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.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Chris Morris’s brutal satire aired its last and most controversial episode in 2001, but its skewering of the news media feels more relevant than ever.
A sex offender is thrown in the stocks, presented with a small child, and asked if he wants to molest him. A mob of protestors is thrown a “dummy full of guts” that is stomped to pieces within seconds. A radio host insists that pedophiles have “more genes in common with crabs” than the rest of humanity, insisting, “There’s no real evidence for [that], but it is scientific fact.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the most cringe-inducing moment on “Paedogeddon,” a special episode of the British TV satire Brass Eye. But 15 years after the episode aired, it remains a totemic, terrifying satirical vision. Few comedies since have dared to cross the boundaries of taste with such impunity.
“Paedogeddon” aired in the U.K. in the summer of 2001, a year after the murder of a young girl had sparked national hysteria over the country’s sex-offender registry. Britain’s most-read newspaper led a campaign to publish the names and locations of all 110,000 convicted sex offenders, prompting a riot in which an angry mob ransacked the home of an ex-con. Brass Eye, a parody of a 60 Minutes-like newsmagazine show, had been dormant after airing one season in the UK in 1997. But it returned four years later for this surprise broadcast, one that saw its furious (fictional) anchors barking from a dark studio about the plague of seemingly super-powered child molesters stalking the nation, holding a funhouse mirror up to the climate of paranoia and fear that had built up around the country. It was a bold, wildly insensitive piece of comedy, but one that captured the growing madness of the 24-hour news media and foreshadowed some uglier aspects of its future.
The Fox host’s insistence that black laborers building the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings” fits in a long history of insisting the “peculiar institution” wasn’t so bad.
In her widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Michelle Obama reflected on the remarkable fact of her African American family living in the executive mansion. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly discussed the moment in his Tip of the Day. In a moment first noticed by the liberal press-tracking group Media Matters, O’Reilly said this:
As we mentioned, Talking Points Memo, Michelle Obama referenced slaves building the White House in referring to the evolution of America in a positive way. It was a positive comment. The history behind her remark is fascinating. George Washington selected the site in 1791, and as president laid the cornerstone in 1792. Washington was then running the country out of Philadelphia.
Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about 400 payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.
In 1800, President John Adams took up residence in what was then called the Executive Mansion. It was only later on they named it the White House. But Adams was in there with Abigail, and they were still hammering nails, the construction was still going on.
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
At the Democratic convention, the president framed America as a shining city on a hill—under constant construction.
Barack Obama is a tinkerer and a poet in whose hands the concept of “American exceptionalism” is being reshaped for the 21st century and weaponized against Trumpism.
First used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, the concept of American exceptionalism is that this country differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history. It is often expressed as superiority: The United States is the biggest, most powerful, smartest, richest, and most-deserving country on Earth.
Obama drew from this tradition in his Democratic National Convention address Wednesday night. “America has changed over the years,” he said, remembering his Scotch-Irish ancestors who didn’t like braggarts or bullies or people who took short cuts, and who valued honesty and hard work, kindness and courtesy, humility and responsibility.
The Green Party candidate wants disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters to join her—not Hillary Clinton.
PHILADELPHIA—Jill Stein takes public transportation to the Democratic National Convention. On the day after Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination, the Green Party presidential candidate is on the subway en route to the Wells Fargo Center. Adoring fans spot her on the way over and demand selfies. A heavily tattooed woman complains to Stein: “It’s been a Hillary party the whole time. It’s like brainwash, like waterboarding. It’s awful.”
Stein is in high demand. The populist progressive tells me that after Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton two weeks ago, effectively ending his insurgent campaign for president, a lot more people started paying attention to her campaign. “The floodgates opened,” Stein says. “I almost feel like a social-worker, being out there talking to the Bernie supporters. They are broken-hearted. They feel really abused, and misled, largely by the Democratic Party.”
Seeking prosperity through lax business and tax regulations leaves countries worse off.
In the early 1990s, economists coined the term "the resource curse" to describe a paradox they observed in countries where valuable natural resources were discovered: Rather than thriving, such countries often crumbled, economically and politically. The newfound wealth, instead of raising living standards for all, generated violence, as well as accelerating the growth of inequality and corruption. Terry Karl, a Stanford political science professor, dubbed this the "paradox of plenty." The same story has played out again and again all over the world, from Venezuela (where Karl did her research on the destruction wrought by oil wealth) to Sierra Leone (home of blood diamonds) and Afghanistan (which, despite $3 trillion in mineral wealth, remains among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world).
Food-safety concerns have, unsurprisingly, hurt a company that plays up its high-quality ingredients.
In August of last year, a contributor to Investopedia, an online clearinghouse for financial news and investment advice, made this pronouncement about Chipotle’s miraculously-performing stock: “If you had invested just $1,000 during Chipotle's initial public offering (IPO), that investment would be worth $33,229 today.”
Little did anyone guess that, less than a year later, the fast-casual favorite’s mountain of momentum would be reduced to a hill of beans in the wake of a series of food-contamination episodes last fall and winter. This slide continued as the company announced a 24 percent same-store sales drop in the second quarter of 2016. As the AP noted last week, “a year ago, the company earned $140.2 million”—nearly $4.50 a share—while this year, second-quarter profit was $25.6 million (just 87 cents per share), missing Wall Street’s expectations.
His call on a foreign government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account is a complete subversion of GOP ideals.
The first excuse for Donald Trump’s amazing press conference on Wednesday, in which he called on the Russians to hack and publish the 30,000 emails wiped from Hillary Clinton’s home server, was: He was only joking.
That excuse almost immediately dissolved. When Trump was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta whether he would call on Vladimir Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, the presidential nominee answered that he would not tell Putin what to do. After the conference ended, Trump tweeted out a slightly tidied up request to the Russians to find Clinton’s emails—but to hand them over to the FBI rather than publish them.
The second excuse, produced on Twitter minutes later by Newt Gingrich, is that Trump’s remark, while possibly unfortunate, mattered less than Clinton’s careless handling of classified material on her server. That defense seems likely to have more staying power than the first—about which, more in a minute.