidential candidates’ tax plans, produced by the good folks at TPC.)
It’s also worth noting that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was paving this path in 2010 when he released his Roadmap for America’s Future, which proposed shifting the distribution of taxes from upper-income households to the middle class by replacing the corporate income tax with a regressive subtraction-method value added tax that forces up middle-class tax rates. (Ryan would end all taxation of corporate profits by also eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends.)
This is the bedrock of conservative economic policy. It’s even politically enshrined in Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Never mind that it hasn’t improved economic performance, it has and continues to defund government, and it would continue to exacerbate income inequality. Unfortunately, with the election looming, it’s a safe bet that sweeping regressive tax cuts will be a top contender for 2012’s worst economic policy ideas.
The whole list is worth a read. Other highlights include the fallacy of expansionary austerity and arbitrarily capping federal expenditures as a share of the economy (somewhere between 16.6 percent to 21 percent, none of which would be tenable levels).
In a scathing critique of the House Republicans’ strategy regarding the payroll tax cut, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board really botched the underlying economics:
“House Republicans yesterday voted down the Senate’s two-month extension of the two-percentage-point payroll tax holiday to 4.2% from 6.2%. They say the short extension makes no economic sense, but then neither does a one-year extension. No employer is going to hire a worker based on such a small and temporary decrease in employment costs, as this year’s tax holiday has demonstrated. The entire exercise is political, but Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics.” (Bold added.)
The Journal‘s editorial page inverts the economics of the payroll tax cut by confusing the enacted employee-side tax cut (being considered for extension) with an employer-side tax cut. The objective behind the employee-side payroll tax cut extension is to put $120 billion worth of disposable income into the hands of consumers, creating and sustaining demand for goods and services, rather than altering marginal hiring costs.
The two-month extension that passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support would increase disposable income by $20 billion via the payroll tax cut and pump another $8 billion into the economy through emergency unemployment benefits. Short of assigning a zero (or negative) fiscal multiplier to these programs, it can’t be argued that this will have no impact on an economy running $918 billion (5.7 percent) below potential output. And recent research by Berkeley professors Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko, among others, finds that large output gaps imply large multipliers; a zero fiscal multiplier for government spending in a depressed economy is entirely unsubstantiated. (A legitimate critique would be that serious infrastructure investment or public works employment would be a better way to generate demand than the payroll tax cut, some of which will undoubtedly be saved.)
With regard to the duration of extension, Howard Gleckman aptly notes that setting tax policy in two-month increments makes little sense, but I think the Journal’s editorial board would agree with Gleckman that House Republicans only have themselves to blame for that situation.
Given presidential contender Newt Gingrich’s recent surge to frontrunner status in the polls, it was only a matter of time before the Tax Policy Center dug into Gingrich’s doozy of a tax plan. Howard Gleckman’s analysis on TaxVox notes that Gingrich’s plan represents such a gargantuan tax cut for upper-income households that it will blow a hole of nearly $1 trillion in the federal budget annually (more than doubling projected budget deficits). To date, Gingrich is winning the voodoo economics derby for peddling the steepest tax cuts for top earners and the biggest deterioration in the fiscal outlook.
According to TPC, the Gingrich plan would reduce revenue in 2015 by $850 billion relative to current policy and $1.28 trillion relative to current law; it’s important to remember that the difference in revenue levels projected under current policy and current law represents the difference between an unsustainable and sustainable budget outlook in the next decade.
Like Rick Perry’s tax plan, Gingrich has proposed an optional flat income tax but at a lower rate of 15 percent (to Perry’s 20 percent) beyond personal deductions of $12,000 for filers and dependents. Optional tax schemes are always a recipe for revenue loss, and this is especially true when they offer a 20 percentage point reduction in the top marginal tax rate. Again like the Perry plan, Gingrich’s alternative income tax would preserve deductions for charitable giving and home mortgage interest (though, unlike the Perry plan, maintain the earned income tax credit and child tax credit). Like almost every one of the GOP candidates’ tax plans, Gingrich would eliminate all taxes on capital gains, dividends, and large estates and gifts. (See this TPC summary table of the GOP presidential candidates’ tax plans.)
But the real coup de grâce lies on the corporate side, where Gingrich would drop the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 12.5 percent, allow immediate expensing of capital investments, and eliminate all taxes on corporations’ foreign income (i.e., moving to a territorial tax system). There is much talk of reducing the top corporate income rate in exchange for eliminating business tax loopholes and broadening the tax base, but there is no base-broadening in the Gingrich plan—only base-narrowing coupled with rate reductions. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found that the decline in corporate income taxation has been a prime driver of declining progressivity in the U.S. federal tax code since the 1960s, a trend that would be greatly exacerbated by Gingrich’s tax plan.
Rather than shifting the burden of taxation from upper-income households to the middle class, the Gingrich plan would lower average tax rates across every income level. Effective tax rates would peak for households earning between $100,000 and $200,000 and then fall precipitously (see chart below). Households earning over $1 million annually would see the effective tax rate plunge to 11.9 percent—below that levied on families earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year, according to TPC. Gingrich would go all in on the failed supply-side experiment by more than quadrupling millionaires’ tax cuts from $141,000 under the Bush-era tax cuts to $748,000 (relative to current law). Relative to current tax policies, millionaires would see a tax cut of $607,000 in 2015, further reducing their tax bill by 62 percent.
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Of course, pushing massive tax cuts for the highest-income households is par for the course among this year’s GOP presidential field. Ezra Klein compares the impact on average taxes under the tax plans of Gingrich, Perry, and Herman Cain, nicely depicting the unambiguous theme of massive tax cuts at the upper-end of the earnings distribution. Yet, as President Obama noted in his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., we’ve tested the trickledown theory before and it didn’t work; the Bush-era tax cuts were an ineffective, unfair, and expensive failure that presided over the weakest economic expansion since World War II. (This economic legacy hasn’t dissuaded Gingrich from crediting himself with helping “Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp develop supply-side economics.”)
But Gingrich’s tax plan surpasses the supply side experiments of the past and those proposed by his rivals in terms of defunding government. I somehow doubt that Gingrich’s proposed lunar mineral mining colony would pay for a fraction of these highly regressive and dear tax cuts. Not even eliminating Medicare (and its projected $688 billion expenditure for 2015) would pay for this tax proposal.
In his recent speech in Osawatomie, Kan., President Obama spoke to the challenges of rebuilding the middle class, drawing a clear distinction between policies that foster shared prosperity and those that stack the deck against middle-class Americans. In a sharp rebuke of supply-side economic policies, the president stressed that the costly Bush-era tax cuts produced the “slowest job growth in half a century” while making it harder to pay for public investments as well as the economic security programs forming the backbone of the middle class. As our colleague Ross Eisenbrey wrote last week, the president flatly rejected the “failed ‘you’re on your own’ economic policies that got us into the worst recession in 75 years.” The deterioration of the middle class necessitates that economic policy focus on promoting economic opportunity and mobility rather than prioritizing those already at the top of the earnings distribution.
The first step to rebuilding the middle class is restoring full employment. Beyond the scarring effects wrought on the families of 24 million un- and underemployed workers, massive and persistent slack in the labor market will preclude employed workers from negotiating real wage increases (needed to reverse the decade-long trend of falling real median household income). Yet fiscal policy is poised to drag heavily on economic growth and employment entering 2012; Congress should be expanding efforts to accelerate growth and hiring, but a litany of meaningful job creation measures have instead been filibustered in the Senate. As Congress bickers over continuing the payroll tax holiday and Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program (set to expire at the end of the month), a new bill has been put forth that would meaningfully address the jobs crisis and begin restoring economic security for the middle class.
The bill that does this, the Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act (H.R. 3638), was rolled out by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) earlier today. Our analysis of the bill’s job creation measures shows that it would meaningfully boost near-term employment – to the tune of almost 2.3 million jobs in fiscal 2012 and 3.1 million jobs in fiscal 2013 – all while improving the long-term fiscal outlook.
The Act for the 99% would continue the EUC program and replace the payroll tax holiday with the more targeted Making Work Pay tax credit. But the act spans far beyond the scope of job creation measure currently being considered. The bill would also fund direct job creation programs, increase federal surface transportation investments, reinstate higher federal matching rates for Medicaid, and defuse the automatic spending cuts scheduled under the Budget Control Act (which, if triggered, will greatly amplify the fiscal headwinds impeding recovery).
The job creation elements of the bill would be more than financed by accompanying deficit-reduction proposals, which include enacting a millionaire surcharge, reducing spending by the Department of Defense, closing oil and gas loopholes, and taxing financial speculation. As President Obama said in his recent speech, “This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making the choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.”
By focusing on boosting employment and economic growth—and by financing these measures with offsets that will have relatively little adverse impact on either the economic recovery or the economic security of the middle class—the Congressional Progressive Caucus has offered a legislative blueprint to meet President Obama’s vision for rebuilding the middle class.
Via Paul Krugman, I see that Politico honored House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R—Wisc.) as health care policymaker of the year. Steven Benen nicely expounds the absurdity of this choice, namely that Ryan’s budget would repeal the Affordable Care Act, shift costs to families (rather than curb costs), end guaranteed Medicare coverage, and slash Medicaid funding. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office’s long-term analysis of Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 budget estimated that federal spending on Medicaid—healthcare for the disabled and poor children and seniors—would be roughly halved in the next two decades.
It’s worth adding that health policy experts widely agree the key objective for national health policy is slowing economy-wide health care cost growth. To this point, Ryan’s budget resolution would do more than shift costs—it would actually exacerbate the problem by increasing economy-wide costs. CBO’s analysis showed that Medicare is currently 11 percent cheaper than an equivalent private insurance plan. This efficiency premium compounds with time, as depicted in the figure below. By 2030, Medicare as we know it is projected to be at least 29 percent cheaper than an equivalent private sector plan (relative to CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario for the long-term budget outlook). Replacing Medicare with a voucher negates the economies of scale (and lack of a profit motive) afforded by Medicare.
Ryan’s plan would accrue budgetary savings by ending guaranteed Medicare coverage, but at the expense of increasing total health costs and only by vastly increasing beneficiaries’ costs. By 2030, the Ryan budget would reduce government expenditure for the average beneficiary by 22 percent but push the beneficiary’s out-of-pocket costs up 127 percent. Extrapolating from CBO’s analysis, Dean Baker and David Rosnick calculate that the Ryan proposal would increase national health care expenditure by $30 trillion over the next 75 years, assuming households purchase Medicare-equivalent plans. A more likely scenario would involve an increase in national health care expenditure and a decrease in the number of Americans receiving adequate health care coverage.
Politico’s award choice cited Ryan’s influence over the Republican presidential candidates and credited him with producing a “starting point” for future health care reforms. Ryan’s budget (specifically its treatment of Medicare) has indeed served as a litmus test for conservative bona fides in the GOP field, but that should be cause for concern rather than celebration among health policy experts. Eliminating Medicare and its associated cost efficiency savings would be a lousy starting point for the next round of health care reform, as it epitomizes penny wise, pound foolish budgeting.
In a speech Tuesday, President Obama issued a damning critique of trickle down economics and a stark defense of social insurance and public investments funded by progressive taxation. The president’s speech in Osawatomie, Kan., addressed the challenges of rebuilding the middle class and tempering income inequality, making the case that doubling down on the supply-side experiment of the last decade will fail the needs of the vast majority.
The president aptly characterized conservative economic policy as a two-pronged approach of cutting regulations and cutting taxes for the wealthy. (Note conservatives’ glaring lack of enthusiasm for refundable tax cuts or even an across-the-board payroll tax cut – tax cuts that would be pretty broad-based.) This is, of course, exactly the economic nostrum being preached by the GOP presidential field and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. See, for instance, how the tax plans of presidential candidate Rick Perry or House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) belie any concern about income inequality, or how regulatory uncertainty is used as a phony explanation for the jobs crisis.
This supply-side snake oil is peddled on the premise that when the wealthy do well, income gains trickle down to the middle class and everyone benefits from a growing economy. But that hasn’t happened—real median income has sharply decoupled from productivity gains in recent decades (particularly since 2000) and income gains have been incredibly concentrated at the top of the earnings distribution. The president made the following salient point on the supply-side experiment:
“Now, it’s a simple theory… And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible post-war booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.” (Emphasis added.)
The record of the Bush-era tax cuts, also invoked by the president, indeed speaks volumes: “Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century.” That and the slowest economic growth, non-residential fixed investment growth, compensation growth, and wage and salary growth. Imagine if we had instead used the $2.6 trillion these tax cuts added to the public debt over 2001-2010 to undertake investments in areas like education, infrastructure, and scientific research—investments that would have produced much better job-growth and that have actually demonstrated high economic returns.
Since the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts didn’t generate much in the way of jobs or incomes, they failed (by miles – or should we say trillions of dollars) to fulfill the mendacious claim often made by conservatives that tax cuts pay for themselves. (Note that this assertion continues to surface despite being flatly rejected by the Bush administration’s own economists.)
Based on this abject policy failure and the clear dysfunction of a tax code that allows a quarter of millionaires to pay lower effective tax rates than middle class families, President Obama made the case for tax reform – including allowing the top individual income tax rate to revert from 35 percent to the 39.6 percent rate implemented by President Clinton (which would still be well below tax rates for most of the post-World War II era).
Since most Republicans will clearly scream about the onerousness of this proposal, it’s worth noting that the optimal taxation literature calls for a steeper schedule of marginal tax rates and a considerably higher top rate than 39.6 percent. In their recent paper on the case for progressive taxation, economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez peg the optimal top income tax rate at 73 percent, up from 42.5 percent today (taking into account Medicare payroll taxes and average state income and sales taxes). This would imply a top federal marginal income tax rate of 65.5 percent—more than 25 percentage points higher than that proposed by the president. The current top tax rate is “is optimal only if the marginal consumption of very high income earners is highly valued,” note Diamond and Saez.
Of course, the value that policymakers put on the happiness of the very rich is exactly what stands behind the failure to enact job creation measures that would be financed by a surtax on millionaires and the repeated collapse of long-term deficit reduction negotiations because of conservative intransigence over raising more revenue from upper-income households.
I applaud the president for making the case for the progressive alternative against regressive tax cuts as the lodestar of economic policy. America’s low- and moderate income families should, too. As a nation, we cannot afford to double down on the failed, plutocratic pipe dream that is trickle down economics. Another round of tax cuts for the highest-income households will not restore full employment but will exacerbate widening income inequality, blow a bigger hole in the budget deficit, and defund needed public investments and economic security programs. Any policymaker genuinely concerned with the fate of the middle class, inequality and immobility, or the budget deficit, should be focused on rolling back the last round of inequitable and ineffective tax cuts rather than digging us deeper and deeper into a new Gilded Age.
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.
The deadline for the supercommittee is approaching, and so we welcome budget ideas from our friend and former board member, Andy Stern. But he and Reagan OMB Director David Stockman are advising the supercommittee to “go big” on deficit reduction, based on the false premise that “our debt crisis is so severe, so obvious,” in this CNN opinion piece. In Washington parlance, that means $4 trillion plus in deficit reduction, heavily weighted toward spending cuts. The economic crisis we face today is not a debt crisis at all. We have a jobs crisis, and that is why we currently have large fiscal deficits. In today’s economic context, the most compelling case for long-term deficit reduction is to finance greater efforts to create jobs in the short term. Invoking a debt crisis that is not happening, however, can only lead to a rush for changes that need not be addressed in the short, nontransparent process of the supercommittee and are likely to do needless damage to our retirement and health programs, if not the economic recovery altogether.
Our “debt crisis”: 2.05% 10-year sovereign bond yields, independent central bank
Italy’s emerging debt crisis: 7.26% 10-year sovereign bond yields, no independent central bank
Greece’s very real debt crisis: 27.33% 10-year sovereign bond yields, no access to capital markets
We didn’t have a debt problem until conservatives in Congress concocted a debt ceiling crisis this summer, “ceiling” being the operative word. We’re struggling through a huge economic shock, and bigger budget deficits have ensued as a result. And it’s still the economy that Congress should be paying attention to: well over half of this year’s budget deficit can be chalked up to the weak economy and policies to boost employment.
Our economic crisis is so severe, so obvious, that it is visible in just about every U.S. data release. Unemployment has been stuck at or above 8.8% for over two and a half years. The economy and employment are growing too slowly to lower the unemployment rate. Poverty is rising, and real median incomes are falling. The economy is running $895 billion (-5.6%) below potential, which singlehandedly accounts for roughly a third of the budget deficit.
Yet Congress ignores these data in favor of the imaginary. There is no talk of a jobs program coming out of the supercommittee, even though fiscal policy is poised to shave one to two percentage points off of real GDP growth next year. The filibuster is repeatedly used to obstruct meaningful jobs legislation in the Senate.
We do face real long-term fiscal challenges that must be addressed. Along with Demos and The Century Foundation, EPI drafted a long-term budget for economic recovery and fiscal responsibility. We should address the health cost escalation but having just witnessed a yearlong process to achieve health care reform (at the time, the biggest piece of deficit-reduction legislation in over a decade), one wonders why this supercommittee should revise our health care system again—likely undermining reform—even before we see the results of reform. Social Security is not in any crisis and there is no need for its long-term fiscal challenge to be addressed in this process, either. We must restore revenue adequacy, but the prospects of the supercommittee doing so are zilch. Stern’s piece with Stockman does contribute to that effort by getting a prominent Republican on the record for substantial revenue increases (which is presumably what the point was, at least for Stern). But if long-term fiscal challenges misguidedly produce premature withdrawal of fiscal support and near-term spending cuts, as looks all too likely, both economic recovery and fiscal sustainability will remain elusive. Those genuinely concerned with long-term fiscal sustainability should pay attention to the economic crisis at hand, the jobs crisis, since we will never have a sustainable fiscal situation with the persistent high unemployment we are facing.
The Senate appears poised to pass two components of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, having found the first area of bipartisan agreement. These two components, however, fall woefully short of what is needed to address the jobs crisis.
The first provision would provide tax credits for hiring veterans, with bigger credits for hiring veterans who have been out of work for more than six months and those with service-related disabilities. It would also expand education and training opportunities for up to 100,000 older veterans. Helping veterans find employment or vocational training is a laudable goal. The problem is that this hiring credit is a rounding error in terms of national economic activity and will not visibly budge the dial on the national unemployment rate.
As Larry Mishel recently pointed out, scale is critical to evaluating any jobs plan. The president proposed a $447 billion jobs bill that would boost employment by 1.9 million jobs and reduce the unemployment rate a percentage point, according to Mark Zandi. The $1.6 billion cost of the Senate’s bill for veterans, on the other hand, represents only one-hundredth of one percent of GDP.
Worse, a second provision would repeal a requirement that, starting in 2013, will withhold 3 percent of payments to government contractors, in the form of a credit against contractors’ tax liability they already owe. Essentially, the cost of helping veterans is simultaneously helping government contractors avoid taxes. Of course, the increased tax avoidance would cost money – but the Senate provided a “pay-for” in the form of decreasing eligibility for Medicaid and subsidies for those seeking to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (i.e., the health reform bill passed at the beginning of 2010).
So, to recap, the big “jobs-plan” coming out of the Senate today would help veterans (good), but would not move the dial on overall joblessness (bad), would facilitate tax avoidance by government contractors (bad), and would pay for this loss in tax revenue by eroding some of the benefits of health reform (bad). Will this pass? Probably—so much for the alleged benefits of bipartisanship. The likely success of this legislation owes first and foremost to the fact that it would not be paid for with a millionaires’ surtax. Over the last month, Senate Republicans have filibustered all of the following measures, which would have been paid for with varying surtaxes on incomes of more than $1 million:
- $447 billion for the entire American Jobs Act (10/11/2011)
- $35 billion to put teachers and first responders back to work (10/20/2011)
- $56 billion to build roads, repair bridges, and create an infrastructure bank (11/3/2011)
Helping some of the 240,000 unemployed veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is merited, but so is helping the broader pool of 25 million un- and underemployed Americans. As we have pointed out over and over again, boosting GDP growth in a $15.2 trillion economy and seriously tackling persistent underemployment requires hundreds of billions of dollars in additional fiscal support. Republicans in the 112th Congress, however, have filibustered (or blocked through other procedural means) all job creation proposals that would provide any meaningful help ameliorating the jobs crisis.
A clear trend is developing among the economic plans of the GOP presidential hopefuls: shift the burden of taxation from upper-income to lower-income households. Yesterday, the Tax Policy Center released an analysis concluding that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s plan would cut taxes on high-income households, raise taxes on low- and middle-income households, and produce bigger deficits. The gist of Perry’s plan is to add an optional federal income tax to the current code: a flat 20 percent tax on (almost all) income less personal exemptions, charitable giving, home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, and all capital gains and dividends income (aptly dubbed an “Alternative Maximum Tax” by Howard Gleckman).
Those earning more than $1 million would see their average tax bill fall by more than half, a tax break of $496,000 in 2015 alone, relative to current policy. The highest income 0.1 percent of households (with income above $2.8 million) would see a tax break of over $1.5 million—even more egregious than the mammoth tax cut they would receive under Herman Cain’s “999” plan.
Meanwhile, Perry’s plan appears to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire in 2013, meaning that lower-income households would lose their expanded earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and the 10 percent bracket. (The John Dunham and Associates analysis for the Perry campaign uses a current law baseline and TPC also concluded that the Bush-era tax cuts would expire on schedule.) The Bush-era tax cuts were regressive and disproportionately benefited upper-income households, but a fraction of these tax cuts have gone to lower- and middle-class households; Perry would effectively do away with these tax cuts while giving higher-income households an even bigger tax cut. This would mean an average tax increase of over $400 for households earning between $20,000 and $40,000. Although this may appear at odds with Perry’s anti-tax ideology, higher taxes for the poor and middle class is in fact entirely consistent with his misleading rhetoric lambasting the “injustice” that nearly half of households don’t pay federal income taxes.
The chart below depicts TPC’s analysis of effective tax rates by cash income level under Perry’s plan versus current policy. On average, households with income under $50,000 see a tax hike. Above this level, tax cuts balloon as income rises. Millionaires would be left paying a lower effective tax rate than a middle class family earning between $50,000 and $75,000. This completely violates the idea of a progressive tax code and the Buffett Rule.
The natural result of modestly raising taxes on working families while slashing taxes for upper-income households is hemorrhaging revenue: this is not about “shared sacrifice” or the budget deficit. As my colleague Ethan Pollack points out, the Perry campaign relies on highly dishonest dynamic scoring to claim their tax code produces more revenue. Official budget scorekeepers incorporate behavioral responses but not dynamic growth effects into tax policy analysis, because research shows growth effects are generally small and can break either way depending on how tax cuts are financed (see this CBPP overview of dynamic scoring). TPC’s static model shows Perry’s plan losing $995 billion relative to current law, a decrease of 27 percent, in calendar year 2015 alone ($570 billion relative to the inadequate levels projected under current policy).
Working households would get hammered again when that additional revenue loss is financed with draconian spending cuts, as required by the balanced budget amendment and spending cap component of Perry’s economic plan. This is merely a plan to dismantle government and refund all the savings, plus some of working families’ disposable income, to upper-income households.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) just declined to give a much anticipated speech on inequality at Wharton (apparently giving a speech to the public was a deal breaker). The transcript, however, can be found here.
His opposition to the American Jobs Act was premised in an objection to progressive taxation (masquerading as concern for soup kitchens and the poor). Blocking funds to keep teachers in classrooms—exacerbating the widening teacher gap—will, of course, impede upward mobility. Now, he manages to turn concern about inequality into an argument against progressive taxation:
“Instead of talking about a fair share or spending time trying to push those at the top down, elected leaders in Washington should be trying to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and the opportunity to earn success up the ladder. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to meet in the middle of the ladder. We should want all people to be moving up and no one to be pulled down. How do we do that? It cannot simply be about wealth redistribution. You don’t just take from the guy at the top to give to the guy at the bottom and expect our problems to be solved.
Instead, we must ensure fairness at every level. We must ensure that those who abuse the rules are punished. We must ensure that the solution to wealth disparity is wealth mobility. We must give everyone the chance to move up. Stability plus mobility equals agility. In an agile economy and an agile society, people are climbing and succeeding.”
So how does the House Republican 2012 budget Cantor pushed through the lower chamber go about giving everyone the chance to move up?
- Slashing Pell Grants
- Slashing food stamps (the old block-grant-and-defund trick)
- Slashing health care for children (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would halve federal spending on Medicaid over the next 20 years)
- Repealing the health care expansion to 34 million non-elderly adults
- Immediately cutting discretionary spending, which would cause 900,00 job losses in the first year alone
- Slashing the top corporate tax rates on individuals and businesses to 25 percent, then “broadening the base” to recoup this $2.5 trillion revenue loss through unspecified reforms. Who picks up the tab? Probably low and middle-income households
Two-thirds of the spending cuts in the Ryan budget would come from programs for lower-income families, according to Bob Greenstein. Nothing in the Ryan budget or their revealingly titled “House Republican Plan for America’s Job Creators” demonstrates sincere concern for inequality, poverty, upward mobility, or unemployment.