9-9-9 plan would cut taxes for the rich, raise them for almost everyone else

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax sounds great: small numbers, nice symmetry. But under the plan, a typical household making more than $2.7 million would pay a smaller share of its income in federal taxes than one making less than $18,000.

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    Republican presidential candidate businessman Herman Cain speaks during Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan would result in a massive tax cut for nearly all of the highest earning Americans and a steep average tax hike for everyone else, Gleckman argues.

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Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan would result in a massive tax cut for nearly all of the highest earning Americans and a steep average tax hike for everyone else, according to a new Tax Policy Center analysis.

As Cain knows, when you are in the fast-food pizza business marketing is everything. Your white cheese, pureed tomatoes and slightly-sweet dough are not much different than the other guy’s. So it’s all in the promotion. That’s what’s so clever about his 9-9-9 tax. It sounds great: small numbers, nice symmetry. What’s not to like?

Except this pie is not at all what it appears to be. A middle income household making between about $64,000 and $110,000 would get hit with an average tax increase of about $4,300, lowering its after-tax income by more than 6 percent and increasing its average federal tax rate (including income, payroll, estate and its share of the corporate income tax) from 18.8 percent to 23.7 percent. By contrast, a taxpayer in the top 0.1% (who makes more than $2.7 million) would enjoy an average tax cut of nearly$1.4 million, increasing his after-tax income by nearly 27 percent. His average effective tax rate would be cut almost in half to 17.9 percent. In Cain’s world, a typical household making more than $2.7 million would pay a smaller share of its income in federal taxes than one making less than $18,000. This would give Warren Buffet severe heartburn.

When you get right down to it, Cain’s plan is a 25 percent flat-rate consumption tax—not all that different from the FAIR tax that he says is his ultimate goal. This tax would be paid three times: first on wage income, again at the cash register as a sales tax, and yet again by businesses on their sales minus their cost of goods and services. For tax junkies, the first is a flat tax. The second is a retail sales tax and the third a business transfer tax. But they are all consumption taxes.

Cain’s triple tax would replace payroll and estate taxes as well as the corporate and individual income taxes as we know them. All deductions, exemptions, and credits (except for charitable gifts) would be eliminated from the individual tax. Because businesses could deduct all their capital purchases, capital income would be tax free. But wages would be taxed—again and again and again. First, directly through the individual flat tax and then, because firms can’t deduct wages as an expense, twice more through the business tax and the sales tax.

Say you want to buy a pizza. First, under the business tax the pizza guy pays a tax on the difference between the retail price and his cost of producing the pie. Every firm along the supply chain would do the same: The farmer would pay 9 percent on his sales of raw tomatoes minus his costs, the sauce manufacturer would pay another 9 percent. This is just like a retail sales tax, except it is collected at every step of production along the way. But it is still passed on to consumers. Next you pay a separate 9 percent retail sales at the register. Finally, you have to pay the 9 percent individual flat tax.

There is more. Because employers would be taxed on wages they pay, economists figure the levy would result in lower salaries. Not only would the combination of lower incomes and higher taxes reduce the current standard of living for many middle-class households, those lower wages would also result in lower Social Security benefits down the road.

Cain apparently has an idea for a credit to protect low- and middle-class households from some of the burden of this triple tax, but he has not yet said what it is. And the problem, of course, is the more generous the credit, the less revenue the tax will generate. Because his plan is roughly revenue neutral now, that would force him to either increase the deficit or abandon that nice sounding 9-9-9 and raise his proposed tax rates.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a well-designed consumption tax. There are even benefits to adding a Value-Added Tax to a personal income tax while using it to buy down corporate income and payroll taxes. But a well-designed consumption tax retains a progressive rate structure somewhere in the system. Cain’s does not. Instead he opts for what is effectively a 25 percent flat rate sales tax. And that’s why he raises taxes on typical middle-income households by more than $4,000 while cutting them on those with the highest incomes by an average of $1.4 million.

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