Wednesday, September 21, 2011

White House Clarifies "Buffett Rule"

Late on Wednesday afternoon, Gene Sperling posted on the White House blog (see Buffett Rule Fact and Fictions).

Sperling commences the blog as follows:
On Monday, the President proposed the Buffett Rule as one of five principles for comprehensive tax reform. This is a rule of simple fairness—no household making over $1 million annually should pay less in federal taxes* than middle-class families pay. Contrary to some misconceptions, the Buffett Rule is not designed as the sole or main source of raising new revenues, but one of five principles that should be achieved by tax reform:

1. Cut rates
2. Cut inefficient and unfair tax breaks
3. Cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years
4. Increase investment and growth in the United States
5. Observe the “Buffett rule.”

Of these principles — all of which we believe are key to reform — the Buffett rule has received the most attention. It has been attacked with claims of “class warfare” that are completely without merit. How can it be class warfare to ensure that there is greater parity between the taxes paid by the most well-off and those paid by tens of millions of hardworking families? Still, since not all of the reports about the Buffett Rule have been accurate, I want to clarify what we mean – and why the President believes this is an important principle.

[*Note: Sperling probably meant to say that "no household making over $1 million annually should pay federal taxes at lower effective rates than the rates that middle-class families pay." The remainder of Sperling's post focuses on average tax rates paid by individuals with varying degrees of income. Alternatively, perhaps Sperling was referring to millionaire/billionaire investors who derive 100% of their disposable income from tax-exempt bond investments, and thus literally pay zero income tax to any jurisdiction.]
In my last post, I criticized the Buffett Rule (a/k/a Vanderbilt Rule) as motivated by class warfare politics. My critique was partly motivated by the lack of detail underlying the "principle." If the principle were not motivated by class warfare politics, why announce the principle without detail as to its application?

Sperling's post added some meat to Obama's bare-bones "principle." Meanwhile, Sperling tried to rebut the critics who viewed the Vanderbilt Rule as class-warfare politics. I appreciate the effort to clarify some of the obvious question marks. But I'm still convinced that Obama's proposal was motivated by class-warfare politics. I'll touch on that point in this blog post. I'll have some more observations about Sperling's rebuttal argument in my next blog post.

Class-Warfare Politics

Take another look at Obama's five principles for tax reform. The first two principles would require amendments to (or perhaps replacement of) the Income Tax Code, impacting tens of millions of individual taxpayers and many thousands of businesses. The third principle would require a contentious bipartisan effort to begin restoring the nation's long-term fiscal health. The fourth principle acknowledges that our broken tax system and uncompetitive business tax rates increase the cost of doing business in the United States, crippling economic growth and job creation.

We can all agree on those four "principles." We can all agree that they are serious goals, and, in today's political and economic climate, will require heavy lifting by our political leaders. We may disagree on the tax and spending changes necessary to achieve those goals. But the goals are fundamental to our long-term economic competitiveness and prosperity.

How about the fifth principle? As Sperling's post confirms, the fifth principle reflects an unhealthy obsession with the 400 wealthiest American individuals. It is not about fixing the tax system, making life simpler and fairer for tens of millions of individual taxpayers, eliminating "tax expenditures" that distort fundamental economic decisions (contributing to the real estate bubble and the crisis in health care inflation), decreasing the costs of business tax compliance, addressing our long-term fiscal challenges, or improving our global competitiveness.

Compare the fifth principle to the other four principles. If a subset of the 400 wealthiest Americans pay tax at lower effective rates than the middle class, does that impact our long-term economic competitiveness and prosperity? Does that make business tax compliance more costly? Does that distort or complicate economic decisions of tens of millions of taxpayers? Of course not. A few billionaires who benefit from structural tax breaks, fairly or unfairly, are a microscopic tail on an 800-pound dogzilla.

Admittedly, the fact that those lucky billionaires pay lower effective tax rates than some middle-class and upper-middle-class taxpayers rubs me the wrong way. I would personally raise the capital gains tax rate to "pay down" ordinary income tax rates. But those changes are already contemplated by the first and second principles (cut rates; and cut inefficient and unfair tax breaks). We don't need to taint a serious tax reform effort with 2012 campaign slogans ("Hope, Change ... and Observe the Buffett Rule!").

From this independent's view, the Buffett Rule (a/k/a Vanderbilt Rule) does not belong on the list of fundamental tax reform principles. Obama included the "principle" in the list as a class warfare tactic to distract voters from his dismal economic record. I'll discuss the details of Sperling's rebuttal argument in my next blog post.

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