CANDIDATES’ BUDGET PROPOSALS AND THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: Both Presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, have put forward tax and budget proposals that they say will reduce the deficit. Obama’s tax and spending proposals would reduce the deficit by about one quarter. Romney’s proposals cannot be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, they are likely to increase the deficit and the already high levels of inequality in income and wealth.

FULL POST: Both Presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, have put forward tax and budget proposals that they say will reduce the deficit. Obama has specified tax increases and a cut to military spending that would begin to reduce the deficit. Romney says his tax proposals would be revenue neutral, although he fails to specify how he would offset his tax cuts, and he promises to increase military spending. He asserts that his proposals would produce economic growth that would increase tax revenue and reduce the deficit; however, there is no credible evidence for that assertion. (Note: President G. W. Bush’s tax cuts, increases in military spending, and promises of economic growth that would pay for them are what began the process of turning a federal government surplus into deficits.)

Obama would let the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 expire and would also restore or increase taxes on unearned income (i.e., capital gains, dividends, and interest). He has also proposed limiting deductions and exclusions from income, as well as implementing the “Buffett Rule,” so that households with incomes over $1 million would at least pay taxes at the rate that middle class families do. These measures would generate roughly $200 billion per year in additional revenue, reducing the deficit by one-fifth. [1]

Obama has also proposed reducing the $700 billion military budget by about $50 billion per year as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down. Together, these tax and spending proposals would reduce the deficit by about one quarter.

Romney proposes keeping the Bush tax cuts and further reducing tax rates on earned income by one-fifth. He would maintain even lower tax rates on unearned income than earned income. Overall, these proposals would reduce income tax revenue by about $400 billion per year. Romney says he will make up for the lost revenue by reducing tax deductions and credits, and that the well-off will continue to pay at least the same amount in taxes. He says would do this by limiting total deductions and credits on a tax return to a fixed dollar amount and has mentioned amounts ranging from $17,000 to $50,000. [2]

While it is theoretically possible to achieve the same amount of revenue (i.e., revenue neutrality) under Romney’s proposals, it would be challenging and would require significantly cutting very popular deductions. [3] Four deductions account for 80% of all deductions and credits; in order of size they are the deductions for 1) home mortgage interest, 2) state and local taxes paid, 3) real estate taxes paid, and 4) charitable contributions. If an across the board cut to deductions were used to offset the loss in revenue, Romney would have to cut all these deductions by about one-third. Clearly, this would be unpopular and would also hit the middle class as well as high income families.

Romney has also proposed eliminating the estate tax, while Obama proposes maintaining an estate tax on estates over $3.5 million. Romney has also stated that he will increase the military budget. Here again, Obama’s proposal clearly reduces the deficit and these Romney proposals would clearly increase the deficit. The benefits of eliminating the estate tax, of course, go to wealthy families.

With a backdrop of 30 years of decreasing income tax rates that have seen dramatic increases in income and wealth in our best-off households and middle class families struggling to keep their heads above water, further cuts in tax rates do not seem at all likely to reverse this trend or benefit the middle class. Further, to provide some perspective on Romney’s proposal, looking at the cuts in tax rates alone, a family with taxable income of $100,000 or less, whose tax rate is cut from 25% to 20%, would see a benefit of $5,000 or less. A family with taxable income of $1 million, whose rate is cut from 35% to 28%, would see a benefit of $70,000; and if income is $10 million, a benefit of $700,000. This just doesn’t seem fair, especially on top of the huge tax cuts these high income households have seen over the last 30 years.

In addition, Romney’s proposal maintains lower rates on all unearned income (i.e., capital gains, dividends, and interest), while Obama’s has lower rates only on long-term capital gains (i.e., investments held for over one year). Having lower rates on all unearned income also doesn’t seem fair, especially given that the great bulk of unearned income goes to high income, high wealth households. Moreover, one of Romney’s arguments for lower tax rates is that by letting taxpayers keep more of what they earn, they will be rewarded for working. If we want to reward work, then income tax rates on work, namely earned income, should be lower (not higher) than the rates on non-work (unearned) income.

Finally, Romney’s assertion that cuts in tax rates will spur economic growth does not have any credible evidence. [4] This rationale has been used for the tax rate cuts that have occurred over the last 30 years. The strongest economic growth of the past 30 years (and the only elimination of the federal government’s deficit) occurred under President Clinton when he increased tax rates on high incomes. Furthermore, the rationale for tax cuts spurring growth has been that they put more money in consumers’ pockets and, with consumer spending being two-thirds of our economy, their spending will grow the economy. However, Romney has said his tax cuts will be offset by reducing deductions so that there will be no loss in government revenue or increase in the deficit. Therefore, there is no increase in the money in consumers’ pockets and no increased spending to spur economic growth.

If Romney’s tax cuts are indeed offset by reducing deductions so the result is revenue neutral, and if he lives up to his commitment to cap federal government spending at 20% of the overall economy (i.e., of gross domestic product), which would require significant spending cuts, Romney’s plans are likely to lead to job losses and a recession, not economic growth. Overall, Obama’s budget and tax proposals are highly likely to do more to spur near-term growth in jobs and the economy than Romney’s. [5]

In conclusion, Obama’s tax and budget proposals do take steps that can be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit by about one-quarter. Romney’s proposals cannot be reasonably expected to reduce the deficit. Furthermore, they are likely to increase the deficit and the already high levels of inequality in income and wealth.


[1]       Tax Policy Center, Oct. 2012, “Major tax proposals by President Obama and Governor Romney”

[2]       Wirzbicki, A., & Borchers, C., 10/5/12, “Questions on challenger’s idea to cap tax deductions,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Kranish, M., 9/21/12, “Candidates leave much unsaid on tax plans,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Rowland, C., 10/15/12, “GOP faith unshaken in supply-side tax policies,” The Boston Globe

[5]      Bivens, J., & Fieldhouse, A., 9/26/12, “Who would promote job growth most in the near term?” The Century Foundation

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