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The Tax Policy Center (TPC) recently published figures showing that for the vast majority of taxpayers, Obama’s proposal to extend most of the Bush tax cuts would provide benefits that far exceed the tax increases he proposes. Just 6.5 percent of taxpayers would pay more in taxes in 2013, even by a very broad definition of “tax increase.” However, several news stories cited a separate set of figures published by TPC showing that if you put aside Obama’s proposed extension of most of the Bush tax cuts, 27.3 percent of taxpayers would pay more in 2013 under Obama’s tax proposals. This figure has caused some confusion and is, frankly, misleading.
First, the Bush tax cuts do expire at the end of 2012 under current law, so any extension of those tax cuts are, in fact, new tax cuts that reduce what Americans will pay. (Remember, Congress decided during the Bush years and again in 2010 to temporarily cut taxes, but never decided to permanently cut taxes.)
Second, the tax increases that Obama does propose would be trivial for most taxpayers. The relevant tax increases involve proposals to close tax loopholes for corporations and other businesses. Some middle-income and low-income taxpayers own stocks in corporations or interest in businesses that might be affected, but the effects would be trivial for those who are not rich. So, to take an example, when President Obama proposes to close tax loopholes for oil companies, TPC attributes the resulting tax increase to stockholders, a group than includes some middle-income or even a few low-income people. (It is nonetheless true that most corporate stocks and business assets are owned by high-income people, who would therefore bear most of the tax increase.)
For example, if you look at TPC’s figures that ignore Obama’s proposed extension of the Bush tax cuts, you see that 26.4 percent of those taxpayers in the middle fifth of the income distribution would get a “tax increase” in 2013 — but the average tax increase for this 26.4 percent is just $70. Note that the average tax change for all taxpayers in the middle fifth of the income distribution would be a tax cut of $40 — and again, this would happen only if one ignores the extension of most of the Bush tax cuts.
For the vast majority of taxpayers, the benefits of Obama’s proposed extension of most of the Bush tax cuts are much larger than any indirect tax increases they would face from closing business tax loopholes. If you look at TPC’s figures that do include Obama’s proposed extension of most of the Bush tax cuts, you see that only 4.2 percent of those taxpayers in the middle fifth of the income distribution would face a tax increase, and the average tax increase for this 4.2 percent is only $76. (These would be people who don’t benefit from the extension of the Bush tax cuts, but do own a small amount of corporate stock.) The average tax change for all taxpayers in the middle fifth of the income distribution would be a tax cut of $1,133.
Two Sources of Confusion: Baselines and Small, Indirect Tax Increases
So the first part of the confusion stems from the fact that TPC publishes figures in two different ways. To use wonky terms, TPC provides one set of figures that compares the effects of Obama’s tax proposals to the “current law baseline,” which means, well, what the current law actually says is going to happen. And current law says the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. TPC provides a separate set of figures that compare Obama’s tax proposals to a “current policy baseline,” a hypothetical scenario that assumes that all of the Bush tax cuts are made permanent, even though that has never actually happened. (It’s unclear why we should use the term “current policy” to describe proposals that some lawmakers want to enact, but which Congress has not enacted.)
The second part of the confusion stems from the fact that TPC assumes that closing tax loopholes for multinational corporations, oil companies and other businesses will result in indirect tax increases on the owners of these businesses, which, to a very small extent, includes a few moderate-income taxpayers. These indirect tax effects may be real, but most people don’t think that this as a reason to leave in place tax loopholes for major profitable corporations and other businesses.