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A Real Debate on Taxes

In this year’s presidential campaign, the Republican candidates have made it very clear that increased revenue should play no part in the effort to restore fiscal balance.  As a result, all the balancing is accomplished through cuts to programs, including those that many retirees rely on, such as Medicare. Moreover, a recent analysis of Governor Romney’s tax proposals by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center concludes that his revenue-neutral changes would provide large cuts to high-income households and raise taxes on middle- and lower-income households.

(For more on the implications of the two campaigns’ tax plans, see:  Romney vs. Obama on Taxes.)

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As described on Romney’s website, his tax plan would extend the 2001-03 tax cuts, reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent, eliminate taxation of investment income for most taxpayers, eliminate the estate tax, reduce the corporate income tax rate, and repeal the alternative minimum tax and the high-income taxes enacted in the 2010 health-reform legislation. These changes would reduce revenue by about $450 billion in 2015. Governor Romney and his advisers say that the ultimate plan would include proposals to broaden the base by eliminating tax breaks and incentives so that his overall tax proposals would be revenue neutral.

Paul Ryan’s plan is quite similar. He calls for collapsing the income tax rates into brackets, 10 and 25 percent, which represents a cut in the highest marginal rate that’s even larger than is called for by the Romney plan. He also proposes making up the lost revenue by eliminating unspecified tax breaks.

Because the tax incentives to be eliminated are unspecified, the Tax Policy Center analysts needed to make some assumptions. First, consistent with statements by Romney and supporters, they assume that provisions to encourage saving — such as preferential rates on capital gains; tax preferences for retirement, health and educational savings accounts; exemption of interest on state and local bonds; the exclusion of capital gains in home sales; and the saver’s credit — would not be eliminated. Second, they eliminate tax breaks by “starting at the top.”  That is, they first eliminate tax benefits for the highest-income group (deductions for charitable contributions, mortgage interest and state and local taxes, and exclusions of health insurance and other fringe benefits from income) and then work their way down the income distribution until they have recouped all the revenue lost so that the tax cuts are revenue-neutral.

The key finding is that (once tax breaks to encourage saving are off the table) the total value of the tax breaks that these taxpayers are now enjoying (i.e., the amount that could potentially be eliminated under the proposed tax changes) is smaller than their gain from the rate cuts. As a result, the arithmetic requires that part of the burden for the high-income rate cuts shift onto middle- and low-income taxpayers. That is, once savings incentives are off the table, it is not possible to design a revenue-neutral plan that does not reduce tax burdens paid by high-income taxpayers, even if the reductions are implemented in the most progressive way possible.

As shown in the table, the after-tax income of those earning more than $1,000,000 would increase by 4 percent in this revenue-neutral exercise, while that of those with $75,000 to $100,000 would decline by 1.2 percent.

The fact that the existing tax system becomes more regressive under Romney’s tax proposals is interesting, but somewhat small potatoes compared with the fact that he and Paul Ryan envision no role for increased revenue in closing the fiscal gap. As a result, the entire burden falls on program cuts, which fundamentally affects the lives of low- and middle-income families. Now, that is something to have a debate about!



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    • Regardless of how news sites try to dress it up as “unfair,” reducing our national debt will have to come from curtailing programs that are targeted at the middle and lower class.

      It isn’t being proposed to be punitive to the middle and lower class, it is just reality. Those programs have to spend less because, as Sutton pointed out, “That’s where the money is.”


    • No Republican candidate has EVER said, “increased revenue should play no part in the effort to restore fiscal balance”.

      What they have said, the point generally missed by cub reporters, is that revenues increase when the economy improves. And if government spending increases slower than the economy, the budget will balance itself. That is the main point of the Ryan budget.

      Of course, this President’s plan has deficits projected for the next 75 years. That’s right, 75 years. Did Mr. Obama bother checking with your grandchildren before spending their money?

    • So George,

      No mention of George Soros? hmm…

    • This is just a continuation of the income redistribution plan that has been in place since at least the early 90s. Look at the IRS website and find the tables for those taxpayers with the top 400 incomes. In the 90s they paid close to a 30% effective rate (the actual % of their income paid in taxes). Now it’s about half that. Has the average middle class taxpayer seen that kind of decrease in their effective rate? No way. It’s all a shell game designed to try to deceive the average voter.

      Then look at the “don’t tax the job creators myth”. As an example, take the Koch brothers who should be the biggest job creators of all! Certainly they are part of the 400 as they are the 4th and 5th richest Americans. In 2007 they employed 80,000 people and were worth 37 billion dollars. Of course they have been replacing people with automation and outsourcing jobs overseas. Now they have less than 60,000 employees and have 50 billion dollars. Just how many more billions of dollars do we have to give the Koch brothers to get them to hire someone? Not going to happen. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think it should, market pressures and technological progress will and should dictate their business actions. What is wrong is for those two people to spend 400 million dollars this year to dupe people into believing that reducing their taxes and letting them pollute more is going to lead them to hire more people.

      I don’t have a problem with anyone making lots of money, what I do have a problem with is them using it to misinform, twist the truth, confuse people and in general usurp the democratic process. I guess we are just lucky the Kochs did not get their way. What’s that? Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum,and Rick Perry were really playing to the Koch money. They all want to completely eliminate capital gains taxes! Hooray, Romney’s taxes would go to less than 1%. Oh well, maybe they’ll get their wish next time! Have to find a different candidate though or it will look too self-serving.

      p.s. Alan, read the study the authors referenced. They did consider revenue increases due to tax cuts. Also, note that Paul Ryan and most of the primary candidates want to eliminate capitals gains taxes, so if they ultimately want to get their way you won’t see any of your capital gains tax revenue increases.

    • Don’t kid yourself. With either candidate there will be entitlement cuts. We’re broke people.

About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.