Getting Taxes Wrong: Fact-Checking the Republican Primary Debate


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With the Iowa Caucuses almost 8 months away, the Republican primary was in full swing on Monday night as 7 of the Republican contenders battled it out during a debate on CNN. Tax policy took center stage as every single one of the Republican contenders promoted lower taxes as central to their economic platform.

Predictably however, the candidates stayed relatively vague about their specific tax plans.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is the only candidate so far to release an official tax plan, which, among other things, proposes to eliminate the capital gains tax, create only two income tax brackets, and reduce the corporate income tax rate from 35 to 15%. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that the plan would result in a 73% income tax cut for the Top 400 Taxpayers and cut taxes 41% for millionaires generally.

Even without getting into too many specific plans, the Republican contenders made a few curious claims about tax policy that are in dire need of fact checking:

Representative Michele Bachmann, Minnesota: “What we need to do is today the United States has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world…We've got to bring that tax rate down substantially so that we're among the lowest in the industrialized world.”

While Bachmann would be correct in claiming the United States' statutory tax rate of 39% (the federal income tax rate is 35 percent and the average state corporate income tax rate is about 4 percent) is on paper the second highest in the industrialized world, she fails to take into account the effect of special tax breaks and loopholes which make the effective rate paid by companies relatively low. According to a 2007 study by the Bush Treasury Department, between 2000-2005 US corporations paid only 13.4% of their profits in corporate income taxes, well below the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 16.1%. The OECD is what Bachmann means by "industrialized world."

Demonstrating how big the difference between statutory and effective rates can be, a recent CTJ study showed that 12 US corporations together paid an effective corporate income tax rate of (negative) -1.5%, while earning $171 billion in profits over 3 years.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “The Reagan recovery, which I participated in passing…raised federal revenue by $800 billion a year in terms of the current economy, and clearly it worked. It's a historic fact.”

Rather than telling a ‘historic fact’, Gingrich is weaving a complete fiction. In claiming that Reagan’s tax cut efforts raised federal revenue $800 billion, Gingrich is assuming that all economic growth was due to Reagan’s efforts, while simultaneously ignoring the effect of inflation and population growth.

Citizens for Tax Justice’s internal estimates put the real cost of lost revenue due to the Reagan tax cuts at 3.97% of GDP or the equivalent of $581.2 billion today. Even former Reagan White House Senior Policy Analyst Bruce Bartlett admits that the Reagan tax cuts DECREASED revenue, adjusting for inflation, by $473.7 billion. In addition, it’s odd that Gingrich would point to the Reagan era to establish his fiscal credentials considering that the national debt tripled during Reagan’s two terms.

This is not Gingrich’s first foray into rewriting historic fiscal realities and it probably will not be his last.

Herman Cain, Godfather Pizza CEO: “We need an engine called the private sector. That means lower taxes…suspend taxes on repatriated profits, then make them permanent.”

Herman Cain’s call for an end to taxing repatriated profits puts him in good company with Republican establishment figures like Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who believe that moving the United States toward a territorial system of taxation would stimulate the economy by bringing home offshore capital.

In reality however, such a move would be disastrous for the US economy. Rather than encouraging investment in the United States, US corporations would have a much greater incentive to shift actual operations and jobs offshore because they would not have to pay US taxes on these profits. A better approach would be to end deferral, which would stop these current tax incentives pushing jobs offshore while also encouraging companies to bring more than a trillion dollars in offshore capital back to the US.

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