Commentary

New Tax Deal: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Compared to ideal policy, the deal announced Monday night between congressional Republicans and President Obama is terrible.

Compared to what I expected to happen, the deal announced is pretty good.

In other words, grading this package depends on your benchmark. This is why reaction has been all over the map, featuring dour assessments from people like Pejman Yousefzadeh and cheerful analysis from folks such as Jennifer Rubin.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, let’s review the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good: The good parts of the agreement is the avoidance of bad things, sort of the political version of the Hippocratic oath — do no harm. Tax rates next year are not going to increase. The main provisions of the 2001 and 2003 tax acts are extended for two years — including the lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. This is good news for investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers who were targeted by Obama. They get a reprieve before there is a risk of higher tax rates. This probably won’t have a positive effect on economic performance since current policy will continue, but at least it delays anti-growth policy for two years.

There will be very little economic boost from this deal.”

On a lesser note, Obama’s gimmicky and ineffective make-work-pay credit, which was part of the so-called stimulus, will be replaced by a 2-percentage point reduction in the payroll tax. Tax credits generally do not result in lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior, so there is no pro-growth impact. A lower payroll tax rate, by contrast, improves incentives to work. But don’t expect much positive effect on the economy since the lower rate only lasts for one year. People rarely make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of one-year tax breaks.

Another bit of good news is that the death tax will be 35 percent for two years, rather than 55 percent, as would have happened without an agreement, or 45 percent, which is what I thought was going to happen. Last but not least, there is a one-year provision allowing businesses to “expense” new investment rather than have it taxed, which perversely happens to some degree under current law.

The bad: The burden of government spending is going to increase. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. And there is no effort to reduce spending elsewhere to “pay for” this new budgetary burden. A rising burden of federal spending is America’s main fiscal problem, and this agreement exacerbates that challenge.

But the fiscal cost is probably trivial compared to the human cost. Academic research is quite thorough on this issue, and it shows that paying people to remain out of work has a significantly negative impact on employment rates. This means many people will remain trapped in joblessness, with potentially horrible long-term consequences on their work histories and habits.

The agreement reinstates a death tax. For all of this year, there has not been a punitive and immoral tax imposed on people simply because they die. So even though I listed the 35 percent death tax in the deal in the “good news” section of this analysis because it could have been worse, it also belongs in the “bad news” section because there is no justification for this class-warfare levy.

The ugly: As happens so often when politicians make decisions, the deal includes all sorts of special-interest provisions. There are various special provisions for politically powerful constituencies. As a long-time fan of a simple and non-corrupt flat tax, it is painful for me to see this kind of deal.

Moreover, the temporary nature of the package is disappointing. There will be very little economic boost from this deal. As mentioned above, people generally don’t increase output in response to short-term provisions. I worry that this will undermine the case for lower tax rates since observers may conclude that they don’t have much positive effect.

To conclude, I’m not sure if this is good, bad, or ugly, but we get to do this all over again in 2012.

Daniel Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and an expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy.