Paul Ryan's Tax Math Just Became More Magical

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Paul Ryan's latest budget relies on even bigger unnamed savings

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(Reuters)

There's something breathtaking about any Paul Ryan budget. There are the savage cuts to healthcare and safety-net spending for the young and poor. The deep cuts to education, research, and infrastructure. The way current seniors are spared from any of this fiscal pain. The increased defense spending. And the tax cuts -- heavily tilted towards the rich, of course -- that will supposedly be paid for by eliminating loopholes.

It's this last bit that might be the most breathtaking. Ryan wants to radically simplify the tax code, and radically reduce rates in the process. His plan shrinks our seven brackets into two -- 10 and 25 percent -- while eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the Obamacare taxes, and the expanded tax credits from the stimulus. On the corporate side, he wants to move to a territorial system, and lower the rate from 35 to 25 percent. Oh, and he wants revenue to average 18.8 percent of GDP for the next decade. The only way to do all of this is to radically cut tax expenditures too. But Ryan doesn't name a single expenditure he wants to cut. Instead, he bridges the gap with a magic tax reform asterisk.

This isn't a new magic trick for Ryan. It's just a bigger one. His tax plan hasn't changed from its previous iteration, but his revenue goal has. Ryan wants to keep the higher revenue level from Obamacare and the fiscal cliff deal without keeping those tax rates. That means his magic asterisk needs to be even more magic. 

How much more magic? About a trillion dollars more.

Ryan's tax cuts would reduce revenue to a very low 15.5 percent of GDP over the next decade, according to the Tax Policy Center. But his revenue target for last year was 18.3 percent of GDP. Ryan said he would make up the difference by killing $5.6 trillion or so in tax breaks that he couldn't name. That was magical enough. But now he says he wants the same tax cuts and an extra 0.5 percent of GDP in revenue. That's about a $6.7 trillion hole. And remember, Ryan says his total budget -- tax reform and spending cuts -- will save $4.6 trillion the next 10 years. In other words, Ryan's magical savings are 146 percent of his overall savings.

This isn't a good trick. As Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress points out, there are only about $2 trillion worth of itemized deductions over the next decade. Ryan would also have to cut the big exclusions and preferences that litter the tax code to make his numbers add up.

[Glossary interlude: Itemized deductions for certain expenses, like home mortgage interest, reduce your taxable income according to your tax bracket; exclusions, like employer health care, exempt certain income from any tax at all; and preferences, like the like capital-gains rate, lower taxes for certain kinds of income.]

This is mathematically possible. But that doesn't make it politically possible.

The chart below from the Congressional Budget Office looks at the biggest loopholes, as a percent of GDP, over the next 10 years. Not surprisingly, the biggest ones are also the most popular. Ryan has to come up with $6.7 trillion in savings -- equal to 3.3 percent of GDP -- to make this work. And he's already ruled out ending the preference for capital gains (and probably, though not certainly, their exclusion at death).


TaxExpenditures1.png

This game of choose-your-own-tax-reform-adventure is quite difficult, impossible even, unless you get rid of the biggest loophole out there: the exclusion for employer-provided health care. But even if Ryan tax people's health care benefits, he isn't exactly left with easy choices. Would Ryan end the home mortgage interest deduction (just when the housing market is, barely, rebounding)? Or would he start taxing pension contributions -- think 401(k)s? Or maybe he'd eliminate the charitable deduction? Just about the only certainty here is he'd ditch the state and local tax deduction, since Republicans view that as a subsidy for high-tax, high-service blue states. But no matter what choices Ryan makes, he will almost certainly have to increase taxes on some middle-class households. It's just math.

You're not alone if you think magic is more fun than math. Paul Ryan certainly agrees.
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Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

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

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