Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Obama will end up taxing the middle class

President Obama likes to pretend that all he wants to do is tax the "millionaires and billionaires." That's all and then we are set - there will be enough money to fund entitlements without reform plus funding his new health care plan.

The problem is that there just isn't enough money even if he were to really jack up the taxes on those millionaires and billionaires and confiscate all their earnings. The WSJ does the math for us.
Consider the Internal Revenue Service's income tax statistics for 2008, the latest year for which data are available. The top 1% of taxpayers—those with salaries, dividends and capital gains roughly above about $380,000—paid 38% of taxes. But assume that tax policy confiscated all the taxable income of all the "millionaires and billionaires" Mr. Obama singled out. That yields merely about $938 billion, which is sand on the beach amid the $4 trillion White House budget, a $1.65 trillion deficit, and spending at 25% as a share of the economy, a post-World War II record.

Say we take it up to the top 10%, or everyone with income over $114,000, including joint filers. That's five times Mr. Obama's 2% promise. The IRS data are broken down at $100,000, yet taxing all income above that level throws up only $3.4 trillion. And remember, the top 10% already pay 69% of all total income taxes, while the top 5% pay more than all of the other 95%.

We recognize that 2008 was a bad year for the economy and thus for tax receipts, as payments by the rich fell along with their income. So let's perform the same exercise in 2005, a boom year and among the best ever for federal revenue. (Ahem, 2005 comes after the Bush tax cuts that Mr. Obama holds responsible for all the world's problems.)

In 2005 the top 5% earned over $145,000. If you took all the income of people over $200,000, it would yield about $1.89 trillion, enough revenue to cover the 2012 bill for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—but not the same bill in 2016, as the costs of those entitlements are expected to grow rapidly. The rich, in short, aren't nearly rich enough to finance Mr. Obama's entitlement state ambitions—even before his health-care plan kicks in.
So there won't be enough money. Ah, who is next? Yup, you got it - the holy middle class, that big group of voters that Obama needs if he is going to get reelected.
So who else is there to tax? Well, in 2008, there was about $5.65 trillion in total taxable income from all individual taxpayers, and most of that came from middle income earners. The nearby chart shows the distribution, and the big hump in the center is where Democrats are inevitably headed for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks.

This is politically risky, however, so Mr. Obama's game has always been to pretend not to increase taxes for middle class voters while looking for sneaky ways to do it. His first budget in 2009 included a "climate revenues" section from the indirect carbon tax of cap and trade, which of course would be passed down to all consumers. Such Democratic luminaries as Nancy Pelosi have often chattered about a European-style value-added tax, or VAT, which from a liberal perspective has the virtue of applying to every level of production or service and therefore is largely hidden from the people who pay it.

Now that those two ideas have failed politically, Mr. Obama is turning as he did last week to limiting tax deductions and other "loopholes," such as for mortgage interest payments. We support doing away with these distortions too, and so does Mr. Ryan, but in return for lower tax rates. Mr. Obama just wants the extra money, which he says will reduce the deficit but in practice will merely enable more spending.

Keep in mind that the most expensive tax deductions, in terms of lost tax revenue, go mainly to the middle class. These include the deductions for state and local tax payments (especially property taxes), mortgage interest, employer-sponsored health insurance, 401(k) contributions and charitable donations. The irony is that even as Mr. Obama says he merely wants the rich to pay a little bit more, his proposals would make the tax code less progressive than it is today.
On this day of paying the government your taxes, remember this math and study this table of where the money is.
You see where the money is? It's there in the middle and that is where the Democrats will need to be raising taxes if they reject any sort of comprehensive entitlement reform. And we need to do it now because otherwise it will become even more impossible to pass and take even more pain. Under Ryan's plan, we would keep Medicare as it is for those 55 and older. If we wait more time, that cushion won't be there.
Mr. Ryan isn't proposing controversial entitlement reforms because he likes pointless political risk, or because he likes being berated to his face from a front row seat, as he was on Wednesday. Medicare and Medicaid spending are consistently growing two to three times faster than the rest of the economy, while Medicare's cash-in-cash-out financing model means that seniors collect far more in benefits than they paid in taxes over their working lifetime. The entitlement state was designed for another era.
Mr. Obama is the master of false choices. When he pretends that there is no need for entitlement reform and everything can be made wonderful just with taxes on rich, you need your simultaneous Obama translator. Because the real message is that we are all going to have to pay to keep Democrats in charge and Medicare and Medicaid unreformed. That's the real Mediscare story.

What the Republicans need is someone who can explain this basic math to the American public. A few Ross Perot like graphs, including this one, would be useful. This is the message you can ponder as you celebrate paying your taxes today.