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Obama’s Tax Proposals

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on October 30, 2011

President Obama has been touring the country to promote his “American Jobs Act“, along with a package of tax increases designed to pay for that jobs bill. Pundits have been debating Obama’s proposals for the last few months, but the best commentary on the president’s tax plan comes from the September 24 issue of the British newsweekly The Economist.

On taxes, Mr Obama has stapled together a clutch of previous proposals: returning tax rates on the wealthy to where they were before Mr Bush cut them in 2001, and curbing deductions such as those for municipal-bond interest, mortgages and charitable giving. He proposes a new “Buffett” tax, named after the billionaire investor who has protested against the injustice of paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. It would require anyone earning more than $1m to pay a tax rate equal to that of the middle class, though how that could be done is completely obscure.

Republicans accused Mr Obama of class warfare; he responded that “this is not class warfare. It’s math. The money is going to have to come from someplace.” But that is disingenuous. Maths demands that substantial money should be raised, not that it should all come from the wealthiest 2% of citizens, nor that Mr Obama should stick to his promise that 98% of households must never pay higher rates.

[emphasis added]

As I will (probably) say several times in future posts over the next few years, America is in deep fiscal trouble and to get out of it we will all have to bear some of the burden of higher taxes and reduced spending. Those on the left shout that we can’t “balance the budget on the backs of the poor”, but it is equally true that we can’t balance the budget on the backs of the rich. (As this article explains, it is not only true that we shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the rich, for reasons of economic efficiency and growth, but it is also true that we literally can’t balance the budget by hiking taxes on the rich, as the amount that would be raised by Obama’s potential tax increases is only a small fraction of what is needed to close the US budget deficit.) While wealthier Americans will pay proportionally more under any revenue-increasing tax reform (just as they pay proportionally more under our current system), Obama’s idea is to force high earners, small-business owners, and large corporations to bear virtually all of the burden of paying for our nation’s out-of-control spending. As The Economist continues,

Billionaires and secretaries will both surely have to pay more taxes; record deficits have long since replaced the surpluses of 2001, thanks in large part to Mr Bush’s across-the-board tax cuts. Yet Mr Obama is going about it in a clumsy way. Consider those millionaires he is insisting should pay more: there are 433,000 of them, or 0.3% of all taxpayers, according to the Tax Policy Centre, a non-partisan research outfit. On average they pay 20% of their income in federal income and payroll taxes, while the median taxpayer pays 11%. Just under a quarter of the millionaires pay as little, or less, than that median, a phenomenon almost entirely due to the lower rate levied on capital gains and dividends.

A far more efficient way to collect more taxes would be a genuine tax reform that maintained or lowered marginal rates while curbing the exemptions, credits and deductions that cost $1 trillion a year, including the lower rate for capital gains and dividends. This would boost productivity by making the tax code more efficient, while shifting more of the tax burden to the rich who now benefit disproportionately from such exemptions and account for Mr Buffett’s sub-secretarial tax rate. A lower corporate rate would offset the harm of higher capital gains and dividend taxes.

Or, as they will teach you in any public economics class, the solution is to “broaden the base and lower the rate”. While I don’t agree completely with The Economist‘s prescription (Milton Friedman persuasively argued that corporate income should not be taxed at all), it is far more reasonable than Obama’s proposals. The president can say a million times that his ideas represent “common sense” or the “balanced approach”, but that doesn’t make it true.

One Response to “Obama’s Tax Proposals”

  1. Clare Rosean said

    Would it work right now to have a flat income tax, while also hiking the capital gains tax rate?

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