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.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
25 years ago, Roseanne Barr sparked national fury when she delivered an off-key rendition in San Diego. But the reasons behind outrage and praise for various interpretations have as much to do with politics as musical talent.
On July 25, 1990, the comedian Roseanne Barr stood in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium before a baseball game, grabbed a microphone behind home plate, and, with her shirttails hanging out and sleeves rolled up, barked out what many consider to be the most unpatriotic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in history. In a screech not unlike a fork being scratched across slate, Barr garbled her way through the lyrics, missed notes intentionally, and capped off the whole affair by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground. In her defense, those final gestures were meant as a parody of ballplayers’ behavior, but many of the 27,285 paying fans didn’t see it that way. What they saw was utter disrespect for the national anthem, and thus, the country. She had exercised her freedom of speech, so they exercised their right to boo her off the field.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.
Highlights from seven days of reading about entertainment
British Cinemas Need to Do Better for Black Audiences
Simran Hans | Buzzfeed
“The myth that black people don’t go to the cinema becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicated on the assumption that cinemagoers are only interested in seeing themselves represented on screen. This seems to be at the heart of the problem.”
Hump Day: The Utterly OMG Magic Mike XXL
Wesley Morris | Grantland
“Not since the days of peak Travolta and Dirty Dancing has a film so perfectly nailed something essential about movie lust: Male vulnerability is hot, particularly when the man is dancing with and therefore for a woman. It aligns the entire audience with the complex prerogatives of female desire.”
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.