President Obama’s Middle-Class Tax Message in the State of the Union

President Obama’s tax proposals for the middle class were a key element of his State of the Union address. But they represent only relatively modest efforts to create subsidies through the tax code rather than through other departments of government. Looked at broadly, many only tinker around the edges of tax policy and count on an overloaded and troubled agency, the IRS, to administer them.

Will $320 billion of tax increases finance very much?

The President proposes $320 billion in tax increases on the wealthy. It sounds like a lot. But how much would it finance in expenditures and additional tax breaks, assuming it is all spent rather than used to reduce the deficit?   Well, there are approximately 320 million Americans, so the proposal would garner about $1,000 per person. But, then again, the $320 billion would be raised over ten years, so that’s about $100 per person per year that could be financed.

Now compare the $100 per year with what we already spend. Add together federal, state, and local spending plus tax subsidies (and the President would “spend” a good deal of his additional revenue on new tax subsidies), and the figure comes out to more than $20,000 per person.  And that spending is scheduled to rise by an average of several thousand dollars per year over the same ten year period, due more to (hoped for) economic growth than anything else.

None of these observations speaks for or against the proposals. I like some of them, don’t like others. But if you want to have a significant impact on the budget and on the well-being of citizens, concentrate on where the money is.

Should we throw even more subsidies into the tax code?

Like almost all his recent predecessors, the President talks in his State of the Union address about tax simplification, but in almost the same breath he proposes a range of new tax subsidies. It’s an old story. Tax cuts show up as “smaller” government to those who simply count up net government revenue as a measure of government size. According to that theory, we could achieve dramatically limited government or no government at all if we put all expenditures into the tax code, thereby collecting negative taxes on people, at least as long as we run deficits.

Huge jurisdictional problems also lead to more and more being put into the tax code. Discretionary spending is capped; tax subsidies are not. Congressional tax committees can use increased revenues to pay for increased tax subsidies, but they do not have the jurisdictional authority to spend additional tax revenues on higher levels of spending, or, on the flip side, to reduce many items of direct spending to pay for lower tax rates.

Now I’m not suggesting that a new tax subsidy is necessarily more complex than a new expenditure. But it does raise the issue of whether the IRS is the right agency to administer the subsidy. All of this is coming at a time when the IRS has lost significant resources, the Taxpayer Advocate suggests we should be ready for a horrible filing season in which taxpayers will have difficulty getting ahold of someone in IRS to advise them, and many in the IRS remain disheartened and have been pushed into a bunker mentality that fears bad publicity more than bad administration.

This column originally appeared on TaxVox.


America’s Can-Do New Year’s Resolution

How about a national new year’s resolution for 2015? Here’s my suggestion: let’s resolve to restore our can-do spirit, sense of destiny, and vision of frontiers as challenges rather than barriers. Let’s remember that fear and pessimism multiply the negative impact of bad events, whereas optimism reinforces positive outcomes. Think of Louis Howe, who added “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, or Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that “nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”

Now, seven years after the start of the Great Recession, it’s a good time to reflect on just how lucky we are as a nation and on the vast ocean of possibilities that lie before us. If we don’t see those possibilities, we’ve simply turned our back to them—and forgotten how America became America in the first place. In Dead Men Ruling, I attack viciously both the notion that we live in a time of austerity and the politics that sells pessimism as a way of clutching onto our piece of the national pie.

No one knows the future, of course. But the evidence points strongly toward the potential of a people whose can-do spirit helped it establish the first and now longest-lasting modern democracy, conquer frontiers of land and space alike, enhance freedom at home and abroad, and lead in the industrial, technological, and information revolutions.

Though income tracks only some of our general gains in well-being, we’re hardly poor. Our GDP per household is about $145,000, and real income per person is more than 75 percent higher than when Ronald Reagan was first elected president. We are richer than before the Great Recession. And, even projections of slower growth imply that average household income will rise by around $24,000 within roughly a decade.

We have available goods and services of which kings and queens of old could not have dreamt: not just the very visible gains in ways of communicating and entertaining ourselves, but fresh fruit and vegetables year round, life expectancies and health care far beyond those of our parents and grandparents, and continually improving automobiles, shelter, clothing, travel options, plumbing, and building architecture.  And much more to come.

Of course, it’s part of our human condition to focus on the next problems, the ones we haven’t solved. Such striving provides the very basis for continued growth. Your hard labors, your dedication and sacrifices, and your everyday efforts to care for older and younger living generations may not make news. But they do make the world go around.

Our mistake comes from paying attention to those in politics, the media, or our own community who turn our mutual problems into excuses for personal attacks or a sense of helplessness rather than calls for further joint and individual efforts. We know the temptations: for the media, if it bleeds, it leads; for the politician, if it smells, it sells; for the business, if it deceives, it succeeds. But there’s no reason that either they or we need fall prey to such tricks.

If some current debates aren’t as enlightened as they might be, we can still sense progress from where they might have been a generation ago. We don’t debate whether cops should discriminate against different groups—an issue my brother-in-law confronted while working for the FBI in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957—but instead how to pay proper respect to each person, civilian and cop alike. We don’t debate whether people should have enough food to eat but whether graduate students should collect food stamps. We don’t debate whether to help the disabled but how to extend efforts toward the mentally ill, the autistic, and those who are too old to be treated in school settings. We don’t debate whether to protect the old but whether our old age programs emphasize too much middle-age retirement rather than the needs of the old. When we engage these debates, whether on the same or different sides, most of us concentrate on how to do better, how much government efforts help or hinder progress, and how to shift our resources toward more effective or productive efforts.

In the end, the case for progress rests not on some wild-eyed dream but on the simple notion that we stand on the backs of those who went before us. Available knowledge expands. It doesn’t recede—even if at times we let our minds recede through laziness, prejudice, and fear of the new, or we reinforce political institutions that protect their power or status by blocking advancement.

That’s where we Americans are especially lucky. The can-do spirit, the entrepreneurial urge, and the freedom to try new things have been among the greatest strengths of our people, who continually find new paths forward and ever-broader vistas.

So my optimism is easy to explain: I trust in you. Happy New Year.


Jim Brady and a BOGGSAT

Jim Brady, who died on August 4, 2014, will be remembered for many things. He taught elected officials, analysts, and citizens alike not to take ourselves so seriously when engaging in policy.  He brought humor to many situations, even at a cost to himself, as in the famous anecdote when he shouted “killer trees” while pointing out the window from the Reagan campaign plane after the candidate had questionably argued that trees caused air pollution.

The lesson from Brady I never forgot was BOGSAT—“Bunch of guys sitting around a table.” Brady was the first from whom I heard this quip, though I cannot track down the occasion(s). BOGGSAT (I’ve removed the sexual bias in the acronym by adding an additional “G” for “gals.”) is the best description I know for how most policy, at the end of the day, is decided. Often I write about Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, adhering to some position that I believe violates some core principle such as efficiency or equal justice under the law. There’s just a better way, I suggest, to achieve the goals that the adherents seek. But reflecting back a bit, much of the existing policy I criticize did not derive from some elaborate analysis of what was best for the country or even for the favored constituency, but as an almost accidental byproduct of a BOGGSAT.

Examples are common, and I’m sure you could come up with many. Here are some of my favorites. Social Security’s current imbalance? Some BOGGSAT of early Social Security reformers and bill developers failing to adjust the retirement age for increased life expectancy. Today’s farm bill support for corn, soybeans, and cotton, but not many other crops, in the name of “food security?” Some Depression-era congressional BOGGSAT trying to support their favorite farmers. The largest tax subsidy? Some IRS BOGGSAT determining that health insurance was compensation that shouldn’t be taxed. The continued allocation of state “economic development” subsidies to a few businesses? BOGGSATs in almost every state deciding whom to favor and whom to exclude. A rule that one shouldn’t have to pay more than 10 percent of income for health insurance? A BOGGSAT that worked this parameter into Obamacare despite the fact that health costs absorb almost one-quarter of all personal income.

When it comes to new policy design, the BOGGSATs continue their wily ways. Washington is full of think tanks that purport to provide new agendas for each major political party. Some advocates propose to convert pensions subsidies to simple credits for deposits to retirement accounts without accounting for the simple fact that a one-time deposit that withdrawn one second later doesn’t really represent saving. Others want to expand low-income access to home mortgages without worrying about the regulatory tendency to engage such efforts when market valuations are high and to discourage them when market valuations are low. Many want to cut taxes without cutting spending, which is simply a shifting of the spending burden to future taxpayers. A BOGGSAT likes to feel it is moving policy in some particular direction but often fails to consider all the alternatives or worry about the unintended consequences.

In both current law and many proposals to change it, a BOGGSAT loves to use nice round numbers with limited or no analytic justification. Think of “10-5-3” (the new cost recovery or depreciation system for deducting costs of investments, as enacted in 1981) or the 50 percent Social Security spousal benefit (the percentage added to a worker’s benefit that is paid out freely to the couple and paid for partly small part by single people and even abandoned spouses who can’t get the benefit) or “9-9-9” (a tax system with three taxes with a rate of 9 percent each, proposed by Herman Cain in the 2008 Republican primaries).

When I’m honest about it, I have to admit that many of my family’s decisions to spend or give away money come about through the BOGGSAT method. I’m guessing the same is true for you. But the BOGGSAT doesn’t have to operate purely on instinct, or the emotion of the moment, or the bargaining power of those at the table. The next time you’re engaged with others in deciding something for yourself or promoting something for the broader community, think back to Jim Brady and his quip about how decisions are made. And consider the consequences not just of the decision but the way it was decided.

Thanks, Jim. Just one more item to add to your list of lifetime gifts to us.


Piketty, Poverty, Political Pooh

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has led to a flurry of articles and debates about whether that war succeeded. That debate has been reenergized by Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty First Century, which argues that inequality is rising because returns to capital have risen relative to average economic growth. A solution to this inexorable force, Piketty claims, lies in some form of worldwide wealth tax.

In both cases, I find the political debate largely unproductive. Many conservatives and liberals pick at pieces of data and history to support their own forgone conclusions. Rather than seek practical margins for making progress, much of the discussion turns to thumbs up/thumbs down rhetoric or totally impractical solutions.

Here’s how the data play out. Since the late 1970s, market-based measures of poverty and the distribution of income (that is, measures of income before taking account of government redistribution through taxes and transfers) improved very little in the first case and got worse in the second. Both did much better a few decades earlier, including up to the mid-1970s. PIketty bases his broad historical conclusions about growing inequality largely on market measures. In turn, researchers ranging from Gary Burtless at Brookings to Tim Smeeding at Wisconsin to Richard Burkhauser at Cornell to Diana Furchgott-Roth and Scott Winship at the Manhattan Institute have shown greater reductions in poverty and less growth in inequality of income or consumption when market-based income is adjusted for government taxes and transfers.

These two different ways of looking at the data make for strange bedfellows as the debate turns political. Conservative critics of the War on Poverty combine with liberal world-always-getting-worse warriors, who like to cite Piketty, to form conclusions based largely on the before-tax, before-transfer measures. They unite to attack the status quo, with one suggesting fewer transfers (the war failed) and the other higher taxes on the rich (the tax system failed). Liberal defenders of social welfare programs and conservative opponents of higher tax rates, in turn, conclude that on an after-tax, after-transfer basis the world is a lot better off than the other side asserts. They defend the status quo.

Here are the statistics that I ponder. In real terms, social welfare spending averaged about $7,500 per household at the time the War on Poverty was declared. By the time that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, spending per household had grown to $15,000. And today it has doubled again from the start of the Reagan administration to about $32,000. (These figures do not even include tax expenditures for social welfare, such as pension, housing, and wage subsidies, which averaged about $7,000 per household in 2013.) Meanwhile, GDP per household grew from about $70,000 in 1964 to nearly $140,000 today.

Over this same 50 years the official thresholds for measuring who is in poverty have not grown one dollar in real terms. These measures, adjusted only for inflation, in a sense, are based on absolute poverty, unadjusted for the new goods and services a growing economy provides or, said another way, for whether a household’s income keeps up with average or median income in the economy. For a family of four, for instance, the nonfarm poverty threshold is crossed when a household’s income falls below roughly $23,550 today, essentially the same level as in 1964. For a single person, the poverty threshold equals $11,490

“Wait a second,” you may think. The government spends far more on social welfare than would be required to give every household support above poverty levels. And in almost every year there have been substantial real increases in the amount of transfers made. Why, then, has the poverty rate not fallen more?

There is no single answer. Here are four pieces of the puzzle:

Huge gains at the top. Inequality in market-based income DID grow substantially since the late 1970s, the period when progress against poverty slowed. The ability of high-income individuals at the top of a winner-take-all economy to capture much of the extra rewards that derive from monopoly or oligopoly settings does help explain some of the stagnation in earnings growth for those with average or low earnings.

It doesn’t explain why the public supports, which have continued to grow, haven’t made greater headway in improving the skills of the population enough that their market incomes would rise more. That brings us to the next three pieces of the puzzle: the extent to which the public money has been spent to help providers, help the middle class, and pay for health care.

Providers. Beneficiaries include providers who have captured large portions of government, not just private market, money. Before you start looking elsewhere, just remember that providers include, among others, doctors, drug manufacturers, social workers, lawyers, lenders, other financial intermediaries, builders, housing officials, software developers, tax preparers, government contractors, and, for that matter, researchers like myself.

The Middle Class. The middle class rather than the poor has also captured very large portions of the social welfare budget, largely in ways that have for decades encouraged them to retire and work less for greater portions of their lives. Early growth in Social Security benefits, for instance, did a good deal to reduce poverty, but in more recent decades has made less progress because growth—the marginal increase in payments—has been concentrated preponderantly on more years of support and higher levels of benefits for everyone, from rich to poor alike. Remember that a program can on average be successful in meeting some objectives, yet still target its incremental budget poorly. Incremental spending in our public retirement programs in the modern age increasingly operates to decrease the market incomes of the middle class and, despite billions of additional dollars spent each and every year, only modestly increases the transfers received by the poor.

Health Care. A large share of the growth in the income of almost everyone but the rich has come not in cash but in the form of government and employer-provided health care and insurance. One-third of per capita income growth in our economy from 1990 to 2010, for instance, went simply to pay for real increases in health care, as average annual health care spending per household from all sources ballooned to approximately $24,000. Measures of both market income (e.g., Piketty) and most measures of after-transfer income (e.g., the official poverty measure) fail altogether to count this major source of income. Yet for many, particularly those below median income, that item has dominated the way their income has grown for perhaps three decades. The CBO has tried very recently to count health insurance received as income in some of their work, but its efforts are an exception to the rule.

These four pieces interlock in various ways. For instance, more years and money in Social Security support, particularly as people live longer, has encouraged the average worker to retire for more than a decade longer than in 1940, when benefits were first paid, thus reducing their market income. Because many of the government’s expenditures on health care have been captured by providers, the public’s gain in benefits comes out to only a fraction of each additional $1 the government spends, while in the private sector cash compensation stagnates to pay for higher costs of health insurance.

In sum, the debate over poverty and inequality deserves renewed attention. However, it provides a quandary to many in both major political parties, who are largely mired in mid-20th century debates and fighting the thumbs-up, thumbs-down battles that blocks improvement from either side. The times beg for a 21st century agenda (an issue I try to address in my new book, Dead Men Ruling).


Dead Men Ruling

A personal note to you, my readers and friends.

My latest book, Dead Men Ruling, is in many ways the most important that I have ever written. I try not only to diagnose the disease that underlies so many of our economic and political problems today, but also to attack the wrong-headed notion that we live in an age of austerity and limited possibility.

Consider: the gross domestic product per household is $141,000 today and is projected, even with slower growth, to reach $168,000 in 10 years. Over that same period under Republican and Democratic budgets alike, government at all levels is likely to increase spending and tax subsidies from $55,000 to around $65,000 per household. Our budget may be terribly allocated, and the way we tax and spend can be quite inequitable, but do these numbers suggest a nation that must continue to turn its back to the ocean of possibilities that lie right at our feet?

I hope you will read Dead Men Ruling. Even more, I hope that you recommend it to friends and elected officials who want to move beyond yesteryear’s stale debates toward a 21st-century agenda—particularly when it comes to promoting opportunity and mobility, prioritizing children and their future, and creating a government that can be both effective and lean.

If you cover the news, are organizing an event, or have a group interested in the book, I can help. Please contact me.

Because I make no money on the book, my motivation is purely aspirational. I strongly believe that the country is at an inevitable turning point, requiring honest leadership. Though it will take time, together we can make that turn well.

At DeadMenRuling.com, you can order copies directly and find many related recommendations, videos, and interviews. As a Government We Deserve reader, you can use discount code KCD4. Or you can use various book venders (including Amazon).

To tease your interest a bit further, I include the preface below.

PREFACE

Low or zero growth in employment… inadequate funds to pay future Social Security and Medicare bills…declining rates of investment… cuts in funding for education and children’s programs…arbitrary sequesters or cutbacks in good and bad programs alike… underfunded pension plans…bankrupt cities…threats not to pay our nation’s debts… inability to reach political compromise…political parties with no real vision for 21st century government.

I’ve come to a strong belief that these and a whole host of seemingly separable economic and political problems are symptoms of a common disease, one unique to our time and shared widely throughout the developed world. Unless that disease and the history of how it spread over time is understood, it’s easy to fall prey to believing in simple but ineffective nostrums, hoping that a cure lies merely in switching political parties or reducing the deficit, expanding our favorite program, or hunkering down to protect it. My first purpose in writing this book is to accurately diagnose that disease so we can attack it at its roots

But my fonder hope is that we reawaken to the extraordinary possibilities that lay right at our feet and restore the American can-do spirit that has prevailed over most of our history. Despite the despairing claims of many, we no more live in an age of austerity than did Americans at the turn into the 20th century with the demise of the frontier. Conditions are ripe to advance opportunity in ways never before possible, including doing for children and the young in this century what the 20th did for senior citizens, yet without abandoning those earlier gains. Recognizing this extraordinary but checked potential is also the secret to breaking the political logjam that, as I will show, was created largely by now dead (and retired) men.

 

 


A Camp-ground for Tax Reform

This post originally appeared on TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog.

By proposing a far-reaching and detailed rewrite of the Revenue Code, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) did something very few elected officials have done in recent years: He stuck out his neck and proposed radical reform. The initial press response has focused on politics and concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to take on the special interests, that there is too much partisan gridlock, and that the plan is going nowhere.

But such responses largely ignore the history of successful reforms and forget that some policymakers do care about policy. If the goal is to conquer a mountain, someone has to start by building a common basecamp.

Almost any major systemic reform that does more than give away money creates losers. Someone always has to pay for whatever new use of resources the reform seeks—in this case, tax rate reduction and a leaner code with fewer complications. But politicians hate identifying losers. We voters punish them for their candor, which is why they nearly always increase deficits to achieve their goals and leave it to a future Congress to identify the losers who pay the bill.

With his full-blown tax reform proposal, Chairman Camp decided to lead and proposed repealing many popular tax breaks. There’s a lot I like and some things I don’t like in his proposal, but the simple fact is that a well-designed comprehensive alternative to current law can change the burden of proof. Change a few items, and each interest group argues that it was unfairly picked on. Put forward an alternative that takes on almost all preferences, and each interest then needs to justify why it deserves special treatment not accorded others.

The prospect for any reform is nil if no leaders do what Camp did and step up to the plate. The process is not one of instant epiphany. Rather it slowly builds support. Those who first propose change may increase the odds of success from 5 percent to 10 percent. Others who follow further improve those odds.  If we reject out of hand all ideas that start with less than a 50 percent chance of success, we’d probably never reform anything.

It often takes modest support by others to move the process forward.  In 1985, President Reagan and House Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski started the legislative process that yielded the Tax Reform Act of 1986 by simply agreeing not to criticize each other while the measure went through committee. Like Speaker Boehner today, Speaker O’Neill wasn’t enthusiastic about reform then, but Rostenkowski was able to proceed anyway.

In 1985, Rostenkowski knew he could pass a Democratic bill. But he knew it would go next to the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee. Each party would have a turn and a final agreement would come from a bipartisan conference committee. If House GOP leaders let Camp mark-up his bill now, Democrats would have their turn, at least this year, in the Senate. At least so far, both President Obama and senior Ways & Means Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI)  have avoided any major criticism of Camp’s plan, but one wonders if Democrats aren’t going to forego an opportunity, once again joining Republicans in deciding in advance that nothing substantial can be done, so it won’t.

Leadership is seldom about achieving results that can be predicted with certainly. More often it requires using your clout to change the process or reframe the debate in ways more likely to serve the public. It’s certainly about more than protecting your party’s incumbents in the next election regardless of the policy consequences.

When I served as economic coordinator and original organizer of the 1984 Treasury study that led to the ’86 Act, it was a time when books declared major tax reform the “impossible dream.”  Sound familiar? In the face of that dispiriting commentary, I tried to encourage the Treasury staff with what I call the “hopper theory” of democracy: the more good things you put in the hopper, the more good things are likely to come out. By this reckoning, Chairman Camp has already won.


Can the Modern Politician Call Us to “Place Our Collective Shoulder to the Wheel”?

Whom do we remember as our greatest presidents? Often, the ones who call us to act on a higher plane, to be more than we have been. Some leaders stand out in every list: Washington, who led us through a treacherous beginning; Lincoln, who saved the nation; and FDR, who led us against perhaps the most evil axis of nations in history. But let’s add others: Truman, with his leadership on the Marshall Plan and postwar communist containment; and Jefferson, with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Similarly, when we think about which rhetoric inspires us, we don’t usually quote the language used to back the latest farm bill or tax break. Ever undergo the emotional transition at the Lincoln memorial from feeling touristy and tepid outside this behemoth boulder building, to turning teary as you read the second inaugural address? You may not have noticed, but one line in that address mentions a new government program:

 Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Did you find it? Look again at how it’s worded. Lincoln didn’t promise that he would do something for widows and orphans; he called us to add that task to the many sacrifices we still needed to make.

Now consider President Obama’s State of the Union address. I don’t mean to pick on it, as it largely followed the format to which for several decades we have become accustomed. Its emotional high point wasn’t when he listed all his proposals but, at the end, when he extolled the sacrifices of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.

Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress—to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Remsburg, by the way, was on this tenth tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, when his life underwent dramatic upheaval.

Now consider what the president and his Republican counterparts, in their follow-up addresses, ask of us. For the most part, to accept more goodies: more benefits or fewer taxes somehow paid for by someone else. Fortunately, they tell us, we don’t have to put our shoulder to the wheel of progress; we only need to move aside others who block it from rolling forward.

Therein lies a great tragedy of politics and one of the greatest threats to the functioning of democratic government: politicians’ need to tell us about all the great things they will do for us, usually combined with their plodding efforts to tell us that the source of our nation’s problems is those who don’t agree with us. And the great focus they place on “I,” as in I—not you, not we—am going to make all these good things happen. Try to find “I” in Lincoln’s great addresses.

Yes, I recognize that few politicians can win elections without playing this game. Still, I don’t find myself inspired by the tax cuts or extra government benefits I might receive. I’m not moved by the call for others to sacrifice for me. I’m not motivated to do more for posterity by contemplating what you should be doing.

I’m not suggesting that sacrifice has merit in and of itself. When we make such efforts, we do so because we expect that society will benefit in the long run. But not now, when we must give up our time or energy or resources at building that better world. And not necessarily us.

One of the most popular Old Testament verses, sung and read repeatedly in churches and synagogues, comes from the most quoted of all of the Hebrew prophets:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

Even if we continually vote out of office any politician who asks us to sacrifice something to make the world a bit better off, we still want to be called. We want collectively to put our shoulder to the wheel. Thanks, Cory. I hope I have half the courage in dealing with these mundane issues that you display in dealing with life and death.


Finding an Opportune Way to Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit

President Obama announced only one major new proposal during last night’s State of the Union address. Here’s what he said:

I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it [the EITC] doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids. So let’s work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead.

Having worked on the EITC and other wage subsidies for a long time (and having introduced them at a crucial stage of tax reform efforts in the 1980s), I say it’s about time they were back on the table. Particularly since the onset of the Great Recession, policy discussions around helping those with lower incomes have focused on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and government-subsidized health insurance. Employment needs to move toward the front of our public policy agenda.

As necessary as these other social safety net programs might be—and am not trying to assess their merit here—they generally do not encourage people to stay in the workforce. Like the welfare of old, before the onset of reform of what then was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), they provide the greatest benefit to those who do not work at all.  While it’s debatable whether a simple EITC expansion increases total labor supply, there is almost no doubt that per dollar of cost it increases employment more than many other social welfare provisions.

Employment has been a vexing and growing challenge for the American economy. The share of all adults who work—also called the employment rate— was declining even before the Great Recession, particularly among the young and the near-elderly. Indeed, a declining employment rate represents a far bigger and longer-term issue than unemployment, since the NON-employment rate includes both those who are unemployed and those who drop out of or never join the labor force.

Concern over employment makes wage subsidies fertile ground for bipartisan consensus, if—and this is a big “if” in these partisan times—both sides can claim victory from the deal.

Consider the history the EITC. Almost every president since Richard Nixon has signed legislation establishing the EITC, expanding it, or making some provisions permanent. And it’s been bipartisan. The  initial enactment and the largest increases all occurred under Republicans—Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, while the expansion during the Democratic Clinton administration was also quite significant.

Many who backed these legislative changes did not view the credit in isolation. They often favored it over some alternative—welfare for Senator Russell Long (the EITC’s first champion) and a minimum wage increase for President George H.W. Bush. Or they accepted the EITC as part of a broader tax or budget package. The EITC was never the subject of stand-alone legislative action.

That leads us to today, and what compromises might be supported by both political parties. I suggest two possibilities.

One, following our historical pattern, is to expand the EITC as an alternative to other efforts. At some point, recession-led unemployment insurance expansions will end. A bill to increase the minimum wage might go nowhere. Might an expanded wage subsidy be a compromise?  A broader tax or budget bill always presents possibilities. The EITC offers one way to mitigate the net impact on lower-income populations, whether offsetting  losses from new deficit reduction efforts, or ongoing cutbacks due to sequestration or dwindling appropriations.

The other is to tweak the EITC so it interacts better with other policy goals, such as reductions in marriage penalties—a cause often advocated by Republicans. The childless single workers identified by the president are not the only ones left out of any significant wage support. So also are many low-income married workers. Despite recent changes, the EITC still creates marriage penalties, particularly if a low-wage worker marries into a household already receiving the maximum credit. Such a low-wage worker often fares worse than a single person who gets nothing or almost nothing: once added to the household, the additional worker’s income can phase out his partner’s’ EITC benefits and reduce or eliminate any previous eligibility for other public benefits. Current government policy announces that it is more advantageous to stay unmarried.

Simply expand the current, very small, credit for childless single people, and marriage penalties would multiply in spades. I suggest including in any expansion low-wage workers who decide to marry or stay married, not only those single persons left out. Such an expansion would proceed largely along the same lines as the president’s, but also reduce marriage penalties .

In sum, the president’s best path to bipartisan support for the EITC is to stress more policies that favor employment, offer the expansion as a compromise from other efforts less favored by his opposition, and reduce marriage penalties.