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Best Thing About the Bush Tax Cuts? They’re Huge!

May 7th, 2012 . by economistmom


My final column with Tax Notes as a regular contributor came out today, available here if you are a subscriber.  If not, you will have to wait until next week when I will reprint the column in full here.  The title is “Making the Best of the Bush Tax Cuts,” and the main point I make is that of all the possible economic effects of the Bush tax cuts, and all the arguments made about the cuts (for or against them), by far the most significant, most noted, most praised or most maligned characteristic has been their size (or revenue loss).  Even supply-side proponents of the Bush tax cuts hardly ever talk about the supply-side effects of the tax cuts in truly supply-side terms; i.e., they don’t try to argue that the incentive effects of lower marginal tax rates on labor supply or private saving have been huge.  They just talk about how the tax cuts have been huge, and so wouldn’t it be bad if they went away?  Liberals have argued that the tax cuts have been costly and have disproportionately benefited the rich, meaning the government has given away a huge amount of money to the rich, so wouldn’t it be good if they went away?  So the bottom line is that for all the talk of all the promising, bipartisan ideas for tax reform that would reduce the deficit, there is still huge disagreement about what to do with the huge thing known as the Bush tax cuts.

But it’s a good thing that we still are debating this topic, because it means we still have some choices to make over a huge pot of money.  In my column, I try to pitch this optimistic view:

Instead of complaining about the size of the Bush tax cuts and not doing anything constructive about it, policymakers ought to commit to using that size in a positive way. The fact that we have a valuable policy lever available to us is fortunate.

It is obvious by now, after all these years of arguing about the Bush tax cuts but continuing to keep them just as they are, that the disagreement is not over the shape of tax reform we’d all like to see (broader base, fewer tax expenditures that upside-down subsidize the rich, low marginal tax rates), but rather over the size of the revenue stream we should be collecting under this beautifully bipartisan (but still hypothetical) tax reform.  That’s why it surprised me when at last week’s tax reform event hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, none of the experts emphasized a point that I do in my final Tax Notes column:  that this is more a disagreement over budget policy than tax policy, which means that the budget process and budget rules will be unusually important to the success of any deficit-reducing tax reform effort in the next few months and years–which means that, oddly enough, the budget committees may be more important players in achieving tax reform than even the tax-writing committees.  While the budget committees have not had much say on the issue of the Bush tax cuts up until now, in my column I offer up several reasons to be more optimistic about the future, including the possibility of better dealing with the “turkey” (aka the Bush tax cuts) in the “lame duck” session:

All these ways of making the best of the Bush tax cuts are not precluded by the fact that this is a presidential as well as congressional election year. If we consider the many ways in which policymakers have failed over the years regarding decisions about what to do about the Bush tax cuts, it’s clear we can’t blame just the budget committees for not putting their foot down about the current-law baseline and pay-go. When Obama and Republicans want to keep extending and deficit-financing them, we can understand why Congress on its own was unable to get its bipartisan act together and behave better. Doing the right thing by the Bush tax cuts requires strong leadership unencumbered by unrealistic campaign promises.

There are several reasons to be optimistic about doing better once we get past the next election. The near-term economy is not as fragile as it was two years ago, the last time the Bush tax cuts were about to expire, making the idea of letting go, even gradually, more palatable. At the same time, the various debt crises in Europe serve as a warning about the unsustainability of the U.S. fiscal outlook and its implications for the economy in terms of longer-term growth and shorter-term stability.

Finally, after this November’s election, no matter who is elected president, we are likely to have a president who is less tied to a campaign promise that commits him to keeping the Bush tax cuts and who was voted into office by a public that is now far less enamored of the Bush tax cuts than it has ever been.

I’ll repost the column in full here next Monday.  (PS: Like any commentary on the Bush tax cuts, it seems, the cartoon above is old yet still timely; I have used it on my blog before.)

2 Responses to “Best Thing About the Bush Tax Cuts? They’re Huge!”

  1. comment number 1 by: AMTbuff

    It is obvious by now … that the disagreement is not over the shape of tax reform … but rather over the size of the revenue stream we should be collecting under this beautifully bipartisan (but still hypothetical) tax reform.

    Yes, that’s the core question: Shall we bring revenues in line with spending or spending in line with revenues? Either extreme would be preferable to allowing the gap to persist until the lending window closes on us.

    Relative to a pre-2001 baseline plus an inflation-indexed AMT, the Bush tax cuts are not so huge. For an explanation, see

    Over the next decade, the Total Bush tax cuts reduce revenue by about 1.7% of GDP per year (0.4% of which represents tax cuts for the rich). During this period the deficit is expected to average about 6.7% of GDP.

    So the Bush tax cuts, middle class and all, represent only 25% of the fiscal gap. Tax cuts for the rich represent only 6% of the gap.

    Different people have different ideas of how to close the fiscal gap, but as far as I know nobody prefers to slam upper middle class families with $8000 in extra taxes by returning the AMT to unindexed 1993 levels. Counting that fantasy revenue implicitly endorses a tax policy that would be grossly unfair and politically suicidal.

  2. comment number 2 by: Jack C

    It is apparent that our day of reckoning is coming soon, just as it has come for the Europeans. We have spent money we don’t have for too long. I have zero confidence in our politicians being able to correct course. They are like the captain of the Titanic. As far as the Bush Tax cuts go, they need to be eliminated entirely. It will be painful, but most tough decisions in life are. Secondly, if the tax cuts were so great and such a good thing for the economy why is the economy still in the tank (I do not believe we are in recovery) after ten years of tax cuts. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘job creators’ have created the jobs in China and other Pacific rim countries not here.