A Fiscal Cliff Deal Is Close (Maybe)—Here's What It Would Mean for Jobs

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The rumored grand bargain would cost the economy about half a million jobs in 2013

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(Reuters)

Are you ready for a grand bargain? A deficit hawk party! Yes? No? Maybe? (Is this John Boehner?). 

With the deadline for the fiscal cliff -- which is really more of a slope -- looming, President Obama and House Republicans have reportedly come close on an agreement that would kick most of the fiscal can. Well, they did for a few hours at least. It didn't take long for Boehner to walk back his support for the plan, but that hardly means it's dead. If there is a grand-ish bargain to be had, it will probably look something like this latest iteration of a deal. 

As Ezra Klein reported, the deal comes in three parts: revenue, cuts, and stimulus. Let's break it down, and then break down what it means for jobs in the coming year.

REVENUE. Let the Bush tax cuts expire for households with adjusted gross incomes of $400,000 or more, and limit the value of itemized deductions to 28 percent. In other words, set tax rates for the top 1 percent back to where they were under President Clinton, and stop richer households from taking bigger deductions than middle-class households. All told, it raises a little more than $1 trillion in revenue over the next decade relative to a world where all of the Bush tax cuts continue. As Paul Krugman points out, it's unclear whether this includes the higher taxes on capital gains and dividends scheduled to kick in on January 1, 2013 -- on top of the 3.8 percent Obamacare surtax on capital gains.

Taxes would also go up from switching to chained CPI. As my colleague Derek Thompson explained, chained CPI is an alternative (and perhaps more accurate) measure of inflation that assumes consumers substitute to similar, lower-priced goods when other prices rise. In other words, it says inflation is lower. Tax brackets are indexed to inflation, so a lower measure of inflation means they will rise less -- and more people will creep into these higher brackets. It adds up to about $60-90 billion over ten years. 

CUTS. Say hello to chained CPI again. It's not just a tax hike. It's a Social Security cut too. Remember, Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation as well, so the logic of a lower measure of inflation kicks in here too -- benefits will rise slower than they otherwise would have, with the compounded effect hitting older retirees the worst. It's about a $100-200 billion cut over a ten-year window. Congress is supposed to negotiate on another $1 trillion or so of cuts, and if they cannot agree on them there will be -- wait for it! -- a new sequester in the future. Because the last one worked so well.

STIMULUS. Extend unemployment insurance and the refundable tax credits from the stimulus, but not the payroll tax cut. There's also some new, albeit unspecified, infrastructure spending thrown in.

There are a lot of moving parts here, but only three of these moving parts will matter in 2013: the end of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, the end of the payroll tax cut, and new infrastructure spending. In other words, it's unlikely any of the cuts will hit the economy next year. The can known as the sequester would get kicked for another year or so -- unless, haha, Congress can agree to other, immediate cuts -- and chained CPI will be the same as CPI-W in 2013. That leaves the three aforementioned changes -- changes that add up to about a half million less jobs in 2013 than if there was no fiscal cliff at all, as you can see in the chart below. The payroll tax cut is a political orphan in need of a champion.

FiscalCliffJobs2.png

The Cliff Notes version of why this deal would cost us 500,000 jobs next year is it sucks more money out of the economy than it puts back in. Let's look at it piece-by-piece.

Bush tax cuts for the rich expire. Less money for the rich means less money for the rich to spend. But the rich are different from you and me -- they tend to have money left over after they buy the things they want. In other words, they spend less of their incomes, so a tax hike on them doesn't hurt demand as much as a tax hike on the middle-class would (as we shall see). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) figures higher taxes on higher earners would subtract about 200,000 jobs next year.

Payroll tax cut ends. Less money for everybody means less money for everybody to spend. That's what the payroll tax, which, remember, hits the middle-class harder than it does the rich, does. But it gets worse. A higher payroll tax means a higher cost of hiring and that means less hiring. A lot less hiring. Working backwards from these two CBO reports shows it means about half a million less jobs in 2013. As the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) points out, it's almost twice as stimulative as the Bush tax cuts for the rich, at similar costs. Spending the $115 billion to extend it another year would be money well spent.

Infrastructure. This is where things get admittedly speculative. We don't even know how much infrastructure spending both sides have talked about, let alone what kind of projects, but we can make some informed guesses. President Obama has asked for $50 billion of new infrastructure spending before, which he probably wouldn't get, but we'll use here as a best-case. If we take former Vice Presidential economic adviser and current CBPP fellow Jared Bernstein's rule of thumb that every $1 billion of construction or repair spending adds roughly 9,000-10,000 jobs, and then assume that this new spending would come in over two years, that gives us about 250,000 new jobs in 2013. Again, this is a pretty generous estimate.

As far as can-kicking goes, this ain't too shabby. The CBO figures that the fiscal cliff will cost us 3.4 million jobs next year if Congress does nothing; suddenly, half a million less sounds okay. But Washington can do better. It just needs to go over the fiscal cliff first.

Right now, Obama is offering lower revenues than he originally asked for and entitlement cuts for more stimulus -- and he's not even getting all of the stimulus! It's all because of the baseline illusion. As long as the Bush tax cuts are around, Boehner can claim he's the one offering concessions on revenues by saying he'll raise them at all. It's a silly argument, but it's a silly argument that goes away after January 1, when tax rates automatically go up. Then, Democrats can push a bill that cuts middle-class taxes and cuts deductions for the rich -- the $1.6 trillion from Obama's first offer -- and tell Republicans they have a choice. They can either get less revenue or less entitlement spending, but not both, and in return they have to sign off on all of the stimulus -- extended unemployment insurance, the payroll tax cut, and infrastructure spending. They could even set up a commission -- or a supercommittee, if they're feeling bold -- to cut spending in a year's time, with a new sequester to incentivize them to find cuts. 

It's a deal that would bring our medium-term budget closer to balance, without costing the economy in the short-term. Now that would be grand.
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Matthew O'Brien

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

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