TPC's Analysis of Romney's Plan Misses the Point

August 01, 2012

The Tax Policy Center (TPC) has a new paper that claims Romney’s tax plan necessarily leads to lower taxes on high-income earners and higher taxes on everyone else:

“Our major conclusion is that a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed – including reducing marginal tax rates substantially, eliminating the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT) and maintaining all tax breaks for saving and investment – would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers. This is true even when we bias our assumptions about which and whose tax expenditures are reduced to make the resulting tax system as progressive as possible. For instance, even when we assume that tax breaks – like the charitable deduction, mortgage interest deduction, and the exclusion for health insurance – are completely eliminated for higher-income households first, and only then reduced as necessary for other households to achieve overall revenue-neutrality– the net effect of the plan would be a tax cut for high-income households coupled with a tax increase for middle-income households.

In addition, we also assess whether these results hold if we assume that revenue reductions are partially offset by higher economic growth. Although reasonable models would show that these tax changes would have little effect on growth, we show that even with implausibly large growth effects, revenue neutrality would still require large reductions in tax expenditures and would likely result in a net tax increase for lower- and middle-income households and tax cuts for high-income households.”

The main thing missing here is the context of our current federal income tax code.  Imagine a society with 5 people, where the two richest people pay all the taxes, the middle person pays nothing, and the two poorest people actually have a negative tax rate, meaning the rich are paying them through the tax code.  Then any cut in the tax rate will disproportionately benefit the rich guys.  This is the federal income tax code, in a nutshell.  According to the CBO, the top 20 percent of households pays 94 percent of federal income taxes.  The bottom 40 percent actually have a negative income tax rate, and the middle quintile pays close to zero.  See the two charts below.

The CBO finds that progressivity, or redistribution through the income tax code, is at a record high.  This is mainly due to the accumulation of low-income provisions, particularly refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Credit.  This is pretty exceptional from a global perspective.  The OECD finds that we have the most progressive income tax system in the industrialized world.  In this context, it is well past time to consider the costs and benefits of such an extremely progressive system.

One major cost of progressivity is economic growth.  High-income earners do a disproportionate amount of the saving, investing, entrepreneurship, and high-productivity labor, while low-income earners do a disproportionate amount of the consumption.  Extreme progressivity is certainly contributing to a situation where the U.S. now consumes nearly everything it produces, while investment and growth suffers.

Yet the authors give short shrift to such arguments:

“In the context of revenue-neutral tax reform, any positive growth effects are likely to be small. While the lower tax rates under the reform would strengthen incentives for employment and savings, the base broadeners would increase the portion of income that is subject to tax and have incentive effects in the opposite direction. As Brill and Viard note “lowering statutory tax rates while broadening the income tax base generally does not reduce work disincentives because it leaves the relevant effective tax rates unchanged” (Brill and Viard 2011). Moreover, analysis by the CBO and JCT suggest that the revenue effects arising even from rate cuts that were not accompanied by base broadening would be small (CBO 2003, 2005; JCT 2005).

Nevertheless, even if one were to use the model from Mankiw and Weinzierl (2006) and assume that after five years 15 percent of the $360 billion tax cut is paid for through higher economic growth, the available tax expenditures would still need to be cut by 56 percent; on net lower- and middle-income taxpayers would still need to pay higher taxes.”

First, the rest of the quote by Brill and Viard clearly states the economic benefits of base broadening:

“Such reforms may promote economic efficiency by providing neutral tax treatment that allows market forces to allocate resources across different economic sectors.”

Further, Brill and Viard are most concerned that base broadening will destroy the few tax incentives that exist for saving.  Romney’s plan explicitly preserves those and aims to reduce taxes on saving and investing.

Second, the CBO and JCT analyses are not relevant, since they do not assume revenue neutrality.

Third, the Mankiw and Weinzierl model is not the only model for comparison.  For example, Treasury simulations indicate that nearly 40 percent of the static revenue cost of lowering the top two rates was offset by growth in the tax base.  Anywhere close to this level of growth would be more than enough to prevent tax increases on low-income earners.  

Lastly, the TPC analysis explicitly ignores any growth effects resulting from Romney’s plan to cut the corporate rate, which economists estimate would grow the economy by 1 to 2 percent annually.

In summary, TPC has correctly identified the Romney plan as a tax cut, at least in static terms, that accrues mainly to high-income earners.  But TPC fails to acknowledge any of the benefits of Romney's plan, most pertinently that lower rates combined with a broader tax base should lead to significant economic growth. The benefits of such growth will benefit some more than others, but arguably the currently unemployed will receive the greatest benefit in the form of a job.

Follow William McBride on Twitter @EconoWill

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