Here are five things you need to know about the debate over extending the temporary tax cuts Congress passed almost a decade ago. (For those of you who haven't been paying attention in class, these are known as "the Bush tax cuts" because they were passed at the former president's urging, and if Congress does nothing, they will expire at the end of the year.)
1) All the representatives and senators who voted for the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 also voted for their expiration. That's how they were designed.
2) The tax cuts could have been made permanent or extended at some point before now. Alternatively, the folks who ran fiscal policy from 2001 through 2008—the Republican White House and a Congress that was controlled for most of that period by Republicans—could have created the conditions that would have made it possible to extend the tax cuts or make them permanent. But they didn't. Instead of running balanced budgets, they appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars to fight two wars, created an expensive, open-ended entitlement without a funding mechanism (Medicare prescription drug coverage), and increased discretionary spending. Oh, and their failures of oversight, regulation, and management led to expensive, deficit-enhancing bailouts.
3) Many Republicans and some Democrats have spent much of the last year warning (falsely, it turns out) that the large deficits we face this year and in coming years would cause inflation, result in high interest rates, and turn us into indentured servants to China. Now, the same folks are arguing for … even-larger short-term deficits that somehow won't have all those ill effects. President Obama's proposal to extend the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 per year will add $3.2 trillion to the debt. But as the Congressional Budget Office noted, extending them all will add $3.9 trillion in debt. Now, advocating tax cuts without specifying spending cuts (and, no, John Boehner, saying you want to roll back spending to 2008 levels doesn't count) means you're advocating a huge increase in new debt creation. It's sad to say, but it's nearly impossible to find a Democrat or Republican who can speak seriously about how we can align revenues with expenditures. (And, no, Rep. Paul Ryan, your much-discussed "road map" doesn't count, since it cuts taxes on the rich but doesn't lower deficits over the long term.)
4) The bold and confident assertions made about the links between tax rates and economic growth, market performance, and prosperity are almost certainly wrong. Turn on CNBC or look at the Wall Street Journal op-ed page these days, and you'll learn that we must keep tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and income precisely where they are because shifting them to different levels will retard economic growth. Keep this in mind: The people who designed the current, unsustainable tax system promised us that lower marginal rates, and lower taxes on capital and dividends, would boost the economy, promote investment, create jobs, spur market performance, and raise everybody's income. They were wrong. (It's no coincidence that these same people also warned us that raising taxes in 1993 would kill market returns and the economy. They were wrong then, too. They're pretty much always wrong.) As I've pointed out, the years under the current tax regime have been a lost decade. Pick your metric—median income, employment, stock market returns, economic growth—the low-tax '00s sucked. Yet proponents of keeping the tax cuts persist in making the argument: To avoid a repeat of the past decade, we must have the exact same tax policies as we did for the past decade.
5) Stopping all the tax cuts from expiring requires the passage of legislation. But the people who most want all the tax cuts extended—i.e., Republicans—don't have the ability to enact legislation. They don't control a majority in either legislative body, and for the past two years they've proved successful only at stopping or delaying legislation.
The upshot is this: If you're in the $250,000-per-year-and-up camp, even if you don't think you're rich, I'd start planning to pay higher taxes next year. But I wouldn't discount the scenario of all the tax cuts expiring. Look at what happened with the estate tax, another sop to the rich. In a bizarre turn of events, it was designed to decline throughout the decade, disappear entirely in 2010, and then return at a much higher level in 2011. Rather than compromise with Democrats on a permanent reduction that would leave lots of people better off but still require the richest of the rich to payer higher taxes, Republicans held out for a maximalist, all-or-nothing approach. They ended up with nothing. History may not repeat, but it sometimes rhymes.
Daniel Gross is also the author of Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation and Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great For The Economy.