Bushonomics on Steroids: Romney's Tax Plan Is Still Severely Impossible

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Mitt Romney says his new tax plan adds up. It doesn't. It means higher taxes for the poor, huge tax cuts for the rich, and huge deficits. Call him George W. Romney.

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(Reuters)

Well, of course Romney's new tax numbers don't add up.


Romney's plan has gone through several iterations, but through it all the the basic contours and basic impracticality have stayed the same. As I have described it before, Romney's plan is a three-legged stool that doesn't stand. He wants to 1) cut tax rates by 20 percent across the board; 2) fully pay for these tax rate cuts by cutting tax expenditures; and 3) cut taxes for the middle class without reducing the tax burden of the rich.

This is all kinds of impossible. For one, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center pointed out there aren't enough tax expenditures for the rich to pay for Romney's tax rate cuts for the rich -- in other words, his plan couldn't help but reduce high-end taxes. Romney would have to either abandon his tax cuts for the rich, raise taxes on the middle class, or explode the deficit. The latter seemed most likely given Romney's refusal to name a single expenditure he would eliminate -- although he had previously hinted at a few -- before he switched tacks. Romney's new plan is to cap household expenditures rather than cut specific expenditures. He's floated several versions of this plan, but at the second debate he said he would limit households to $25,000 of deductions and credits. It's a very clever idea. It would spare Romney from the, ahem, taxing battle with special-interest groups over which expenditures get the ax and which don't. But it's not so clever that it makes Romney's tax plan work. Nothing short of suspending the rules of arithmetic can do that.

Meet the new Romney tax plan, same as the old Romney tax plan. It's a massive tax cut for the rich, a small tax cut for the middle class, and a tax hike for the poor. That adds up to mega-deficits. How mega? Well, the Tax Policy Center calculates Romney's $25,000 cap would raise about $1.3 trillion over a decade -- against almost $5 trillion in tax cuts over that period. And remember, that's a $3.7 trillion hole relative to a world with the Bush tax cuts. It's an almost $8 trillion dollar hole compared to a world with Bill Clinton-level taxes.

Here's what this means for households. Combining this table showing the revenue gains with this table gives us, my apologies, what might be the world's least helpful graph that shows the average tax cut each income group would receive under the Romney plan. If you're far-sighted, it's a $150 hike for the bottom quintile, a $722 cut for the middle quintile, and a $496,115 cut for the top 0.1 percent.

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Here's a slightly more useful version of the same chart that excludes the top 10 percent of households.  

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There are three big stories here. First, Romney's plan actually hurts low-income households, because it lets the tax credits from the stimulus, which were renewed in 2010, expire. These credits, all of which are at least partially refundable, include expansions of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Second, Romney's across the board 20 percent rate cuts help higher earners more, because their rates are higher to begin with -- in other words, 20 percent of 35 percent is more than 20 percent of 25 percent. And third, capping deductions hits higher earners hardest, but it doesn't hurt them nearly as much as the rate cuts help them. Still, it's worth emphasizing just how progressive capping itemized deductions would be by itself. The chart below looks at what percent of the overall revenue gained from a $25,000 cap would come from each income group. Over half of the $1.3 trillion the cap would raise would come from the top 1 percent, and 81.7 percent of it from the top 10 percent.

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This gets at the fundamental contradiction of Romney's tax plan. He can't raise enough revenue without raising taxes on the middle class, which he has promised not to do. Now, his deduction cap should be a shrewd way to make it all work. The cap raises money mostly from higher income households, because those households take more itemized deductions and those deductions are worth more to them due to their higher tax brackets. Romney's problem is his tax cuts are far too deep to make this math -- or any math! -- work. Even if he set the cap at zero -- that is, eliminated itemized deductions altogether -- the numbers would not come close to adding up. The Tax Policy Center calculates zeroing out all deductions would only generate around $2 trillion over a decade under Romney's plan. That would leave Romney with a big, fat $3 trillion hole -- which, remember, is actually a $3.7 trillion hole when we use his actual plan.

And that leaves us with one caveat and one question. The caveat is the Tax Policy Center only looked at deductions, and not credits, for the $25,000 cap. As Bob Williams of the Tax Policy Center explained to me, deductions and credits are apples and oranges -- deductions reduce taxable income according to tax rates and credits reduce taxable income directly. They can't be combined. The question is what Romney would do about his $3.7 trillion revenue gap. Kevin Hassett, one of his economic advisers, suggested Romney might back off his high-end tax rate cuts, but the campaign quickly dismissed this, as did Romney himself when he was asked about it point-blank during the second debate. Now we're down to doors two and three -- either Romney expands his cap to include tax exclusions or he expands the deficit by a cool $3.7 trillion. I'll give you one guess which looks more likely. Romney has already ruled out including the biggest exclusion, employer healthcare, under his cap -- which means forfeiting the $2 trillion in revenue doing so would raise over the next decade. Romney could include the exclusion for pension contributions -- think IRAs and 401(k)s -- or the exclusion of capital gains on death, but doing so would violate his promise to preserve the preferences for savings and investment. We're running out of big exclusions. In other words, Romney's plan to pay for his tax cuts is not to pay for his tax cuts. 

In the final analysis, Romney's tax plan means higher taxes for the poor, huge tax cuts for the rich, and huge deficits. Who does that remind you of? It sounds like George W. Bush, only if George W. Bush thought the 47 percent were a bunch of lucky duckies.

Compassionate conservatism is out. Severe conservatism is in.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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