This Christmas, we’ll all be getting a gift from Congress – two more years of Bush-era tax cuts. Never mind that Congress is paying for them with a credit card; they’ll square up the $860 billion bill with the Obama Administration down the road.
The thing is, the biggest gifts went to the wealthiest taxpayers.
A recent analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington-based public interest research and advocacy organization, estimates that the compromise plan agreed to between President Obama and Republicans in Congress would give 25 percent of the total value of the tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent of all Americans. The President had originally proposed not extending the tax cuts for those with income of more than $250,000 a year.
The CTJ analysis also estimates the impact of the compromise on a state-by-state basis. In New Jersey, that’s an average benefit of $443 for the poorest 20 percent of earners and an average benefit of $93,350 for the wealthiest 1 percent.
The compromise plan extends to everyone the current federal income tax rates for two years, cuts the estate tax to below the 2009 level and cuts Social Security payroll tax deductions for all workers by 2 percent.
Federal income tax rates were lowered twice during the Bush administration, in 2001 and again in 2003. Although each act had its own legislative history and impact, the two are generally lumped together in terms of their effect on taxpayers and the economy. The two acts significantly lowered federal marginal income tax rates for nearly all taxpayers. Both were set to expire at the end of 2010.
The debate in Washington has centered on whether the tax cuts should be extended and who should benefit. The president’s plan favored lower and middle income families and allowed rates to rise on the wealthiest taxpayers. Congressional Republicans wanted the current tax rates made permanent for all.
Congressional Republicans prevailed-but only temporarily. The tax cuts were extended two more years, at which time they will be subject to another debate.
The debate on the estate tax centered on Obama’s effort to maintain estate taxes at the 2009 level, which exempts the first $3.5 million of an estate and taxes the remainder at a rate of 45 percent. The compromise exempts the first $5 million and taxes the remainder at 35 percent.
The compromise includes a 2 percent payroll tax cut (from 6.2% to 4.2%) for all workers. That is significantly less than the president’s “Making Work Pay” proposal, which would have eliminated the 6.2 percent payroll tax on the first $6,450 ($12,900 for couples) in earnings. The impact of this 2 percent cut is greater on lower income earners because only the first $107,000 of income is subject to payroll taxes.
According to CTJ’s analysis, the top 1 percent of taxpayers in New Jersey with incomes averaging $1.8 million will receive over 30 percent of these benefits from the income tax and estate tax provisions. When payroll taxes are taken into consideration, lower and middle income earners fare better. While some of the tax cuts have boosted take-home pay for middle class families, the tax cuts for the wealthiest are poorly designed short-term stimulus and, more important, ineffective long-term economic policy. Increasing the take-home pay of low- and moderate-income families will lead to more spending and a boost in demand for necessary goods and services, which in turn creates more jobs. By contrast, tax cuts for the wealthy are more likely to be tucked away as savings, which is a relatively ineffective boost to the economy.
Many have argued that tax cuts for the wealthy increase the incentive to invest or create small business jobs, and that these benefits eventually trickle down to average families. But the economic record tells a different story. Of the 10 economic expansions since 1949, the expansion between 2001 and 2009 ranks last in terms of economic growth, national investment, employment and employee pay.
Economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics estimates (see Table 4 in the report) that every dollar spent making the Bush tax cuts permanent generates only 35 cents of economic activity (permanent corporate tax rate cuts yield only 32 cents). Comparatively speaking, a dollar spent on infrastructure (investing in a transit tunnel under the Hudson River, for example) yields $1.57 return on investment; a dollar spent to prevent layoffs of teachers or police or firefighters yields $1.41; and a dollar to temporarily increase food stamps yields $1.72.
It’s too bad the Obama compromise will only boost paychecks, instead of lifting the entire economy.