JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 20, 2011
A number of conservatives have asserted that, contrary to what I've written, the House Republican budget written by Paul Ryan does not cut taxes for high earners. (See John McCormack, Ramesh Ponnuru, Charles Krauthammer, and McCormack again quoting Ryan.) Here's the argument. Ryan keeps overall tax levels the same as they are right now by making the tax cuts permanent. He would then reduce the corporate tax rate and the top income tax rate by ten percentage points, from 35% to 25%. But he would make up for that additional revenue loss by closing "loopholes and deductions," many of which benefit the rich. Therefore, his plan doesn't really cut taxes on the rich.
There are four problems with this claim, each of them fatal.
First, the argument simply reflects a legitimate difference in baselines. Under current law, the Bush tax cuts are in full effect, but expire at the end of 2012. Keep Bush-era tax levels in place is not a tax cut compared with the tax code now, but it is a tax cut compared with the tax code in 2013. Which is the true baseline? I think both sides have a point, and Congressional scorekeepers have taken to using both baselines.
When President Obama accuses Ryan of cutting taxes for the rich, he's using the post-2012 baseline. I consider that the best point of reference because the most important force in our political system is inertia. Given our multiple veto points, it takes great effort to enact a policy change that the parties disagree upon. Ryan proposes to make that change. Therefore, I think it's fair to describe him as "cutting taxes," even if revenues did remain at present levels (which I dispute, but more on that later.) I do think there's merit in both baselines. The argument that Obama is lying about Ryan -- that calling him a tax-cutter is, in Krauthammer's characteristically understated phrasing, "scurrilous" -- rests upon the assumption that the current-policy baseline is not only more preferable but the only remotely honest point of reference. That seems like a huge stretch.
Second, even if we accept Ryan's preferred baseline, his description of his plan is hard to accept at face value. Tax reform is a trade where you take away deductions (that's hard) and use the money to reduce rates (that's easy.) The rate reductions are specified. The reduced deductions aren't. Another way to put this is that Ryan has proposed a specific tax cut that would benefit the affluent, accompanied by utterly vague promises to find offsets. At the very least, the rate-lowering portion ought to carry more weight than the deduction-closing portion.
Third, even if we accept both Ryan's baseline and assume he will match every dollar in lost revenue from the rate cuts with another dollar in reduced deductions, he will almost certainly wind up cutting taxes for the rich relative even to the post-Bush tax code. Ryan implies that his plan would leave the rich paying the same effective tax rates as they do now because he's "getting rid of loopholes and deductions, which by the way are enjoyed by the top [tax] rate filers, the people in the top two brackets." But he hasn't put out any details. In 1995, House Republicans loudly promised to promote shared sacrifice by rooting out corporate welfare in the tax code. The actual savings they produced turned out to consist of proposals that hurt the poor (by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit), benefited business (by letting them swipe funds from employee pensions, keeping the money as profit and thus increasing corporate tax revenue), or other reverse-Robin Hood measures.
Now, Ryan was not around then. But we can get a measure of his intentions from the more specific tax plan laid out in his "Roadmap" from 2010. That plan constituted a massive tax cut for the rich, combined with a tax hike on the middle class.
The Tax Policy Center examined various proposals to reduce tax deductions while using the revenue to lower rates across the board. All the plans decreased the tax burden for the top-earning 1%. The problem is that tax deductions are just not worth as much to very rich people as low tax rates.
It's true that the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan includes proposals that would lower rates to around 25% while increasing the effective tax rate paid by the very rich. To do that, you have to do things like raise the estate tax rate and completely eliminate the preferential treatment of capital gains. But Ryan's budget promises instead -- and this is the only specific policy commitment in its tax section, other than lowering rates -- to expand the preferential treatment of income from wealth:
Raising taxes on capital is another idea that purports to affect the wealthy but actually hurts all participants in the economy. Mainstream economics, not to mention common sense, teaches that raising taxes on any activity generally results in less of it. Economics and common sense also teach that the size of a nation’s capital stock – the pool of saved money available for investment and job creation – has an effect on employment, productivity, and wages. Tax reform should promote savings and investment because more savings and more investment mean a larger stock of capital available for job creation. That means more jobs, more productivity, and higher wages for all American workers.
Fourth -- almost there! -- even if you reject everything I've written to this point, Ryan's plan includes the repeal of all the taxes in the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes on the affluent. Here's the Path to Prosperity's description of health care taxes he proposes to undo:
The new law imposes a 0.9 percent surtax on wages and a 3.8 percent surtax on interest, dividends, and capital gains. Both taxes only apply to ﬁlers in the top two income brackets, but as discussed elsewhere in this section, those ﬁlers include small businesses employing millions of Americans, and the new taxes on capital will reduce the pool of capital available for investment and job creation.
There. Per Paul Ryan, these are upper-bracket taxes he proposes to lower. He could keep those taxes in effect, and cover a few of the uninsured people he throws off their coverage, or make the progressively-more-inadequate health care vouchers he uses to replace Medicare slightly less inadequate. But he chooses not to do that, because he believes it's more important to tax capital at lower rates. It's fine for him to believe that. But he and his defenders have to stop insisting that he doesn't propose tax cuts for the rich. He indisputably does so.