McCain on taxes

I've had a lot of emails about a recent piece on McCain's failure to sell his main tax proposal--the refundable credit for health insurance. The article explained how the credit would leave most middle-income Americans paying less tax than under Obama's plans.

Both candidates have offered complex tax proposals. Proliferating alternative baselines (with or without the extension of the Bush tax cuts, with or without a "patch" for the alternative minimum tax, and so forth) deepen the confusion. Unable to fathom the details, voters are left to weigh the competing slogans. Mr Obama promises to cut taxes for 95 per cent of working families. Mr McCain says the rich need a tax cut, too. Guess who wins that argument.

Here is a fact you might not have noticed. It certainly seems to have slipped by most Americans. The typical US household would get a bigger tax cut under Mr McCain's proposals than under Mr Obama's. I know a few politicians who could do something with that.

Broadly speaking, Mr McCain proposes to leave the Bush tax cuts in place. Mr Obama proposes a big increase in taxes on people earning more than $250,000 a year, in order to cut taxes and increase subsidies at the bottom; for the middle, he too would mostly keep the Bush tax code. Middle-income households do come out slightly ahead under the Obama plan - but only if you leave out the effect of Mr McCain's healthcare proposal. The question is, why would you do that?

Mr McCain wants to abolish the tax-break for employer-provided healthcare and replace it with a refundable $5,000 credit. Mr Obama says that a family health plan might cost $12,000 a year - leaving families who buy their own policy $7,000 worse off. This is incorrect. So far as I know, Mr McCain has never taken the trouble to explain why.

Suppose a family currently has a $12,000 policy provided by an employer. Under the McCain proposal, instead of attracting relief as at present, this benefit would be taxed as ordinary employment income - but the extra tax paid would be more than offset by the new $5,000 credit. In the first analysis, nothing changes so far as employers are concerned: all the action is on the employee's pay cheque. The policy delivers a net tax cut to middle-income households and is enough to make the McCain tax plan on average a better overall deal for them than the Obama plan.

Odd, don't you think, that the McCain campaign should think this unworthy of emphasis?

As it happens, taken together, I prefer Obama's tax and health-care proposals to McCain's: I think McCain's health credit is good as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. Obama's plan would expand coverage much more, and it seems to me that this should be a key goal. However, the fact remains that McCain's plan would put more disposable income (net of taxes and health-care outlays) in the pockets of most middle-income voters.

Well, you would not guess this from the way the McCain campaign has dealt with the issue. Joe the Plumber and the preoccupation with Obama's thinking on redistribution has clouded what surely ought to have been the main thing, from a tactical point of view. Anyway, as many have pointed out, we are all redistributionists in principle. Republicans too believe in spreading the wealth around. Is McCain planning to abolish the earned-income tax credit? Is he proposing a flat-rate income tax with no exemptions? It is a question of how far, not whether.

Many of the emails I received began, "You are just wrong," and came from accounting firms, lawyers, and academics of one sort or another. I was initially disconcerted. What had I missed, I wondered? But no, it turns out, my correspondents had simply misunderstood McCain's proposal in one way or another--and I don't blame them for having done so. He is offering a refundable tax credit, not an ordinary credit (which can only be set against taxes owed) and not a deduction in taxable income (which would provide a much smaller tax saving); this credit would also be paid to people with employer-provided health insurance, not just to people who buy their own; and the existing payroll-tax exemption for health insurance would continue under the McCain plan (if this were abolished too, his plan would cut disposable income rather than increase it for many households).

These were the most popular reasons for believing I was mistaken, and for maintaining that the Obama proposals would give middle-income households a bigger overall tax cut. Even sophisticated voters have failed to get the message: McCain is offering middle-income American a bigger tax cut than Obama.

Am I naive to suppose that this would have been a stronger selling-point than Joe the Plumber? Wouldn't it have been a good idea to make sure this was understood?