For the last few months, we have heard powerful, passionate arguments about the need to cut America’s massive budget deficit. Republican senators have claimed that we are in danger of permanently crippling the economy. Conservative economists and pundits warn of a Greece-like crisis, when America can borrow only at exorbitant interest rates. So when an opportunity presents itself to cut those deficits by about a third—more than $300 billion!—permanently and relatively easily, you would think that these very people would be in the lead. Far from it.
The Bush tax cuts remain the single largest cause of America’s structural deficit—that is, the deficit not caused by the collapse in tax revenues when the economy goes into recession. The Bush administration inherited budget surpluses from the Clinton administration. What turned these into deficits, even before the recession? There were three fundamental new costs—the tax cuts, the prescription-drug bill, and post-9/11 security spending (including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). Of these the tax cuts were by far the largest, adding up to $2.3 trillion over 10 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly half the cost of all legislation enacted from 2001 to 2007 can be attributed to the tax cuts.
Those cuts are set to expire this year. The Republicans say they want to keep them all, even for those making more than $250,000 a year (less than 3 percent of Americans). They say that higher taxes will hurt the recovery. But for months now they have been arguing that the chief threat to the economy is our gargantuan debt and deficit. That’s what’s scaring consumers, creditors, and businesses. Given a chance to address those fears by getting serious about deficit reduction, though, they run away. Look by contrast at British Prime Minister David Cameron, a genuine fiscal conservative. To deal with his country’s deficit, which in structural terms is not so different from America’s, he concluded that he would have to raise taxes as well as cut spending.
The Democrats, for their part, are also running scared, proposing to keep all the tax cuts except those affecting the very rich. But they were opposed to these tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. If they were a bad idea when budget deficits were small, why are tax cuts a good idea when deficits are in the $1.3 trillion range?
The idea that the average American is overtaxed is a nice piece of populist pandering. In fact, federal taxes as a percentage of the economy are at their lowest level since the presidency of Harry Truman. Chuck Marr and Gillian Brunet of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have calculated that a family of four at the exact middle of the income spectrum will pay only 4.6 percent of its income in taxes. Remember, almost half of the country pays no income taxes at all. The top 3 percent of Americans contribute almost 50 percent of federal income taxes.
The simple fact is this: all the Bush tax cuts were unaffordable. They were an irresponsible act of hubris enacted during an economic boom. Conservatives thought they would force us to shrink the government. But with Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, did reduced taxes cause reduced spending? No, they led to ever-increasing borrowing and a ballooning deficit.
We have one of the smallest governments among all the rich countries in the world. Yet we refuse to pay for it. (Yes, health-care spending is the big exception and, yes, we will have to get those costs under control.) I understand the fear that this is not a good time to raise taxes. But the impact of marginal shifts in tax rates on growth is pretty unclear. Clinton raised taxes in 1992 and ushered in a period of extraordinarily robust growth. Bush cut taxes massively in 2001 and got meager growth in return. Three tax cuts enacted since the financial crisis have done little to spur growth. In any event, if timing is the issue, Congress could extend the tax cuts for a year but then let them expire. Better yet, spend money on far more efficient ways to spur job creation, such as tax credits for jobs, which the CBO estimates would create four to six times as many jobs as would tax cuts.
I don’t like our current tax system. It’s unwieldy, taxes the wrong things (income instead of consumption), and is filled with loopholes that are legalized corruption. But we are not going to create the perfect tax code today. We have in front of us a simple, easy way to bring America’s fiscal house in order, reduce our dependence on foreign borrowing, restore U.S. credibility and power, and give us a stable revenue base from which to make key investments for future growth. All we need is for Congress to do what it does so well—nothing.