By James Kwak
[Updated with Mnuchin’s position on charitable contribution deduction.]
I wrote two days ago about the fairy tale that you can lower tax rates for the very rich yet avoid lowering their actual taxes by eliminating those mythical beasts, loopholes and deductions. The basic problem with this story is that, at the very high end of the distribution, deductions and exclusions (with the possible exception of the deduction for charitable contributions) just don’t amount to very much as a percentage of income. Therefore, eliminating those deductions may increase rich people’s taxes by tens of thousands of dollars, but that is only a tiny proportion of their overall tax burden, and not enough to offset any significant rate decrease.
Unlike me, Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema are actual tax scholars (Hemel has a blog on Medium), and their detailed research largely tells the same story. They have a forthcoming paper that analyzes the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and shows that, while it is worth more dollars to rich people than poor people (for all the well-known reasons—bigger houses, higher marginal rates, itemizing), the MID causes people in the top 1% to pay a larger share of the overall tax burden. Therefore, eliminating the MID and using the increased tax revenue to reduce tax rates for everyone (what Mnuchin proposed in concept) would be a large windfall for the top 0.1% and a small windfall for the rest of the 1%.
The numbers are in the last column of this table:
Continue reading “More on the Deduction Fairy”
By James Kwak
Incoming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised a big tax cut for corporations and the “middle class,” but not for the rich. “Any tax cuts for the upper class will be offset by less deductions that pay for it,” he said on CNBC.
This is impossible.
The tax cutting mantra comes in two forms. The more extreme one claims that reducing the overall tax burden on the rich will turbocharge the economy because they will save more, increasing investment, and will also work more, starting companies and doing all those other wonderful things that rich people do. The less extreme version is that we should lower tax rates to reduce distortions in the tax code, but we can maintain the current level of taxes paid by the rich by eliminating those famous “loopholes and deductions.” Donald Trump the candidate stuck with the former: his tax proposal, as scored by the Tax Policy Center, gave 47% of its total tax cuts to the top 1%, who also enjoyed by far the largest reduction in their average tax rate.
Mnuchin’s comment implies that he favors the latter version: lowering rates but making it up by “broadening the base.” This math might work for the merely rich—say, families making $200,000–400,000 per year. Take away the mortgage interest tax deduction, the deduction for retirement plan contributions, and the exclusion for employer-provided health care—which together can easily shield $50–75,000 in income—and you could probably fund several percentage points of rate decreases. (Of course, it would be politically impossible to completely eliminate those tax breaks, but that’s another story.)
Continue reading “The Deduction Fairy”
By James Kwak
This presidential election has come down to a referendum on Donald Trump, the
man muppet whatever he is. Tactically speaking, that’s probably a good thing. Trump is an absolutely horrendous life form, and as long as he can’t get more than 43% of the vote, he almost certainly can’t be president. (Gary Johnson just isn’t that appealing.) Of course, focusing on personal attributes has been the Hillary Clinton strategy all along, even dating back to the primaries, when she focused on her experience and seriousness in the face of Sanders’s popular proposals (single payer, free college, etc.). It’s been even more true of the general election, in which Clinton has gone out of her way to portray Trump as a unique, rather than as the culmination of the evolution of the Republican Party.
Ordinarily we bemoan the focus on personalities rather than issues. (How many millions of times have Democrats complained about voters who chose George W. Bush because they would rather have a beer with him than Al Gore or John Kerry?) This time around, we seem happy enough with the personality contest, either because it increases Clinton’s chances of winning, or because Trump is so toxic that, this time, personality really does matter.
Continue reading “The Problem with Personality Contests”
By James Kwak
In the Times a couple of days ago, Gregory Mankiw made a half-hearted case for eliminating the estate tax that was so weak I’m not even sure he convinced himself. The core of his argument is that the estate tax violates the principle of horizontal equity, according to which “similar people should face similar burdens.” The problem, on his view, is that between two rich couples that each amass $20 million, the Profligates who consume their wealth before death end up paying lower taxes than the Frugals who maintain a modest lifestyle. “To me, this does not seem right,” Mankiw concludes.
First of all, it’s not even clear why this example violates horizontal equity. The Profligates and the Frugals are not “similar people”—Mankiw specifically constructed the example that way. They may have each earned the same amount of money, but they have vastly different consumption habits.
Second, it’s not clear that the Frugals are paying more tax than the Profligates. Their estate will pay higher taxes, but by then they are dead; the estate tax does not directly limit their personal consumption in the slightest. In fact, the ones whose estate will pay the tax are the ones who apparently are not interested in consumption in the first place. Now, the defense of Mankiw is that the Frugals do care about how much money they can pass on to their children, so the estate tax does affect their utility. But that brings up the third, and most important point . . .
Continue reading “Confused About Taxes”
By James Kwak
In an otherwise unobjectionable article about The Piketty, the generally excellent David Leonhardt wrote this sentence: “In the 1950s, the top rate exceeded 90 percent. Today, it is 39.6 percent, and only because President Obama finally won a yearslong battle with Republicans in early 2013 to increase it from 35 percent.”
Is “yearslong” really a word?
But that’s not what I mean to quibble with. It’s that “yearslong battle with Republicans.”
Continue reading “Tax Policy Revisionism”
By James Kwak
That seems like a nonsensical question. Of course, each of us born where he or she was born, and we didn’t have much choice in the matter. But, philosopher John Rawls asked, if you lived behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing what position you would occupy in the socio-economic hierarchy, what rules would you choose to govern society?
Rawls was reasoning from a situation in which people could decide on any set of rules.* In the real world, the set of existing countries gives us a limited set of options to choose from; among those, if you didn’t know if you were going to be rich or poor, where would you choose to be born? On Friday, I was discussing this question with a scholar who is in the United States for a year, and one thing we noted was the instinctive tendency of many Americans to assume that we must be the best at everything and have the best of everything in the world (best health care, best Constitution, best hockey team, etc.).
Continue reading “Where Do You Want to Be Born?”
By James Kwak
President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes a number of tax increases that will mainly affect the rich. They include:
- Limiting the tax savings on deductions to 28 percent of the deduction amount (and applying this limit to exclusions as well, such as the one for employer-provided health benefits)
- Requiring a minimum 30% income tax on income less charitable contributions, which is intended to limit the benefit of tax preferences on capital gains and qualified dividends
- Reducing the estate tax exemption from $5.34 million to $3.5 million and raising the estate tax rate from 40% to 45%
- Eliminating tax preferences for retirement accounts once someone’s account balance is enough to fund a $200,000 annuity in retirement (simplifying slightly)
These are all good things, given the size of the projected national debt and the urgent needs elsewhere in society. But, of course, they have no chance of actually happening.
If President Obama really wanted these outcomes, there was a way to get them. He could have let the Bush tax cuts expire for good a year ago, making high taxes on the rich a reality. Then, a year later, he could have proposed a middle-class tax cut and dared the Republicans to block it in an election year. (He could also have traded a reduction in the top marginal rate—from the 39.6% that would have resulted, not counting the 3.8% Medicare tax—for the reforms he is now proposing.)
But no. Instead, he locked in low marginal rates, including low rates on dividends, that cannot be budged so long as Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate. And today he’s left waving a “roadmap” that has no chance of becoming reality.
By James Kwak
Not Greg Mankiw. Or, to be precise, not “Republicans.”
This past weekend Mankiw wrote a column for the Times laying out the arguments for a carbon tax. They are so well known and so obviously correct that I won’t bother repeating them. (A tradable permit system could work equally well, depending on how it is designed.)
In addition, many people think that the national debt is a serious long-term problem. A carbon tax (or a tradable permit system where permits are auctioned off) would obviously bring in revenue. In White House Burning, we estimated this at about 0.7–0.9 percent of GDP by the early 2020s (citing Metcalf, Stavins, and the CBO).
Continue reading “Who Cares About the National Debt?”
By James Kwak
Tyler Cowen thinks that we are entering an age of debates over wealth taxes. If only.
It’s true, as Cowen notes, that national debt everywhere is a relatively small fraction of national wealth and that, therefore, “fiscal problems are best regarded as problems of dysfunctional governance.” One of our central arguments in White House Burning was that the United States obviously, easily has the ability to pay down the national debt, and how it will do so is basically a distributional issue.
Even if wealth taxes make sense, that doesn’t mean they will happen. Cowen claims that “Like the bank robber Willie Sutton, revenue-hungry governments go ‘where the money is.'” But all that is cleverly phrased is not true. Consider this chart from White House Burning:
Continue reading “Wealth Taxes? Don’t Hold Your Breath”
By James Kwak
Paul Krugman describes the battle lines this way:
“Democrats want to preserve the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and add to them what every other advanced country has: a more or less universal guarantee of essential health care. Republicans want to roll all of that back, making room for drastically lower taxes on the wealthy.”
I think he’s right about the Republicans. But I don’t think he’s right about the Democrats.
If you want to preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, in a world where the population is aging and health care costs are going up, then it’s obvious that your top priority should be higher tax revenues. Without a reasonable level of federal tax revenues, there’s no way we’ll be able to pay for those programs in the future.
Continue reading “If Only”
By James Kwak
Of course the tax bill couldn’t have passed today, even if the two sides reached a compromise. Today it would have been a tax “increase.” Tomorrow it will be a tax “cut.” As my daughter would say, “Duh.”
Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge will remain technically inviolate, which was not terribly hard to predict. And it will have done its most important work: making a small and obvious policy change—allowing moderately higher taxes for the rich—seem like an enormous, gut-wrenching concession by Republicans.
See you next year!
By James Kwak
This morning Matt Yglesias wrote a post arguing that the December 2010 tax cut was an Obama victory. By the time this evening that I finally found time to figure out what annoyed me about it, I had to go to the second page of his blog to find it, since he had posted so much in the interim. That man sure can write.
I’m not so sure about his memory, though. Yglesias says Obama won because he got the (Bush) middle-class tax cuts extended along with some other goodies like a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits, and all he had to give up was an extension of the (Bush) upper-income tax cuts. The reason people think it was not a good deal, he says, was that “to get a favorable deal Obama had to downplay the extent to which he hadn’t given anything up.”
Continue reading “Rewriting History”
By James Kwak
Last week I wrote a post arguing that Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is alive and well and still a binding constraint on Republican lawmakers. The media continue to push the story of Republicans renouncing the pledge, however, and who knows, I could turn out to be wrong. Maybe some Republicans will vote to reduce deductions without a compensating reduction in marginal rates.
Even in that world, however, the pledge will still have a major impact. All this focus on the pledge makes it seem as if the few apostates—Peter King, Lindsey Graham, etc.—are making some enormous, admirable stand on principle. In fact, all they are saying is that they might be willing to close a few loopholes and keep tax rates where George W. Bush left them; they are still adamantly opposed to increases in tax rates (even though those increases, set to take effect on January 1, are the result of Bush’s choosing to use reconciliation to pass his tax cuts).
The specter of the pledge has allowed them to dress up a tiny concession—conservatives should want to get rid of distortions anyway, since they distort economic choices—as a major move to the center. In return for breaking the pledge, they can demand that Democrats agree to major changes to entitlement programs.
The tactical beauty of the pledge is that it credibly committed the Republican Party to never increase taxes, thereby forcing Democrats to meet them not in the middle, but all the way over on their side. (See the tax compromise of December 2010 and the debt ceiling compromise of August 2011, for example.) Even if a few signatories break free, it will still have much the same effect.
In the wake of their overwhelming defeat last week (at least relative to expectations a few months ago), Republicans are wondering how to improve their position in the next election. John Boehner has apparently told his caucus to “get in line” and support negotiations with the president over the “fiscal cliff” and the national debt. More shockingly, The Hill reported rumblings that Grover Norquist’s stranglehold over tax policy may be weakening, with one Democratic aide even saying, “As far as [Norquist’s] ability to sway votes, it’s gone.” Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge forbids lawmakers from voting for legislation that would either raise tax rates or increase tax revenues; if Republicans are questioning the pledge, that might pave the way for a bipartisan compromise to increase taxes.
Norquist’s response: “Nobody’s actually broken the pledge. That doesn’t keep me up at night.” He’s right not to worry. He has history on his side.
Let’s take a brief look at American political history since the 1970s, courtesy of the incomparable xkcd:
Continue reading “I’m Betting on Grover”
By James Kwak
My Atlantic column this week is on a familiar theme: why don’t Barack Obama and Democrats provide an clear alternative vision to the Romney-Ryan state of nature, instead of slowly stumbling along in the Republicans’ wake? But it also brings up a question that I haven’t seen before.
The theoretical argument against higher tax rates is that it reduces the incentive to work because it changes the terms of the tradeoff between labor and leisure. That is, higher taxes reduce your effective returns from labor, while your returns from leisure remain constant, so you will substitute leisure for labor.
In the long term, however, real wages tend to go up; even in the past three decades, which have generally been bad for labor (and good for capital), they’ve gone up by about 11 percent. If tax rates remain constant, that should increase the effective returns to labor, causing people to substitute labor for leisure (i.e., work more). Put another way, you could increase tax rates and keep the tradeoff between labor and leisure constant.
I generally don’t buy these pure theoretical arguments, but my point is that if you believe that higher taxes reduce labor supply through the substitution effect, then you should acknowledge that the effect of higher taxes could be swamped by growth in real wages.