Why Do We Need A Millionaires’ Tax When We Have The AMT?

“I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare. It’s just the right thing to do… This is not class warfare. It’s math. The money’s gonna have to come from someplace.” – President Obama speaking in the Rose Garden today

Today, President Obama unveiled a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion and pay for the new round of economic stimulus, the American Jobs Act, he sent to Congress last week. In a Rose Garden speech about the plan, the President repeatedly emphasized the idea that spending cuts need to be balanced with tax increases. What will likely be one of the most controversial  elements of the plan is Obama’s proposal that individuals making over $1 million pay a certain minimum tax rate. Nicknamed the “Buffett Rule” after Warren Buffett’s advocacy of higher taxes for the super-rich, the proposal aims to rectify the fact that, due to the quirks of our tax system, some ultra-wealthy individuals pay lower effective tax rates than upper-middle income households.

Some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering, don’t we already have a tax that’s designed to ensure the wealthiest households pay a certain minimum tax rate? Why, yes we do: the Alternate Minimum Tax or AMT. Individuals with income above a certain threshold have to calculate what they owe under the AMT, which has a different set of rules than the regular income tax system, and then pay whichever is greater, their regular income tax or the AMT.  Why do we need a millionaires’ tax if we have the AMT? Simply put, the AMT is not achieving its intended goals. Continue reading

Families Spend 17% Of Their Income On Healthcare-Related Costs

One of our biggest long-term economic challenges is the exploding cost of healthcare. From 1999 to 2009, per capita healthcare spending grew at two and a half times the rate of inflation. Healthcare spending now constitutes 17.6% of our GDP, compared to 13.8% in 1999, and is expected to account for half of GDP by 2082 if current trends continue.

A new study from RAND quantifies how these rapid increases in healthcare costs affect a typical family. Continue reading

Infographics: Visualizing The Deficit & Proposed Solutions

Two cool debt ceiling/deficit-related infographics caught my eye today.

The first, by the Center for American Progress, shows the percentage of savings that would come from tax increases under various proposals to address the deficit, including those offered by Obama, the Gang of Six, and the Simpson-Bowles Commission. It backs up the assertion of Paul Krugman and other commentators that Obama has already given a lot to anti-tax Republicans and what he is now offering is actually right-of-center.

The second infographic, from this weekend’s NY Times, shows how our two most recent presidents contributed to the deficit. Policy changes under Bush cost $5.07 trillion while those during Obama’s tenure added $1.44 trillion (projected over ten years). To be fair, Obama’s term isn’t over yet and so far he has increased spending at roughly the same rate as Bush: on average he has added $580 billion in spending for each year of his term, compared to $630 billion a year under Bush. Much of Obama’s new spending, however, was in response to the economic crisis and I think it’s clear that he doesn’t plan to continue increasing spending at the rate we saw during his first two years in office.

Source: The New York Times, July 24, 2011

No New Taxes: A Pledge That Isn’t As Simple As It Seems

Like a household whose finances are out of whack, our government can deal with its looming budget deficit in two ways: spend less or earn more. Political leaders are currently negotiating to find the right balance of these two strategies, but several Republicans have threatened to block any plan that involves raising taxes. In our current Congress, all but 7 Republican Senators and 6 Republican Representatives have signed Americans for Tax Reform’s well-known pledge to oppose any and all tax increases (only 3 Democratic Congressmen have signed).

But hewing to a mantra of “no new taxes” can be more complicated than it seems, because the division between taxes and spending isn’t always clear-cut. A significant amount of government spending is hidden in the tax code in the form of tax breaks for certain groups: homeowners making mortgage payments, companies conducting scientific R&D, workers receiving employer-sponsored health insurance, and investors earning capital gains. Altogether, the Treasury Department has identified over 170 preferences that cut taxes for specific taxpayers, activities, or types of income. If these “tax expenditures” were structured as spending programs rather than tax breaks, in 2007 they would have accounted for 17% of federal spending.

What makes these tax breaks different from other parts of the tax system, like differential rates based on taxpayers’ incomes? According to a new article by Donald B. Marron, Director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, tax expenditures have the same impact on the economy, government budget, and distribution of income as if the government directly handed out checks to the beneficiaries. Elected officials use the tax system because it’s legislatively easier and politically more palatable to insert a benefit into the tax code than to increase discretionary spending by a comparable amount.

“Because tax cuts often sound more appealing to policymakers and voters than spending increases —  especially in today’s political climate — the temptation to spend through the tax code is enormous.” – Donald B. Marron, “Spending in Disguise”

Unfortunately, politicians find it much more difficult to eliminate a tax break than to cut a comparable spending program. We saw this a few weeks ago when anti-tax Republicans struggled with how to vote on a measure to end tax credits for ethanol producers. Some, like Senator Tom Coburn, saw the credit for what it is – a spending program in disguise – while others stayed true to their promise not to vote for tax increases of any kind and rejected the measure.

Marron suggests that by eliminating or simplifying many existing tax expenditures we can streamline the tax code, decrease government involvement in the economy, reduce the deficit, and maintain or perhaps even lower tax rates. But eliminating tax expenditures won’t be painless. Despite our stereotype of massive corporations receiving huge breaks – see Obama’s latest rhetorical target, accelerated depreciation for corporate jets – only 10% of the revenue lost to tax expenditures benefits corporations. The other 90% of breaks are for individuals, though many deductions disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Sometimes spending through the tax code makes sense: it may be more efficient, accomplish important policy objectives, or benefit a broad spectrum of taxpayers. In other cases, these approaches can be overly complex and used to hide unpopular programs that benefit a select few. But the biggest problem is when politicians and voters don’t see tax breaks, good or bad, for what they are – a form of spending – and treat them accordingly.

Spending in Disguise
National Affairs
// Donald B. Marron // Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center // Summer 2011

Expert Panel On Fixing Our Long-Term Fiscal Crisis

Today, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget held its annual roundtable conference focused on our country’s long-term fiscal health. It featured an all-star line-up of participants from politics, business, and media, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling. I watched the whole thing online and found it to be a balanced, reasonable, non-dogmatic discussion. I hope this level-headedness and spirit of bipartisan compromise can make its way into the broader public discourse on these issues.

Several key themes emerged which many or most people at the table agreed upon:

(1)  We have to address our long-term structural budget crisis.

  • Unlike global warming, there don’t seem to be any “budget denialists” trying to argue this problem doesn’t exist. We’ve seen it coming for years – as Bernanke pointed out our aging population and booming healthcare costs didn’t appear out of nowhere.
  • The question is how will we fix it? We can deal with it now, in a gradual, deliberate way, or we can let it progress further into a crisis and then deal with it in a panicked, painful way. But there’s no escaping it.

(2)  Politicians shouldn’t use the debt ceiling limit as a political leverage point.

  • Bernanke, Sperling, Neil Kashkari, and many others spoke out strongly against a political game of chicken around the debt ceiling increase. A default or even a short-term crisis of confidence in US credit could have disastrous long-term effects.
  • Some disagreed and felt the debt ceiling could be useful to force political action. As Ruth Marcus said, “Washington only works by crisis.”
  • Rep. Paul Ryan claimed House Republicans don’t want to use the debt ceiling as a threat but see it as their only option since the Democratically-controlled Senate hasn’t produced a budget (see 0:26:28).

(3)  Economic growth alone will not get us out of the budget crisis.

  • Bernanke, Bob Reischauer, Alan Simpson, and others argued that this is a structural problem we cannot possibly grow our way out of (see 2:11:00).
  • Reischauer, Diane Swonk, and Larry Lindsey predicted that the economy will continue to grow between 2% and 3% annually in the near future, not the 4% projected by the Obama administration or the 5% promised by Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.

(4)  A long-term budget deal needs to address both spending and revenues.

  • Politicians from both sides of the aisle emphasized the need for everything to be on the table, including both revenues and spending. The process will fail if politicians continue to draw hard lines and refuse to even consider entitlement cuts (as some Democrats have) or tax increases (as some Republicans have).
  • One popular proposal is the 3 to 1 ratio: $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases, which was the proportion settled on by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and which moderator Steve Liesman was pushing hard today.

(5)  The public doesn’t understand what’s at stake and that everyone will have to make sacrifices.

  • David Brooks and Ruth Marcus suggested that the American people either don’t care about or don’t understand the significance of the long-term budget crisis. People think there is a simple fix that can somehow avoid new taxes or reduced benefits.
  • Both Gene Sperling (at 2:42:15) and Gene Steurle (at 2:16:30) made great points about how to frame the issue and the importance of a sense of shared sacrifice.

(6)  President Obama has failed to lead on this issue.

  • Many at the roundtable stressed the need for strong leadership and asserted that President Obama has failed to explain this issue to the public and sell them on the idea that everyone is going to have to make some kind of sacrifice.

As some panelists pointed out, at this point the budget crisis isn’t an economic issue but a political one (though I’d argue that important economic projections, like the growth rate, are still being debated). The questions that remain: Will a comprehensive deal be struck before the Aug. 2nd debt ceiling deadline? Before the 2012 election? What will the balance of spending cuts and tax increases ultimately be? Will a deal really make substantive changes or will we keep pushing the hard stuff off until later?

The Debt Ceiling, Fiscal Plans, and Market Jitters: Where Do We Go From Here?
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget // Roundtable // June 14, 2011