Magical, mystery tax promises that need to be broken

Some tax pledges that have been made by both parties are slowing down deficit reduction

Jae C. Hong / AP / File
In this Jan. 20, 2009 file photo, Barack Obama, left, joined by his wife Michelle, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the US Capitol in Washington. Obama and other Democrats have promised not to raise tax burdens on households making less than $250,000, but maybe they should break that promise.

In an opinion piece I wrote for Bloomberg Government published last Friday (subscription-only access here), I elaborated on those “magical, mystery tax pledges” of both political parties that are getting in the way of bipartisan approaches to deficit reduction. Those tax promises:

  • Republicans: “Don’t raise revenue above the 40-year historical average of around 18-19 percent of GDP.”
  • Democrats, including (and especially) President Barack Obama: “Don’t raise tax burdens on households making under $250,000 a year.”

What Republicans might not realize about how their political promise works against their own policy goals (from my Bloomberg column):

To those on the right holding fast to an 18-19 percent of gross domestic product revenue ceiling, here’s the paradox: Raising more revenue by broadening and leveling the tax base is actually consistent with “supply-side” economic goals. Raising revenue by reducing at least some of the $1 trillion a year in tax breaks and shelters — also known as tax expenditures — and adding on new, broadly defined tax bases would increase, not decrease, the supply of productive resources in our economy…

[Reducing tax expenditures would also] reduce [not increase] government’s role in the economy…

And the Democrats may be shooting themselves in the foot as well, if they really prefer revenue-raising approaches to reducing the deficit over deep cuts in spending:

To those on the left who are holding fast to the president’s promise not to raise taxes on households with incomes below $250,000 a year, here’s your paradox: Limiting the pool of households to tap for revenue increases means limiting the revenue-side strategy for deficit reduction.

It’s hard to reconcile wanting a significant portion of deficit reduction to come from higher revenues and wanting to avoid any increase in tax burdens for 98 percent of the population. Exempting that many people means that tax rates on those above the cutoff must be prohibitively high…

This doesn’t mean giving up on progressive policies that would ask the rich to bear a larger relative burden of deficit reduction. Reducing tax expenditures is an inherently progressive approach because these tax breaks disproportionately benefit the rich.

Now, I do recognize that on the face of it, the Republican pledge of “no new taxes” (i.e., revenue increases)–of any shape or form, at any time–seems a much bigger obstacle to deficit reduction than the President’s campaign promise to shield (just) most of us from increased tax burdens, which is not a universally-held conviction of the Democrats and is less mathematically-impossible.

But factoring in that: (i) the one Democrat most wedded to that promise is the President of the United States (the one ultimately “in charge” of our nation’s economic policies and the most powerful man in the world), and (ii) both sides are probably just looking for excuses to outright reject the other side’s ideas so they don’t have to walk on the common ground, which is still a political landmine of hard choices, I think it is the President’s promise–even if the less ludicrous promise of the two–that’s probably the binding constraint on both sides’ doing the right thing in terms of bipartisan deficit reduction.

So both of these “magical, mystery” tax promises need to be broken.

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