Tag: tax increases

Supercommittee Tax Fight Is About Increasing Spending, not Reducing Deficits

Some people have asked why I’m so agitated about the possibility that Republicans may acquiesce to tax increases as part of the Supercommittee negotiations.

Rather than get into a lengthy discourse about the proper role of the federal government or an analysis of how the Bush-Obama spending binge worsened America’s fiscal situation, I think this chart from a previous post says it all.

Republicans are considering a surrender on taxes because they are afraid that a deadlock will lead to a sequester, which would mean automatic budget savings. And the sequester, according to these politicians, would “cut” the budget too severely.

But as the chart illustrates, that is utter nonsense.

There are only budget cuts if you use dishonest Washington budget math, which magically turns spending increases into spending cuts simply because the burden of government isn’t expanding even faster.

If we use honest math, we can see what this debate is really about. Should we raise taxes so that government spending can grow by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years?

Or should we have a sequester so that the burden of federal spending climbs by “only” $2 trillion?

The fact that this is even an issue tells us a lot about whether the GOP has purged itself of the big-government virus of the Bush years.

A few Republicans say that a sellout on tax hikes is necessary to protect the defense budget from being gutted, but this post shows that defense spending will climb by about $100 billion over the next 10 years under a sequester. And that doesn’t even count all the supplemental funding bills that doubtlessly will be enacted.

In other words, anyone who says we need to raise taxes instead of taking a sequester is really saying that we need to expand the burden of government spending.

So even though Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge are two of my heroes, now you know why I don’t consider myself a Republican.

Sequestration Is a Small Step in Right Direction, Not Something to Be Feared

I have sometimes wondered whether it is accurate to say that Republicans are the “Stupid Party.”

We’ll soon know the answer to that question. As part of the debt limit agreement, the politicians agreed to set up a “Supercommittee” comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats that was responsible for producing at least $1.2 trillion of supposed deficit reduction.

But the Democrats appointed a group of hardcore leftists to the Supercommittee, which means that it is virtually impossible to get the necessary seven votes for a good agreement. Indeed, the more relevant question is whether one or more of the Republicans surrenders to a big tax hike.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The law says that there will be automatic spending reductions if the Supercommittee does not reach an agreement. The political establishment in Washington thinks that this outcome—known as sequestration—would be horrible.

They tell as that a sequester would mean “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts. The only “responsible” approach, we are told, is to go along with a tax increase.

This is hogwash. The automatic spending cuts are only “cuts” using Washington’s dishonest budget math. Here’s a chart showing how much spending will grow over the next 10 years, and the relatively tiny reduction in budgetary growth that will be caused if there is a sequester.

We’ve actually been down this path before. There was a small sequester back in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law was enacted. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the sequestration helped restrain the growth of spending and helped bring about a record amount of deficit reduction in 1987.

There was a similar (unsuccessful) fight in 1989. Here’s what then-Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon wrote in 1989.

…the sequester has become the focus of partisan debate . Each side accuses the other of being responsible for “deep and arbitrary” budget cuts . Some legislators say we should do whatever it takes to cancel the sequester, even if it means higher taxes. While a sequester is certainly not the ideal way to resolve this year’s budget dispute, there are reasons to believe that the fiscal discipline of a sequester is the medicine we need to cure the budget process. For all its drawbacks, a sequester is real deficit reduction . Instead of budget gimmicks, accounting tricks, phony cuts, and “revenue enhancements,” a sequester would reduce spending levels by a fixed percentage in eligible spending programs . In other words, unlike most deficit reduction packages, sequestration would actually reduce the deficit.

The only argument against a sequester, at least among conservatives, is that a sequester would impose too much of a burden on the defense budget. But I’ve already explained in this post that the defense budget will climb by about $100 billion under sequestration.

I don’t know whether Republicans are the stupid party, but I know they will be very stupid if they don’t take the sequester and declare victory.

CPAs Celebrate as Obama Proposes to Create a Turbo-Charged Alternative Minimum Tax

Wow, this is remarkable. The alternative minimum tax (AMT) is one of the most-hated features of the tax code. It is such a nightmare of complexity that even Democrats routinely have supported “patches” and “band-aids” to protect millions of additional households from getting trapped in this surreal parallel tax universe - one that requires taxpayers to calculate their taxes two different ways, with the IRS getting the maximum amount of money from the two returns. (Hong Kong, by contrast, give taxpayers the option of calculating their taxes two different ways, but they’re allowed to pay the smaller of the two amounts.)

Notwithstanding the AMT’s status as arguably the worst feature of the internal revenue code, President Obama apparently wants to double down on this horrific policy by creating a new version of this nightmarish provision.

Here are some excerpts from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, including a key observation that Obama’s scheme is just another version of the AMT.

The administration’s principle resembles the Alternative Minimum Tax, which was first adopted in 1969 and was intended to hit the superwealthy. The AMT has been hitting an increasing number of the middle class because it wasn’t indexed for inflation, and Congress has continually wrestled with how to get rid of it.

The WSJ article also notes that a glaring inconsistency in the White House’s rhetoric. the plan is supposed to be a “very significant” tax hike, but doubling the tax burden on millionaires would only raise $19 billion per year. In other words, the Administration’s class-warfare rhetoric is probably just cover for a tax hike that actually will hit a lot of people with far more modest incomes.

The proposal also could apply to a broader selection of taxpayers—all households with incomes of more than $1 million. Those earners are expected to pay an average of $845,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Assuming the households in the group of 22,000 pay that amount, even doubling their tax burden would raise just $19 billion a year at a time when deficit reduction is being measured in trillions of dollars. That doesn’t take into effect any change in taxpayer behavior prompted by a new tax regime. A senior administration official said that depending on where the minimum rate is set, the plan could be a “very significant” revenue raiser. The official wouldn’t provide details. …Some conservative economists say such a proposal could put a drag on capital markets and ignores the fact that many companies have already paid tax on the income before it is distributed to owners as dividends or capital gains.

The New York Times, to its credit, provides a fair description of the issue (including a much-needed acknowledgement that Warren Buffett may not have been honest and/or accurate), and also suggests that Obama may be proposing to replace the existing AMT with this new version (though that presumably would negate its impact as a revenue-raiser).

Mr. Obama will not specify a rate or other details, and it is unclear how much revenue his plan would raise. But his idea of a millionaires’ minimum tax will be prominent in the broad plan for long-term deficit reduction that he will outline at the White House on Monday. Mr. Obama’s proposal is certain to draw opposition from Republicans, who have staunchly opposed raising taxes on the affluent because, they say, it would discourage investment. It could also invite scrutiny from some economists who have disputed Mr. Buffett’s assertion that the megarich pay a lower tax rate over all. Mr. Buffett’s critics say many of the rich actually make more from wages than from investments. …The administration wants such a tax to replace the alternative minimum tax, which was created decades ago to make sure the richest taxpayers with plentiful deductions and credits did not avoid income taxes, but which now hits millions of Americans who are considered upper middle class.

Actually, the AMT also hits lots of middle-class families since having kids is considered a “preference” for tax purposes.

But that’s just an insult layered on top of injury. What makes Obama’s new scheme so destructive is that it would (though the White House has not explained the details) somehow classify dividends and capital gains as “preference” items - even though everyone acknowledges that such income already is double taxed!

In other words, Obama claims to be concerned about jobs, but he is proposing a big tax hike on the saving and investment that is necessary to create jobs. Amazing.

Regular readers will recognize this video about Obama’s class-warfare tax policy. But if you haven’t seen it, five reasons are presented to explain why it will backfire.

But look at the bright side. At least accountants and tax lawyers (and don’t forget bankruptcy specialists) will get more business if Obama’s plan is implemented.

Warren Buffett’s Fiscal Innumeracy

Warren Buffett’s at it again. He has a column in the New York Times complaining that he has been coddled by the tax code and that “rich” people should pay higher taxes.

My first instinct is to send Buffett the website where people can voluntarily pay extra money to the federal government. I’ve made this suggestion to guilt-ridden rich people in the past.

But I no longer give that advice. I’m worried he might actually do it. And even though Buffett is wildly misguided about fiscal policy, I know he will invest his money much more wisely than Barack Obama will spend it.

But Buffett goes beyond guilt-ridden rants in favor of higher taxes. He makes specific assertions that are inaccurate.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

His numbers are flawed in two important ways.

  1. When Buffett receives dividends and capital gains, it is true that he pays “only” 15 percent of that money on his tax return. But dividends and capital gains are both forms of double taxation. So if he wants honest effective tax rate numbers, he needs to show the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

    Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, Buffett completely ignores the impact of the death tax, which will result in the federal government seizing 45 percent of his assets. To be sure, Buffett may be engaging in clever tax planning, so it is hard to know the impact on his effective tax rate, but it will be significant.

  2. Buffett also mischaracterizes the impact of the Social Security payroll tax, which is dedicated for a specific purpose. The law only imposes that tax on income up to about $107,000 per year because the tax is designed so that people “earn” a corresponding  retirement benefit (which actually is tilted in favor of low-income workers).

    Imposing the tax on multi-millionaire income, however, would mean sending rich people giant checks from Social Security when they retire. But nobody thinks that’s a good idea. Or you could apply the payroll tax to all income and not pay any additional benefits. But this would turn Social Security from an “earned benefit” to a redistribution program, which also is widely rejected (though the left has been warming to the idea in recent years because their hunger for more tax revenue is greater than their support for Social Security).

If we consider these two factors, Buffett’s effective tax rate almost surely is much higher than the burden on any of the people who work for him.

But this entire discussion is a good example of why we should junk the corrupt, punitive, and unfair tax code and replace it with a simple flat tax. With no double taxation and a single, low tax rate, we would know that rich people were paying the right amount, neither too much based on class-warfare tax rates nor too little based on loopholes, deduction, preferences, exemptions, shelters, and credits.

So why doesn’t Buffett endorse this approach? Tim Carney offers a very plausible answer.

For more information about why class-warfare taxes are misguided, this video may be helpful.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of the Debt-Ceiling Deal: Yes, There’s a Real Threat of Higher Taxes

Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling deals with whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

Debunking the Left’s Tax Burden Deception

I testified yesterday before the Joint Economic Committee about budget process reform. As part of the Q&A session after the testimony, one of the Democratic members made a big deal about the fact that federal tax revenues today are “only” consuming about 15 percent of GDP. And since the long-run average is about 18 percent of GDP, we are all supposed to conclude that a substantial tax hike is needed as part of what President Obama calls a “balanced approach” to red ink.

But it’s not just statist politicians making this argument. After making fun of his assertion that Obama is a conservative, I was hoping to ignore Bruce Bartlett for a while, but I noticed that he has a piece on the New York Times website also implying that America’s fiscal problems are the result of federal tax revenues dropping far below the long-run average of 18 percent of GDP.

In a previous post, I noted that federal taxes as a share of gross domestic product were at their lowest level in generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects revenue to be just 14.8 percent of G.D.P. this year; the last year it was lower was 1950, when revenue amounted to 14.4 percent of G.D.P. But revenue has been below 15 percent of G.D.P. since 2009, and the last time we had three years in a row when revenue as a share of G.D.P. was that low was 1941 to 1943. Revenue has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since 1970 and a little more than that in the postwar era.

To be fair, both the politician at the JEC hearing and Bruce are correct in claiming that tax revenues this year are considerably below the historical average.

But they are both being a bit deceptive, either deliberately or accidentally, in that they fail to show the CBO forecast for the rest of the decade. But I understand why they cherry-picked data. The chart below shows, rather remarkably, that tax revenues (the fuschia line) are expected to be back at the long-run average (the blue line) in just three years. And that’s even if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent and the alternative minimum tax is frozen.

It’s also worth noting the black line, which shows how the tax burden will climb if the Bush tax cuts expire (and also if millions of new taxpayers are swept into the AMT). In that “current law” scenario, the tax burden jumps considerably above the long-run average in just two years. Keep in mind, though, that government forecasters assume that higher tax rates have no adverse impact on economic performance, so it’s quite likely that neither tax revenues nor GDP would match the forecast.

Senate Finance Hearing on Debt

I testified to the Senate Finance Committee today regarding federal spending and debt.

Here are some of the points I made:

  • Last night, President Obama called for a “balanced solution” to our fiscal problems, including tax increases and spending cuts. However, CBO projections do not indicate that we face a “balanced” problem. Instead, projections show that the deficit problem is caused all on the spending side of the budget.
  • The United States has sadly become a big-government country. Until recently, government spending in this country was about 10 percentage points less than the average of OECD countries. That smaller-government advantage has now shrunken to just 4 percentage points.
  • In recent years, policymakers have given us the largest deficit-spending “stimulus” since World War II, yet we are suffering from the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
  • Rising government spending suppresses GDP because the government’s “leaky bucket” gets leakier and leakier as spending increases.
  • Leaders in Congress are talking about cutting spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, or roughly $300 billion per year. The result would be that spending would rise from $3.6 trillion this year to $5.4 trillion in 2021, rather than the currently projected $5.7 trillion. That would be only a 5 percent cut. Interest savings would reduce spending a little more—but, come on Congress, you can do better than that!