Mitt Romney's tax plan is mathematically possible -- but only if the rich get richer at a level we have never seen before
Mitt Romney's tax plan is a logic puzzle. The details barely exist, but there are just enough of them to infer what the nonexistent details would be if they did exist. Think of it like the LSAT, just with more numbers. Pick up your number two pencils, and let's see what we can figure out.
II. Eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and the estate tax
III. Close enough loopholes to make tax reform revenue neutral
IV. Maintain rates on savings and investment and eliminate them altogether for the middle class
V. Keep the mortgage-interest, healthcare, and charitable giving deductions for the middle class
VI. Have high-income earners will pay the same share of overall taxes that they do now
VII. Not raise taxes on middle-income taxpayers
The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) has a head start on us. They looked at the first four conditions above -- Romney only laid out the others later -- and concluded that the numbers don't add up for 2015. There aren't enough tax expenditures for the rich to pay for the tax cuts for the rich. The result is a net tax cut for high-earners to the tune of $86 billion -- meaning taxes would have to go up by $86 billion on everybody making less than $200,000 for the plan to be revenue neutral.
That's a bummer. But is the Romney plan really unsalvageable? That depends on four big assumptions. First, what does Romney mean by middle class? Second, what taxes is Romney talking about when he talks about preserving rates on "savings and investment"? Third, how does Romney's corporate tax plan factor in? And finally, how much economic growth should we project? These assumptions are worth real money. Romney's annual revenue hole is either as small as $41 billion or as large as $144 billion depending on our answers here. Let's consider them in turn, and then see what we can piece together.
1. Who's middle class, exactly?
Former Reagan adviser and Harvard professor Marty Feldstein claims TPC got it wrong -- that Romney's tax math works without requiring a middle class tax hike. Feldstein argues that cutting tax expenditures for households making $100,000 or more would pay for their tax cuts. This is incorrect. Brad DeLong points out that there isn't enough money in those expenditures to pay for those cuts. But there's a bigger issue. Feldstein claims that Romney's plan would work by closing loopholes for households making between $100,000 and $200,000, but Romney defines those households as middle class. Feldstein inadvertently corroborates TPC's conclusion -- Romney's tax plan does require a middle class tax hike to work.
2. What's savings and investment?
TPC assumed that Romney would not change the tax treatment of savings and investment when he said he would not change the tax treatment of saving and investment. But maybe he will! Some conservatives have said Romney might consider ending the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds and inside-buildup of life insurance contracts. Even if that's true -- which is just speculation -- that wouldn't fill Romney's revenue hole. TPC analyzed these potential changes, and calculated that Romney's plan would still cut taxes for the rich by $41 billion.
3. What about corporate taxes?
Romney wants to overhaul our corporate tax system in two steps. The first step is cutting the tax rate from 35 to 25 percent, preserving recently added research credits and expensing provisions, and enacting a repatriation holiday. The second step involves lowering rates further, and moving to a territorial system -- meaning overseas corporate profits would not be subject to U.S. tax. Romney would pay for this second change by closing corporate loopholes, but he would not pay for the first change. TPC assumed both parts would be paid for, so it didn't look at this in its analysis -- but if it had, this unfunded change would have made Romney's revenue shortfall $96 billion worse. Thanks to this handy chart from the Congressional Budget Office that shows which income groups bear corporate income tax liability, we can estimate that 60 percent of this $96 billion would go to households making $200,000 or more. That's another $58 billion in cuts for the rich that needs to be offset.
4. What about growth?
Even under TPC's aggressive growth assumptions, Romney's plan was mathematically challenged. This wasn't a case of TPC being too timid with dynamic scoring -- it got its dynamic scoring numbers from Romney adviser Greg Mankiw. Not that we should expect revenue neutral tax reform to catalyze much growth. A 2011 paper by Alan Viard and Alex Brill of the conservative American Enterprise Institute concluded that a broader tax base would negate most of the supply-side effects of lower marginal rates in revenue neutral tax reform. In other words, people's incentives don't change when their taxes don't change even if their tax rates change.
Still got your number two pencils out? Now we're ready to tackle this logic game. Romney wants to cut rates and cut loopholes but keep everybody's taxes the same. That's the implication of a revenue neutral plan where the rich pay the same share and the middle class pay the same amount. It's just a complicated way of saying nobody's tax bills change. But we're back to the same old problem: the rich pay a lower effective federal tax rate under Romney's plan, so they won't pay the same share. Unless they have more money than we've assumed.
But there is one way that Romney's plan works mathematically: Income inequality explodes. If enough growth goes to the top 5% of earners, they will get rich enough to fill the revenue hole. How much richer would they have to get?
That depends on the size of the hole. There are four basic scenarios here. The shortfall could be $41 billion if Romney ends the special treatment of municipal bonds and life insurance buildups and we ignore his corporate tax plan. It could be $86 billion if Romney preserves the special treatment of municipal bonds and life insurance buildups and we ignore his corporate tax plan. It could be $99 billion if we take the first scenario and add the $58 billion of corporate income tax cuts for the rich. And it could be $144 billion if we take the second scenario and add the $58 billino of corporate income tax cuts for the rich. The chart below looks at how much richer the rich would have be -- compared to the TPC 2015 baseline -- for Romney's plan to add up under each of these scenarios. The answer: between 3.2 and 11.3 percent.
(Note: These changes are relative to how much TPC projects the top 5 percent will earn in 2015).
A lot of assumptions went into these calculations, so let's lay them out. First, I assumed that Romney would not raise or lower taxes on anyone making under $200,000. In other words, he would close just enough loopholes to pay for the 20 percent marginal cuts and $38 billion of corporate tax incidence for the non-rich. This would mean that any revenue hole in Romney's plan comes from the rich. Next, I assumed that the top 5 percent grow pari passu -- that is, households making $200,000 to $500,000 grow at the same rate as households making $500,000 to $1,000,000 and at the same rate as households making $1,000,000 and up. Then I reverse engineered the effective tax rates the rich pay under Romney's plan -- along with the original $86 billion revenue shortfall TPC found -- using the 2015 income levels from this TPC distributional table and the data in Tables 1 and 3 of TPC's analysis of the Romney plan. Finally, I divided the revenue hole in each of the above cases by the weighted effective tax rate the rich pay to figure out roughly how much more they would have to take home to make the numbers work. These assumptions are obviously not all true, but they are close enough to give us a reasonable answer to our question.
That answer is more inequality than we have seen before. The proof is in the Gini coefficients. Those measure inequality on a scale of zero to one. A rating of zero indicates perfect equality where everybody shares all the income, and nobody else makes more than anybody else; a rating of one indicates perfect inequality, where one person has all the income, and nobody else makes anything else. We already have the most unequal society of any rich nation, and TPC's 2015 projections imply it will only get worse. Even if the Bush tax cuts expire, our post-tax Gini coefficient will rise to 0.531 from 0.45 in 2007. That would increase to 0.544 under Romney's tax plan, and as much as 0.557 in the $144 billion shortfall case. It's the difference between us merely having Rwandan levels of inequality and having Bolivian levels of inequality. For comparison's sake, remember that Denmark and Japan are the world's most equal societies with 0.25 Gini coefficients.
The chart below looks at post-tax Gini coefficients for each of the 2015 tax scenarios. The only question is how much our republic is getting banana-ized.
(Note: Thanks to Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress for helping me calculate these Gini coefficients).
There's one word you've probably noticed again and again throughout this piece: assume. That's what we have to do again and again when it comes to Romney's tax plan. The details are mostly not there, but there are just enough of them to deduce some of the rest.
The upshot is this: Romney's tax plan does not work under remotely plausible growth projections. It either increases middle class taxes or increases the deficit. If Romney is serious about doing neither, then he has to be unserious about his growth projections. The rich have to get almost impossibly rich to make up for the lost revenue in Romney's tax plan. Realistically, their incomes would need to be 7.7 to 11.3 percent higher than TPC predicts -- that is, we should not ignore the corporate income tax cuts. To put that in perspective, that's between $377 and $548 billion additional dollars flowing to the top 5 percent of households.
Romney may not like this, but that just means he does not like his own tax plan. These numbers are the inescapable conclusion of a plan that relies on a giant magic asterisk to add up.
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
This is the third in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to email@example.com, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. (The first batch is here.) To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM and read all of the responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.
Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.