Here is the last of my “Taxes for a Civilized Society” columns, published in Tax Notes last Monday, reprinted in full with the permission of Tax Analysts.
This is my last column as a regular contributor to Tax Notes, so I thought I would close with a focus on my favorite tax topic, which somehow manages to stay evergreen because policymakers never quite settle the issue: the Bush tax cuts.
Policymakers are headed toward a big fiscal cliff after the election, with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts this time joined by automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. The looming sledgehammerlike spending cuts of about $1 trillion over 10 years have caused a panic. But the expiring tax cuts are worth several times that — more than $2.8 trillion over 10 years, or more than $4.5 trillion including alternative minimum tax relief, even without counting interest costs.1 It’s a good reminder that the most important aspect of the Bush tax cuts (leaving aside the politics) is their cost.
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.
Keep Them, but Pay for Them
Everyone loves the Bush tax cuts because they’re tax cuts. They increase after-tax incomes for most of us, so we personally benefit. The problem has been that financing them has kept the true cost out of the awareness of policymakers and the general public. The benefits of the tax cuts have been private goods, but the costs have been public bads.
Congressional Budget Office projections have shown repeatedly that achieving the current-law baseline level of revenues — the level consistent with letting all the expiring tax cuts actually expire — is one way to get us to an economically sustainable level of deficits over the next decade or two. (Beyond that we will need to cut net spending associated with the retirement programs.) But as I’ve emphasized many times, achieving current-law baseline levels doesn’t have to mean literally sticking to current law and letting the tax cuts expire as scheduled. It could instead mean paying for any of the tax cuts we choose to extend.
The question policymakers and the public must ask ourselves is not whether we like or have enjoyed having the Bush tax cuts, but which part of them we love the most, and whether we love them enough to be willing to pay for them. Do we prefer the Bush tax cuts (any part of them) to the other types of tax cuts (such as expensive tax expenditures) or areas of spending that would need to be given up to offset the cost of the Bush tax cuts?
If the answer is yes, then by all means we should extend those portions of the Bush tax cuts. Being forced to pay for something is a great way to figure out how valuable it really is. Having Bush tax cuts that are compliant with “pay as you go” rules also would preserve the private benefits of the tax cuts we choose to extend, while getting rid of the associated public cost of higher deficits.
Let Go of Them to Pay for Better Policies
If we decide not to extend the tax cuts, it’s probably because there is a more attractive policy alternative.
The several-trillion-dollars cost of the Bush tax cuts is huge, yet the evidence of their economic benefits has been limited. If you go back and read several past issues of the “Economic Report of the President” from the George W. Bush administration, you will notice that its praise of the Bush tax cuts mainly emphasizes how large they were (and still are). But that is an endorsement of the large income effects of the tax cuts — effects that would occur under any cost-equivalent tax cut or spending increase. Holding the cost of the tax cuts constant, we have to ask: Are there alternative tax cuts or spending that would achieve better economic effects in terms of microeconomic incentives, macroeconomic impacts, and the distribution of income?
For example, we may need the Bush tax cuts to continue because our economy can’t handle that large of a withdrawal of fiscal stimulus at once. But there might be alternatives that provide more bang for the buck. We may want to keep the lower marginal tax rates under the Bush tax cuts to encourage the longer-term, supply-side growth of the economy, but are there alternative tax cuts or spending increases that could do better at increasing human capital formation, labor supply, and investments in new and socially valuable technologies? And could even deficit reduction be a surer route to economic growth than the Bush tax cuts have been? The answer to both is yes — which means we should want those alternative policies and deficit reduction more.
Use Their Expiration for the ‘Buffett Rule’
One way in which the Bush tax cuts have clearly been viewed as not economically helpful has been regarding the distribution of income. President Obama has always complained about the unfairness of them — how they have given the lion’s share of their benefits to the rich. Obama repeatedly addresses his complaint by proposing to let expire only the top two brackets of the cuts — the brackets that affect only households with annual incomes exceeding $250,000. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the Bush tax cuts (still worth more than $2 trillion over 10 years) would not benefit households now in the top brackets.
In fact, even if the top two brackets (now at 33 and 35 percent) reverted to their pre-2001 law levels (of 36 and 39.6 percent), households in them would still benefit the most in dollar terms from the extended lower rates in the lower brackets. The rich would still be receiving a disproportionate share of the Bush tax cuts — no longer disproportionate relative to their shares of income, but still disproportionate relative to their shares of the population.
Because the $2.8 trillion in tax cuts disproportionately benefits the rich, letting them all expire would raise the tax burdens of the rich. In an earlier column, I pointed out that although the millionaires’ share of the tax burden of letting all the Bush tax cuts expire is much smaller than it would be if only the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire, the additional tax revenue collected from millionaires would be higher under full expiration.2
Whether all of the Bush tax cuts or just the upper-bracket ones are allowed to expire, the result would be greater progressivity. Such a policy decision could be taken as a proactive component of any “Buffett rule.” Ideally, the expiration of some or all of the Bush tax rates, which on its own would generate reduced incentives to work and save, could be coupled with base-broadening reforms that would help promote the Buffett rule by reducing tax expenditures that solely or disproportionately benefit the rich but would also reduce rather than increase the distortions of the income tax system on economic decisions.
Let the Budgeteers Take Control
Given that the most valuable thing about the Bush tax cuts is their cost rather than the merits or flaws of the structure of the policy in terms of its base and rates, the budget committees and budget process will be a big deal in terms of what will happen to the tax cuts. The difference between “business as usual” deficit financing and the outcome if pay-go rules are applied without exception is more than $4.5 trillion over 10 years.
The budget committees should flex their policy muscles and do the heavy lifting regarding the impending expiration of the Bush tax cuts. They could propose legislation requiring strict pay-go rules on the tax cuts and setting revenue levels in the budget resolution consistent with letting the full complement expire. They could also explain and illustrate how complying with pay-go doesn’t have to mean increasing tax burdens at a time when our economy cannot handle it. Any part of the tax cuts that we want to extend immediately can be paid for with gradual revenue increases or spending cuts over the rest of the 10-year budget window. And while the budget committees cannot dictate the specifics of tax policy (that is left up to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees), they are the ones that set the ground rules and boundaries that the taxwriting committees must work within.
The budget committees also have the option of at least stating their preferences about the specifics of tax policy (such as the mix of rate increases versus base broadeners in the revenue-raising strategy) in the policy sections of the budget resolution or in the committee reports accompanying the legislative text of the resolution.
Politically, the hardest part about making the best of the Bush tax cuts has always been paying for them. That is why the role of the budget committees and the budget process is unusually critical on this particular, and large, tax policy decision.
Deal With the Turkey in the Lame Duck
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.
The cliff on the Bush tax cuts comes less than two months after the election. Is that too little time to do better than business as usual? While it may not be possible to replace the Bush tax cuts and the rest of the federal income tax with a full-out version of base-broadening, rate-reducing, revenue-raising fundamental tax reform like the plans recommended by bipartisan groups, it is not hard to set a goal in the lame-duck session of making only positive, even if small, steps regarding the Bush tax cuts. In the lame-duck session, Congress and the administration can commit to either letting parts of the Bush tax cuts go or turning them into more fiscally responsible versions that achieve better economic results.
At a minimum, policymakers should not have to revert to full extension of the cuts as a form of compromise as they have done in the past. Deficit-financed extensions should be limited in scope and temporary in timing, and permanent extensions should comply with strict pay-go rules over the 10-year budget window. Policymakers will be able to do this with the help and leadership of the budget committees working with a president who is able to get off the campaign trail and back to work, all of them cheered on by an American public that well understands by now the inevitability and necessity of hard choices. They can turn this turkey of the Bush tax cuts into something much better.
Less time required for Tax Notes means maybe, finally, more time to get back to this blog! And I have a new project developing that I hope to be able to tell readers about soon. Thank you for sticking with me through thick and thin here!