The Obama tax cuts

In the presidential debate last week, President Barack Obama spoke of his tax cuts: “So at the same time that my tax plan has already lowered taxes for 98 percent of families, I also lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times. And what I want to do is continue the tax rate — the tax cuts that we put into place for small businesses and families.”

Are these Obama tax cuts “real” cuts that will lead to economic growth, or just government spending programs in disguise? For tax cuts to be productive in growing the economy, they have to be associated with something positive, namely with work, saving, or investment. What many people positively respond to is a reduction in marginal tax rates, that is, the tax that must be paid on the next dollar earned.

Many of the Obama tax cuts were part of the stimulus bill passed in February 2009. Polls show that very people know of these tax cuts. Many were temporary.

The largest item that benefited most people was the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, a two-year program that rebates $400 per year to individual taxpayers, or $800 per year for married couples. The program was effective for tax years 2009 and 2010 only. This is not a reduction in marginal tax rates, although the program will reduce the average tax rate that people pay. It is simply a reduction in the overall amount of tax someone must pay.

This tax credit is not associated with any positive effort or activity by the recipients other than doing what they already do. The same criticism applies to the Bush tax rebate in 2008, too.

Besides the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, the Obama tax cuts consisted of other tax credits that apply not to everyone, but only to people who qualify.

For example, a child care tax credit pays up to $1,200 per year in child care expenses. Obviously, the only people who can claim this credit are working people with children who chose to place them in daycare. Beyond that, it is not a “tax cut” by any stretch of the imagination. Properly, it is a spending program implemented through the tax system. Sometimes called tax expenditures, these measures often escape the usual scrutiny and appropriations process that spending receives. Since they’re billed as a “tax cut,” they sound like a good thing to most people, as few like paying taxes.

If we need any more evidence that these programs are really spending disguised as tax cuts, consider the description of the child care tax credit as provided by the Internal Revenue Service: “It is a refundable credit, which means taxpayers may receive refunds even when they do not owe any tax.” That’s right. Even if you have no income tax liability, you can still get a tax credit — that is, a payment from the government.

As to the claim of 18 business tax cuts, a CNN analysis finds “If extensions or expansions aren’t double counted, the list comes out to 14 tax breaks — and only five are still around.”

In its analysis of the business tax cuts, a New York Times article concluded “As you can see, some of these aren’t tax cuts in the way many people would define them. Rather, they’re tax incentives — you’ve got to spend money (on health insurance, a new employee or new equipment) to save money.”

An example of one of the temporary business tax measures that were part of the ARRA stimulus bill was bonus depreciation. This measure allowed businesses to capture depreciation of assets more quickly than usual. This reduces taxable income, and therefore would act as an incentive for businesses to make capital investments.

Ironically, when business jets received a similar accelerated depreciation benefit, President Obama denounces this as a harmful tax break.

These measures, while reducing the amount of tax a business might pay, don’t change the marginal tax rate. Reducing marginal tax rates is what contributes to growth.

There has been the temporary payroll tax cut, which is a reduction in tax rates that pay for Social Security and Medicare. This tax, however, applies only to income up to $110,100, so after that level, the reduction no longer applies. Further, this is an example of reducing taxes, but not making corresponding reductions in spending. This means that government has to borrow more, which is a negative factor for economic growth.

Programs that reduce the average tax rate like Obama’s Making Work Pay Tax Credit and the Bush tax rebates of 2008 aren’t effective because they don’t affect the marginal rate — the rate paid on the next dollar earned. While anything that reduces the burden of taxes is welcome, we ought to implement the type of tax cuts that spur economic growth.

Who responds most positively to reductions in marginal tax rates? As Jeffrey A. Miron explains, it is the most economically productive members of society:

The Bush cuts provided lower taxes on ordinary income, especially for taxpayers at the high end of the income distribution. These are some of the most energetic and productive people in society; raising tax rates would discourage their effort and entrepreneurship. High-income taxpayers also have multiple ways of avoiding high tax rates, so any revenue gain from raising rates would be modest. The Bush cuts also lowered taxes on dividend and capital gains income; maintaining these lower rates is even more important for economic performance. Capital is mobile: when it is taxed heavily here, it flees somewhere else, meaning lower investment and employment in the United States. And because capital income taxes discourage investment or drive it overseas, they generate little if any tax revenue. (Jeffrey A. Miron, “Why the Bush Tax Cuts Worked”)

It is these “energetic and productive” people that are responsible for a great deal of business activity and job creation. When these people take steps to avoid taxes it means less productive economic activity and more unproductive tax shelters.

In Slaying Leviathan: The Moral Case for Tax Reform, author Leslie Carbone explains the harm of high marginal taxes, especially progressive taxes, where rates become higher as more income is earned:

The discouragement of earning money by working, saving, or investing inherent in any income tax is exacerbated by progressivity. While any high tax rates are economically destructive, high marginal rates are even worse, because high marginal rates particularly discourage productivity and inhibit economic growth. … By lowering potential pay off, high investment taxes especially discourage risky investment. Discouragement of risky investment squelches technological advancement, because new technologies are the most risky. This means our progressive tax system actually reduces progress and inhibits improve quality of life.

If the goal of the Obama Administration is to create private sector economic growth instead of growth in government, it needs to keep the Bush tax cuts in place and avoid increases in marginal tax rates for everyone, especially the most productive members of society. A better strategy would be to reduce these tax rates farther to create even more economic growth.

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