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Tax Cuts?

Did you get a tax cut? Think carefully – with the run-up of deficits – now about $445 billion – what you might have gotten today will have to be offset by what you owe back tomorrow.
As Gale, Shapiro, and Orszag put it: “The tax cuts are often portrayed by their supporters as painless and simply ‘giving people their money back.’ But the numbers presented above indicate that a majority of American households will be made worse off by the tax cuts, because the tax cuts will ultimately have to be financed. ”

Distribution of the 2001 and 2003 Tax Cuts and Their Financing

By William G. Gale, Isaac Shapiro, Peter Orszag
Popular discourse about tax cuts frequently ignores a simple truism: Someone, somewhere, at some time will have to pay for them. The payment may be in the form of increases in other taxes or reductions in government programs; it may occur now or later; it may be transparent or hidden. But iron laws of arithmetic and fiscal solvency imply that the payment has to occur.
To date, the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 have been funded with increased borrowing. This postpones but does not eliminate the required payments. It can also create the misleading impression that tax cuts make almost everyone better off, because the direct tax-cut benefits are immediate and quantifiable, while the ultimate costs are delayed and disguised and therefore often ignored.
The central goal of this analysis is to correct the misimpression that the tax cuts make everyone better off. We estimate not only who benefits directly and immediately from the recent tax cuts but also who benefits and who loses once the financing of the tax cuts is considered.
Specifically, we examine the distribution of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (when fully in effect and reflecting the president’s proposal to make most of the tax cuts permanent) combined with the costs of paying for them. We therefore examine the “net effects” of the tax cuts, accounting for both the direct benefits and the costs of financing those benefits.
The first scenario assumes that each household pays an equal-dollar amount each year to finance the tax cuts. Under that scenario, each household receives a direct tax cut based on the 2001 and 2003 legislation, but it also “pays” $1,520 per year (2004 dollars) in some combination of reductions in benefits from government spending or increases in other taxes to finance the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Something close to that scenario could occur if the tax cuts were financed largely or entirely through spending cuts. We refer to this as “equal-dollar” financing.
The second scenario assumes each household pays the same percentage of income to finance the tax cuts. In that case, each household receives a direct tax cut based on the 2001 and 2003 laws, but also pays 2.6 percent of its cash income each year. Something close to this scenario could occur if the tax cuts were financed through a combination of spending cuts and progressive tax increases. We refer to this as “proportional financing.” Our principal findings include:

  • Once the financing is included, the 2001 and 2003 “tax cuts” are best seen as net tax cuts for about 20-25 percent of households, financed by net tax increases or benefit reductions for the remaining 75-80 percent of households. Not surprisingly, equal-dollar financing is significantly more regressive than proportional financing.
  • Under either scenario, more than 75 percent of households would be worse off: They lose more from the financing than they gain directly from the tax cuts. The “losers” would be concentrated among low- and middle-income households. Under equal-dollar financing, the losers include 90 percent of households in the middle fifth of the income distribution and nearly all households in the bottom 40 percent.
  • The annual net transfer of resources from low- and middle-income households to high-income households would be sizable. The annual transfer from the 80 percent of households with incomes below $76,400 to the top 20 percent of households with incomes above that level would be $113 billion under equaldollar financing and $27 billion under proportional financing. The annual transfer to households with incomes exceeding $1 million would be $35 billion under equal-dollar financing and $15 billion under the proportional scenario.
  • Middle-income households would be losers under both scenarios, but would fare worse under equal-dollar financing. Under equal-dollar financing, households in the middle quintile would average losses of $869 per year, 3.1 percent of after-tax income. With proportional financing, the loss would be $228, or 0.8 percent of after-tax income.
  • Low-income households would be worse off under either scenario, but would face enormous costs under equaldollar financing. Under equal-dollar financing, households in the bottom quintile lose an average of $1,500 a year, or 21 percent of their income. Under proportional financing, they lose 2.5 percent of after-tax income.
  • High-income households would be net winners, and the gains among the highest-income households would be large. People with annual incomes exceeding $1 million would gain an average of $59,600 a year, or 3.1 percent of after-tax income, under proportional financing and $135,000 a year, or 7 percent of after-tax income, under equal-dollar financing.
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