Taxes and Uncertainty

It looks like Republicans and Democrats may have made a deal on blocking the tax increases that loom on January 1. No details yet, but reports are that they will extend the current tax rates for one to three years. That means investors and businesses will face continuing uncertainty and the real prospect of a tax increase in one to three years.

Unfortunately, pundits continue to use terms like “extending the Bush tax cuts” or “tax breaks for the wealthy.” In reality, American taxpayers have faced a particular range of personal income tax rates for the past eight years. If the 2001 and 2003 tax laws are allowed to expire, then Americans will see increased tax rates on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates. So the issue is not “tax cuts” or “tax breaks,” it’s whether we should increase taxes in 2011.

And as I noted before, President Obama understands this. He said in mid-November, “I want to make sure that taxes don’t go up for middle class families starting on January 1st.”

The president’s got it right. Taxes are about to go up, and the debate in Congress is whether that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, President Obama does want taxes to go up for business owners, corporate executives, and investors on January 1, the very people whose decisions have the most immediate impact on economic growth and job creation.

And that’s the issue we should be debating: Is it a good idea, especially in a time of continuing high unemployment and slow growth, to raise taxes on investors and entrepreneurs. And even if Congress delays the decision, is it a good idea to leave investors uncertain about what tax rates they’ll face in a year or two?

Let’s hope Congress and the Obama administration soon learns that higher taxes, more regulation, a larger share of GDP shifted to government, fears of Fed monetization of soaring debt — not to mention newspaper reports of Obama budgeteers “flipp[ing] through the tax code, looking for ideas” and threats of “an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities” — can only discourage employers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Robert Higgs has cited the role of “regime uncertainty” in prolonging the Great Depression, as investors worried about what FDR might do next. Will Wilkinson points to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s saying “businesses want certainty. They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today.” Unfortunately, Will says, “Creating completely irresponsible, economically chilling regime uncertainty would appear to be the basic modus operandi of the Obama administration.” A temporary extension of today’s tax rates, with a continuing threat of a rate hike in a year or two, is entirely in keeping with a regime of uncertainty.