Playing the Tax Credit Card

One of Obama’s prime campaign planks has been his promise to mercilessly raise taxes on the “rich,” a group initially defined as those making more than $250,000 per year. This was later dropped to $200,000 per year, and more recently has been defined as those Americans making more than $150,000 annually.

Setting aside the precipitous downward slide in the definition of “rich,” there is ample reason to suspect that Obama’s tax changes portend much higher, if not confiscatory taxes on the most productive Americans. Obama has strongly argued for higher taxes as a way of employing government to alter the pre-tax distribution of income, which he believes has concentrated too much of the gains from productivity in recent years in the hands of the very rich.

He seems to think that the “very rich” are a closed caste of more or less fixed membership, which changes little from year-to-year. This figures in his concept of “fairness,” which supposes that it is perfectly just to burden a small fraction of the population with a majority of the costs of running the Federal government. This was detailed in a New York Times article on “spreading the wealth” by David Leonhardt. He wrote of Obama:

“He would then pay for the cuts, at least in part, by raising taxes on the affluent to a point where they would eventually be slightly higher than they were under Clinton. For these upper-income families, the Tax Policy Center’s comparisons with McCain are even starker. McCain, by continuing the basic thrust of Bush’s tax policies and adding a few new wrinkles, would cut taxes for the top 0.1 percent of earners – those making an average of $9.1 million – by another $190,000 a year, on top of the Bush reductions. Obama would raise taxes on this top 0.1 percent by an average of $800,000 a year. ‘It’s hard not to look at that figure and be a little stunned. It would represent a huge tax increase on the wealthy families. But it’s also worth putting the number in some context. The bulk of Obama’s tax increases on the wealthy – about $500,000 of that $800,000 – would simply take away Bush’s tax cuts. The remaining $300,000 wouldn’t nearly reverse their pretax income gains in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, their inflation-adjusted pretax income has roughly doubled.’

“To put it another way, the wealthy have done so well over the past few decades, with their incomes soaring and tax rates plummeting, that Obama’s plan would not come close to erasing their gains. The same would be true of households making a few hundred thousand dollars a year (who have gotten smaller raises than the very rich but would also face smaller tax increases). As ambitious as Obama’s proposals might be, they would still leave the gap between the rich and everyone else far wider than it burdensome on the young entrepreneur who was making his first millions as it would on the aging plutocrat who actually had enjoyed the prosperity of the past-quarter century since Reagan cut marginal tax rates.”

An October 13 editorial in The Wall Street Journal clarifies the mysterious arithmetic of Obama’s sweeping claims to cut income taxes for millions who currently have no income tax liability and pay no taxes:

“For the Obama Democrats, a tax cut is no longer letting you keep more of what you earn. In their lexicon, a tax cut includes tens of billions of dollars in government handouts that are disguised by the phrase ‘tax credit.’ Mr. Obama is proposing to create or expand no fewer than seven such credits for individuals:

  • A $500 tax credit ($1,000 a couple) to ‘make work pay’ that phases out at income of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 per couple.
  • A $4,000 tax credit for college tuition.
  • A 10% mortgage interest tax credit (on top of the existing mortgage interest deduction and other housing subsidies).
  • A ‘savings’ tax credit of 50% up to $1,000.
  • An expansion of the earned-income tax credit that would allow single workers to receive as much as $555 a year, up from $175 now, and give these workers up to $1,110 if they are paying child support.
  • A child care credit of 50% up to $6,000 of expenses a year.
  • A ‘clean car’ tax credit of up to $7,000 on the purchase of certain vehicles.

“Here’s the political catch. All but the clean car credit would be ‘refundable,’ which is Washington-speak for the fact that you can receive these checks even if you have no income-tax liability. In other words, they are an income transfer – a federal check – from taxpayers to nontaxpayers. Once upon a time we called this ‘welfare,’ or in George McGovern’s 1972 campaign a ‘Demogrant.’ Mr. Obama’s genius is to call it a tax cut.

“The Tax Foundation estimates that under the Obama plan 63 million Americans, or 44% of all tax filers, would have no income tax liability and most of those would get a check from the IRS each year. The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis estimates that by 2011, under the Obama plan, an additional 10 million filers would pay zero taxes while cashing checks from the IRS.

“The total annual expenditures on refundable ‘tax credits’ would rise over the next 10 years by $647 billion to $1.054 trillion, according to the Tax Policy Center. This means that the tax-credit welfare state would soon cost four times actual cash welfare. By redefining such income payments as ‘tax credits,’ the Obama campaign also redefines them away as a tax share of GDP. Presto, the federal tax burden looks much smaller than it really is.”

After all the sloppy definitions are parsed, one point remains clear. The top 5% of U.S. income earners, who presently pay 60.14% (2006 figures) of all income tax, are destined for a huge federal tax increase under Obama.

One of Obama’s specific proposals is to raise the capital gains and dividend taxes to 25%, which will sharply increase capital confiscation as increasing percentages of “gains” will reflect inflationary depreciation of the currency. In the U.S., an investor must pay tax on the difference between the sales price of an asset and it purchase price, with no adjustment for inflation. Consequently, when the tax rate and inflation are high, a large portion of the “capital gain” is illusory. Any asset that appreciates by less than the rate of inflation will result in its owner losing purchasing power and having to pay taxes on the illusory gains. At Obama’s higher tax rates, (he has suggested that capital gains and dividend taxes should be hiked to as much as 25%,) capital confiscation would result from modest levels of inflation.

And the Great Credit Crunch implies that inflation will be far higher than in recent experience.

Setting aside whether it is moral or equitable to force a small fraction of the population to essentially pay for the whole cost of government, much of which entails the shuffling of checks to purchase votes of various aggrieved groups, there is a bigger question. Can it be wise for the whole fiscal regime to stand on the shoulders of a small group, like a pyramid tottering on its point, so that any tribulation which undermines the prosperity of those who pay would promise to bankrupt the state?

It is a worthwhile question to ask if you have considerable assets. In light of the worldwide credit crunch, which has deflated assets of all kinds, the prospect of burgeoning prosperity at the magnitude required to enable one-in-20 Americans to become “Super Rich” benefactors of Big Government is vanishingly small. There won’t be enough rich people to fill the role assigned to them in Obama’s scheme. The result to be expected, in addition to confiscatory taxation, is a dramatic shortfall of revenues. This, in turn, implies surging deficits and deficit financing requirements that will rapidly swamp the capacity of the Treasury to borrow.


Jim Davidson

Markets and Money offers an independent and critical perspective on the Australian and global investment markets. Slightly offbeat and far from institutional, Markets and Money delivers you straight-forward, humorous, and useful investment insights from a world wide network of analysts, contrarians, and successful investors. Founded in 1999, Markets and Money is published in 7 countries with a worldwide readership of almost 1 million people.

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