Understanding TPC's Analysis of Governor Romney's Tax Plan

By :: August 8th, 2012

The Tax Policy Center’s latest research report went viral last week, drawing attention in the presidential campaign and sparking a constructive discussion of the practical challenges of tax reform. Unfortunately, the response has also included some unwarranted inferences from one side and unwarranted vitriol from the other, distracting from the fundamental message of the study: tax reform is hard.

The paper, authored by Sam Brown, Bill Gale, and Adam Looney, examines the challenges policymakers face in designing a revenue-neutral income tax reform. The paper illustrates the importance of the tradeoffs among revenue, tax rates, and progressivity for the tax policies put forward by presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It found, subject to certain assumptions I discuss below, that any revenue-neutral plan along the lines Governor Romney has outlined would reduce taxes for high-income households, requiring higher taxes on middle- or low-income households. I doubt that’s his intent, but it is an implication of what we can tell about his plan so far. (We look forward to updating our analysis, of course, if and when Governor Romney provides more details.)

The paper is the latest in a series of TPC studies that have documented both the promise and the difficulty of base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform. Last month, for example, Hang Nguyen, Jim Nunns, Eric Toder, and Roberton Williams documented just how hard it can be to cut tax preferences to pay for lower tax rates. An earlier paper by Dan Baneman and Eric Toder documented the distributional impacts of individual income tax preferences.

The new study applies those insights to Governor Romney’s tax proposal. To do so, the authors had to confront a fundamental challenge: Governor Romney has not offered a fully-specified plan. He has been explicit about the tax cuts he has in mind, including a one-fifth reduction in marginal tax rates from today’s level, which would drop the top rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and a cut in capital gains and dividend taxes for families with incomes below $200,000. He and his team have also said that reform should be revenue-neutral and not increase taxes on capital gains and dividends. But they have not provided any detail about what tax preferences they would cut to make up lost revenue.

As a political matter, such reticence is understandable. To sell yourself and your policy, it’s natural to emphasize the things that people like, such as tax cuts, while downplaying the specifics of who will bear the accompanying costs. Last February, President Obama did the same thing when he rolled out his business tax proposal. The president was very clear about lowering the corporate rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, but he provided few examples of the tax breaks he would cut to pay for it. Such is politics.

For those of us in the business of policy analysis, however, this poses a challenge. TPC’s goal is to inform the tax policy debate as best we can. While we strongly prefer to analyze complete plans, that sometimes isn’t possible. So we provide what information we can with the resources available. Earlier this year, for example, we analyzed the specified parts of Governor Romney’s proposal and documented how much revenue he would have to make up by unspecified base broadening (or, possibly, macroeconomic growth) and how the rate cuts would affect households at different income levels.

The latest study asked a different question: Could Romney’s plan maintain current progressivity given revenue neutrality and reasonable assumptions about what types of base broadening he’d propose? There are roughly $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures out there, but not all will be on Governor Romney’s list. He has said, for example, that raising capital gains and dividend taxes isn’t an option and has generally spoken about lowering taxes on saving and investment. Based on those statements, the authors considered what would happen if Romney kept all the tax breaks associated with saving and investment, including not only the lower rates on capital gains and dividends, but also the special treatment for municipal bonds, IRA and 401ks, and certain life-insurance plans, as well as the ability to avoid capital gains taxes at death (known as step-up basis). The authors also recognized that touching some tax breaks is beyond the realm of political possibility, such as taxing the implicit rent people get from owning their own home.

Given those factors, the study then examined the most progressive way of reducing the other tax breaks that remain on the table—i.e. it rolls them back first for high-income people. But there aren’t enough of those preferences to offset the benefits that high-income households get from the rate reductions. As a result, a revenue-neutral reform within these constraints would cut taxes at the high-end while raising them in the middle and perhaps bottom.

What should we infer from this result? Like Howard Gleckman, I don’t interpret this as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives. One can charitably view his plan as a combination of political signaling and the opening offer in what would, if he gets elected, become a negotiation.

To get a sense of where such negotiation might lead, keep in mind that Romney’s plan is not the first to propose a 28 percent top rate. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 did, as did the Bowles-Simpson proposal and the similar Domenici-Rivlin effort (on which I served). Unlike Governor Romney’s proposal, all three of those tax reforms reflect political compromise. And in all three cases, part of that compromise was eliminating some tax preferences for saving and investment, which tend to be especially important for high-income taxpayers. In particular, all three reforms resulted in capital gains and dividends being taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

TPC's latest study highlights the realities that lead to such compromises.

67Comments

  1. Max Planck  ::  6:43 pm on August 8th, 2012:

    I think the big joke here is that everyone is falling over themselves to offer a lower marginal rate, which is not necessarily helpful. For one thing, lowering rates (effectively offering a “flatter” tax) reduces the deductibility of mortgage interest, property tax, State and City taxes BY ITSELF, building in an offsetting TAX INCREASE even as marginal rates are lowered. Nobody seems to get this no matter how many time I explain this to them. The most elegant and effective solution RIGHT NOW is to RAISE RATES. It will lower the cost of borrowing as much as any Fed program, and make real estate more attractive as a purchase. This is what we need TODAY. The cut in marginal rates is little more than an illusion and always was- which is why TEFRA 1986 was an astounding failure.

  2. David  ::  7:30 pm on August 8th, 2012:

    I also don’t see negotiation in the future when looking at the recent strides the Republican Party (Tea Party) has made in the House and Senate. Smooth sailing for puppet masters.

  3. Michael Bindner  ::  10:31 pm on August 8th, 2012:

    Rumor has it that Romney might be open to including a consumption tax among his reforms, although he would never say this before his convention. In the odd chance he wins, his proposals will be much more specific – and his appointments to tax policy positions should provide some clarity as to what will be proposed. He would govern like a CEO, so whatever he does will be mostly staff driven. I will suspend the easy dig at his current staff – even if it is well deserved.

    I would suggest that an interesting annex to any analysis of a politician’s tax plan is a set of suggestions to make them accomplish what he says he wants to do in terms of rates or other proposals. For example, had you taken my candidacy more seriously than the bulk of Americans Elect delegates, you could have suggested rates for my VAT to accomplish the spending goals I had assigned to it and a mix of entitlement reforms and tax rates for my VAT-like Net Business Receipts Tax to accomplish fully funding these programs while still implementing a much more generous refundable child tax credit. Finally, you could have offered options for how fast the budget would be balanced and what tax rates would be required if a high income surtax on earners and heirs were to fund net interest, overseas and sea deployments and paying down the Social Security trust fund without further borrowing – and even paying off the entire debt.

    I would think such an exercise would be both instructive to public officials and candidates and would also be fun to do. Then again, I have strange ideas of fun.

  4. Michael Bindner  ::  10:34 pm on August 8th, 2012:

    As to the political effect of the current study. Hot news is always reported on page one. Clarifications are always buried. I suspect that no one will report this essay unless you give Hannity an interview.

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  7. Edward Hull, CPA  ::  2:38 pm on August 9th, 2012:

    Anyone who actually believes a politician from either party will really do anything to help the middle and lower class when it comes to taxes is fooling themselves. Both sides are bought off (with Supreme Court approval)by ULTRA RICH extremists and multi-national corporations (who don’t pay much in American taxes for the most part)on either end.

    Our founders warned us about the “merchants and financiers” taking over the government. Guess nobody listened.

    Until the media comes clean (see Mark Twain) about who really pays what and stops with the 30 second sound bites, the “truth” will never be known.

    When FOX and the Wall street journal call the Tax Policy Center an “extreme” left-leaning think tank and nobody refutes them how will the sheeple of this country ever get it.

    Max makes a great point about lack of understanding. As a CPA, even when I show clients how they pay more then folks like Romney they just don’t believe it. Lack of education in this country is very sad indead!

    Keep up the good work guys.

  8. AMTbuff  ::  3:08 pm on August 9th, 2012:

    has generally spoken about lowering taxes on saving and investment. Based on those statements, the authors considered what would happen if Romney kept all the tax breaks associated with saving and investment, including not only the lower rates on capital gains and dividends, but also the special treatment for municipal bonds

    I fail to see how the tax exemption for municipal bonds lowers taxes on saving and investment. Economists agree that the benefits of this exemption flow to state and local governments. Furthermore, government borrowing does not equate to investment.

    Muni exemption is heavily used by the top 1% and especially the top 0.1%. This assumption by the TPC authors reduces the progressivity of the plan imputed to Romney. I wish they would tell us how much of a difference it made.

    Second, I hope Romney removes that exemption. Rich people should invest based on economic benefit, not for tax breaks. Eliminating government steering of investments is fundamental to tax reform.

  9. Ralph H  ::  4:06 pm on August 9th, 2012:

    Completely agree with elimination of Muni preferences. If I understand AMT calculations it would also help the very wealthy to avoid or minimize that beast. I would also throw in low income housing tax dodges too.

    While we are at it how about tightening the rules on Non-Profits? Either tax income from business-like operations as a business or set a requirement that 50% of revenue must be donated. There has been a proliferation of non-profits in past 20 years and many are growing as they plow “profits” into their infrastructure. Meanwhile, their officers and staff keep increasing their salaries.

  10. beowulf  ::  6:34 pm on August 9th, 2012:

    Ultimately, Romney’s only path through the woods here is biting the bullet and endorsing Ronald McKinnon’s wealth tax.
    http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2012/01/the-conservative.html

    The beauty of it is, he can release his old returns at the same time and walk the press through how much, year by year, he’d paid under Obama’s tax code and how much more (I’d ballpark it at triple) he’d have paid under his own tax reform plan.
    Romney could then enthusiastically agree with everyone who says he paid too little in taxes. After all, its not Mitt Romney’s fault he paid so little, he can’t reform the tax code until he’s elected president.
    A pity we can’t tax cognitive dissonance. :o)

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  63. Bill Dixon  ::  9:59 pm on October 31st, 2012:

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