Sunday, September 23, 2012

tax rates and the national debt

in a related story (to trickle-down economics below), I wondered what the relationship was between tax rates and the national debt.

For one data point, Reagan cut taxes and the national debt tripled (see that same trickle-down economics post).

So google tax rates and the national debt.

The first result is an article from money.cnn.com entitled, "National debt: why tax revenue has to go up."

Nobody likes having to pay more in taxes. And it's true that the country is on track to spend more than it can afford. So why can't Congress just cut spending to put the federal budget on a more sustainable path?

First answer: the problem is too deep to fix with spending cuts alone.

Here's just how deep: Say lawmakers wanted to permanently freeze the national debt held by the public where it is today -- 67% of GDP. They would need to cut spending by 35%, or about $1.2 trillion, immediately. And those cuts would need to be permanent, according to the Government Accountability Office.

How hard would that be? Consider that in 2010, all of discretionary spending -- including defense -- totaled $1.4 trillion.

So does the country have a spending problem or a revenue problem? In truth, it's both. (Obama's deficit problem: His tax cuts)

"Everybody would like low taxes. And they'd like government to do everything that they think government should do. But the arithmetic can be a problem," said Susan Irving, director of federal budget analysis at the Government Accountability Office.

Of course, Congress doesn't have to hike tax rates in order to raise more revenue. In fact, fiscal experts would prefer that lawmakers lower rates while eliminating or reducing the hundreds of tax credits, deductions and exemptions on the books. Such "tax expenditures" deprive federal coffers of more than $1 trillion a year.

***

The next article is the National Debt FAQ, the The Muser website apparently written by J.C. Adamson (his solution is to leave the big party and become independent).  Anyway here's some excerpts from his FAQ.

We have this debt because our government (that's you & me) spends more than it collects in taxes. The solutions are:

How can we get out of this mess?

The solutions are:
  • Spend less. That's a lot harder than it sounds; most government spending that could be cut is relatively minor. The things that cannot be cut (or would be extremely difficult to cut) are huge.
  • Tax more. If we can't—or won't—cut spending, it's our only choice.
  • Realistically, we have to do both. During the five fiscal years 2003-2007, the deficit averaged 12.3% of spending.* I can't conceive that growth in the economy is going to amount to 12.3% anytime soon. I can't imagine that we can reduce actual spending by 12.3%. So taxation has to be a part of this. 
  • * The high during this period was 18%, the low 6%. The January 2008 forecast for 2008 was 8%, but that didn't include the costs of the economic relief package. Revenue could also drop more than forecast due to recession. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a commentary on this.
  • If we are really ready to sacrifice significant spending programs, perhaps we could cut overall spending by as much as 8% or 9%. But think what that means! The average increase in spending over the past 5 years has been almost 5%. If inflation in the next few years averages 3%, and we stop the increases in spending, and we reduce spending by a real 8%, that totals 16%!! What do you think? Is that 8% reduction realistic? Nah, 1% or 2% is more realistic.
  • So we have to increase taxes—we have no choice. Won't that hurt our economy? Probably not. And reducing the amount of GDP that's diverted to debt interest will surely help.
***

Next is Mark B. Evans in the Tucson Citizen.  (Who's Mark B. Evans?  He's the editor of the Tucson Citizen.  What is the Tucson Citizen?  It's an internet publication which succeeded the print edition which stopped in 2009.  According to wikipedia, it's "a compendium of blogs . . . written by Tucsonans for Tucsonans.  No mention of whether it leans to the left or right.

There is this pernicious misbelief that nothing affects the economy more than taxes. Raise them and the economy goes down, lower them and the economy goes up.

It’s not true. Tax policy is one small part of an enormously complex American economy. President Reagan lowered taxes and the economy went up. Reagan raised taxes and the economy went up. George H.W Bush raised taxes and the economy went down. Bill Clinton raised taxes and the economy went up. George W. Bush lowered taxes and the economy crashed. Barrack Obama lowered taxes and the economy did nothing.

See a pattern? Neither do we.

The only pattern you can see with all of these presidents is they spent more money than they took in. In the 31 years since Reagan took office, the government has spent more than it received in every year but one.

So now the national debt is a few billion dollars short of $16 trillion.

What do we do about it? The Republicans want to tax less and spend less. The Democrats want to tax some people more and some people less but spend the same (or more, who really knows since they haven’t proposed a budget). Neither of those will work.

The only plan that will work, Simpson-Bowles, named after former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, would tax more and spend less.

Because it gores everyone’s ox, neither Democrats nor Republicans like it. So they didn’t pass it and debt continues to pile up while the Congress does nothing.

Nothing will have to become something soon. There is no way around the fact that we’re all going to have to pay for 30 years of profligacy.

One way or another, we’re all going to have to pay a tax.

***

I think we're eventually going to go with Simpson-Bowles.  What is Simpson-Bowles?

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (often called Bowles-Simpson/Simpson-Bowles from the names of co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles; or NCFRR) is a Presidential Commission created in 2010 by President Barack Obama to identify "…policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run."[1] The commission first met on April 27, 2010.[2] A report was released on December 1, 2010,[3] but failed a vote on December 3 with 11 of 18 votes in favor, with a supermajority of 14 votes needed to formally endorse the blueprint.

Coincidentally they apparently penned an op-ed in USA Today (yesterday).

The Simpson-Bowles commission offered a reasonable, responsible, comprehensive and bipartisan solution that won the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the commission. [but not Paul Ryan] Most importantly, it would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — enough to put the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy.

Our plan showed that this problem is too large to cut our way out, it’s too large to tax our way out and it’s too large to grow our way out. We need a combination of cutting low-priority spending throughout the budget, reforming entitlements to slow the growth of health care spending and make Social Security solvent, and reforming the tax code to promote growth and generate revenue in a progressive manner. As we make these changes, we must be sure to phase them in gradually to protect what is clearly a very fragile economic recovery and to avoid cuts that would harm the most vulnerable in society.

The “fiscal cliff” is the exact wrong way to reduce the deficit. By mindlessly cutting spending across-the-board, letting tax rates go up on everyone and abruptly taking $500 billion out of the economy in nine months, going off this fiscal cliff would throw us back into recession.

*** (and more)

The Tax Policy Center vs. the Wall Street Journal

the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution that evaluates tax proposals submitted by presidential candidates, examined the effect of Romney’s tax rate cuts combined with the elimination of several common tax deductions. Those include the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving deduction and the exclusion for health insurance. The center published its findings on Aug. 1, 2012.

To try and keep with Romney's guiding principles, the authors eliminated deductions and write-offs -- starting with the deductions for top earners first -- until they came up with enough revenue to offset the $360 billion in tax cuts that are part of Romney's plan.

They determined that people who earn $1 million or more in taxable income would see an average net tax decrease of $87,117. They’d save $175,961 from Romney's tax cut, but lose $88,444 in deductions.
"They would still get a tax cut," said Adam Looney, one of the authors. "The dollar value of the tax cuts is just way bigger than the mortgage interest and other deductions. There’s no way to implement this plan in a way that doesn’t result in a pretty big tax cut for that group (those making more than $1 million)."

People who earn between $500,000 and $1 million would see a cut of about $17,000, and taxes for people with incomes between $200,000 and $500,000 would decrease by about $1,800, the study found.
But to make Romney's plan revenue neutral, deductions would also have to be removed for people with incomes below $200,000, and the effects of that would be significant, the study found. In fact, the elimination of the deductions would mean outright tax increases for everyone with incomes below $200,000. People with taxable income between $50,000 and $75,000, for example, would see an average net tax increase of $641. They’d save $984 from Romney's rate cut, but lose $2,672 in write-offs.

And now the Wall Street Journal:

This editorial largely draws on other work. It echoed Jensen’s criticism that the Tax Policy Center failed to consider certain tax breaks. It labeled the center authors as "class warriors"  and charged that  the center "ignores the history of tax cutting."

"Every major marginal rate income tax cut of the last 50 years," said the editorial writer, "1964, 1981, 1986 and 2003 — was followed by an unexpectedly large increase in tax revenues, a surge in taxes paid by the rich, and a more progressive tax code—i.e., the share of taxes paid by the richest 1 percent rose."

The editorial also said the center’s findings are "refuted by President Obama's own Simpson-Bowles deficit commission report. The Romney plan of cutting the top tax rate to 28 percent and closing loopholes to pay for it is conceptually very close to what Simpson-Bowles recommended."

***

Is Romney's plan conceptionally close to Simpson-Bowles?

From Forbes (Howard Gleckman)

In the recent contretemps over Mitt Romney’s tax plan, some Romney partisans have asserted that the Massachusetts governor’s revenue plank mimics the tax elements of the deficit reduction plan proposed in 2010 by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the chairs of President Obama’s deficit fiscal commission.

This claim is absurd. These two proposals could hardly be more different.

True, both propose a significant across-the-board rate cut on ordinary income. But after that, their tax plans have about as much in common as Infected Mushroom and the New York Philharmonic.

The Bowles-Simpson tax reform was fundamentally a trillion-dollar tax increase designed to help cut the deficit, while Romney flatly opposes any deficit-reducing tax hike. Bowles and Simpson would have raised taxes on capital gains and dividends, Romney would cut them. Bowles and Simpson included very specific proposals for eliminating popular tax preferences. Romney is largely silent on how he’d broaden the tax base to pay for his rate cuts.

[OK, maybe not Forbes, since this piece also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor]

OK, maybe Gleckman is biased.  But here's Erskine Bowles himself.

This month, Romney said that his tax reform proposal is “very similar to the Simpson-Bowles plan.” How I wish it were. I will be the first to cheer if Romney decides to embrace our plan. Unfortunately, the numbers say otherwise: His reform plan leaves too many tax breaks in place and, as a result, does nothing to reduce the debt.

The “zero plan” our commission recommended offered both parties an appealing bargain: lower tax rates for everyone in return for sweeping reduction in tax loopholes of every stripe. Taxpayers and the economy would benefit from a vastly simpler Tax Code, and getting rid of loopholes would produce more than $1 trillion of the $4 trillion needed in deficit reduction. Our commission produced an alternative plan showing how much individual rates would need to go up, and who would have to pay for them, if lawmakers decided to preserve certain tax expenditures.

The most important lesson Al [Simpson] and I learned on the commission is that to fix the debt, everything must be on the table. Americans everywhere have told us that as long as the sacrifice is shared, they are ready to do their part. The surest way to doom deficit reduction is to play favorites by taking things off the table.

So although I give Romney credit for pledging to reform the Tax Code to reduce loopholes, his current proposal will not take us to the promised land. Our commission’s tax plan broadens the base, simplifies the code, reduces tax expenditures and generates $1 trillion for deficit reduction while making the Tax Code more progressive. The Romney plan, by sticking to revenue-neutrality and leaving in place tax breaks, would raise taxes on the middle class and do nothing to shrink the deficit.

[Note: Bowles served in the Clinton administration.]

***

Why didn't Obama support Simpson-Bowles?

[From the Huffington Post] Journalists here are homing in on Vice President Joe Biden's criticism of the GOP for not supporting any of the deficit-reduction proposals over the past year, noting that President Barack Obama did not embrace a report put out by the co-chairs of the Simpson-Bowles panel.

The problem with Biden's statement isn't that it's false. The problem is that it's true. With unemployment above 8 percent and the economy sputtering along, cutting government spending would have slowed growth further. Obama's 2011 focus on the deficit over job creation was a failure on every level, failing to reach a deal and turning the focus away from job creation.

The White House, contrary to media carping, did, in fact, desperately pursue a "grand bargain" that would dramatically trim the deficit, the sort of deal Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles were pursuing. In so doing, the Obama administration was willing to raise the Medicare retirement age and agree to a host of other cuts to social programs that would have caused real pain, in exchange for a disproportionately small amount of tax hikes.

Obama's pursuit of this deal led him to push the Senate to create a commission to hash one out. When Senate Republicans bailed on it, he created one by executive order. That panel -- Simpson-Bowles -- rejected the co-chairs' conclusions -- meaning there was no actual report for the president to support.

But Obama didn't give up, agreeing with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to dramatically cut spending in exchange for limited revenue increases. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in the Senate was also working on a deficit-reduction deal.

Obama publicly backed the deal -- the kind of public support journalists are now saying was lacking.

As soon as Obama got behind the bargain, the GOP fled.

***

[Forbes/Josh Barro] The reason Obama didn’t back Simpson-Bowles is much simpler: it’s a big tax hike on the middle class. The President made a campaign promise not to raise taxes on families making $250,000 or less—98 percent of all American families. Though he has signed a couple of bills that violate that promise at the edges (raising the cigarette tax and, arguably, imposing an individual health care mandate) he has made a clear decision that it would be against his political interest to endorse any broad-based income or payroll tax increase on middle-income families. He could not endorse Simpson-Bowles because Simpson-Bowles is unpopular.

[Washingon Post/Ezra Klein] Perhaps the most common Washington criticism of the White House is that they didn’t embrace the Simpson-Bowles plan. That was, in the eyes of many pundits, the moment when President Obama revealed himself as a typical liberal rather than a postpartisan reformer. But the New York Times today suggests that much of Washington is misreading a tactical decision as an ideological one.

It’s a frustration for many White Houses that the best way to get things done is not necessarily to support them. For all that Washington thrills to the spectacle pf presidential leadership, the opposition party tends to recoil from proposals that are too closely associated with the White House. The calculus is simple: If a bill belongs to the president, then its passage is a defeat for the opposition. This dynamic is, in part, why both parties spend so much time negotiating behind closed doors. The trick is to agree on a proposal before it can become associated with either party, and thus before its passage can become a loss for one side.

[NewsBusters/Noel Sheppard] Obama didn't support Simpson-Bowles due its proposals regarding Medicare and Social Security. The far-left never would have accepted this and it could have seriously harmed him at the polls.

[Bill Maher in the same article] Let’s be honest why he didn’t: because the Republicans who were with him when he started Simpson-Bowles after he said he was for it said they weren't, because they can't do anything he does because it has cooties. That’s what happened. That’s what happened.

***

Wait.  Simpson-Bowles raises taxes on the middle-class?

[Ginny Welsch] Bowles-Simpson raises the retirement age, cuts Social Security benefits, increases out-of-pocket costs for Medicare, eliminates deductions for mortgage interest and health-care benefits, eliminates subsidized student loans, and raises taxes on the bottom 80 percent of families, while cutting taxes for the top 20 percent. And that’s just the beginning. It represents a large upward shift of wealth from the middle class.

[Wikipedia]  $100 billion in increased tax revenues through various tax reform proposals,[13] such as introducing a 15 cent per gallon gasoline tax and eliminating or restricting a variety of tax deductions such as the home mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for employer-provided healthcare benefits.

[So I suppose it's these proposals that would hit the middle class]

Looking at Wikipedia references, led to this article from the Washington Post

Step two would be tax reform. The plan would squeeze $100 billion a year out of the tax code through a comprehensive strategy that would eliminate all the expensive and popular deductions known as tax expenditures. Special rates for capital gains and dividends would be gone, and the inheritance tax would reappear at a rate of 45 percent for estates worth more than $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples.

 Not all of that cash would be dedicated to deficit reduction. Some of it would pay for an overhaul of the tax code that would lower rates for most taxpayers and eliminate the unpopular alternative minimum tax. The six current tax brackets would be replaced by three brackets with rates of 8 percent, 14 percent and 23 percent. The corporate tax rate, currently one of the highest in the industrial world at 35 percent, would be reduced to 26 percent.

[So I assume it's the gasoline tax and elimination of the mortgage interest deduction that would hit the middle class.  But then it would be offset by a lowering of the tax rates.]

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