C’mon, how about some Walter Mondalesque candor from the Obama White House on taxes? Yes, yes, it was 25 years ago this summer that the Democratic presidential candidate self-immolated on the issue at his party’s convention in San Francisco. But surely Americans have become more urbane and sophisticated since then as to what makes for sound economic policy, oui?
Nope. If you had any doubt that higher taxes are still poisonous policy in center-right America, all you had to do was listen to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday. He briskly and precisely walked back the White House from the ambiguous statements made by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers on the Sunday chat shows. “I am reiterating the president’s clear commitment in the clearest terms possible that he’s not raising taxes on those who make less than $250,000 a year,” Gibbs said.
But what’s so clear, Mr. Gibbs? “Commitment” in this context is a schemer’s word, the much-weaker-yet-more-conniving sibling of “guarantee.” Did Broadway Joe express a mushy “clear commitment” to winning the 1969 Super Bowl? Clearly not. In any event, feel free to ignore Gibbs or any other White Housespinmeister who gives the impression that President Obama raising middle-class taxes would be the equivalent of playing himself in a Hollywood biopic — so unlikely as to be fanciful. It’s not and here’s why it will happen eventually:
1) Obama knows the budget math doesn’t work. Put aside today’s budget mess. It’s gospel among center-left wonks (the kind of folks who give Obama economic advice) that structural government spending as a percentage of GDP is headed sharply higher over the long term because of entitlements — and there’s little that can be done about it. The ratio has been around 20 percent or so the past few decades, and number crunchers forecast a sharp rise to 25 percent (best case scenario) to 30 percent (worst case) of GDP over the next few decades. Tax revenues typically hover around 18 percent of GDP. That gap — representing $500 billion to $1 trillion a year — will need to be closed or else cause economic chaos. The possible answers: a) less spending, b) higher tax revenues from higher growth, or c) higher tax revenues from higher rates on the non-wealthy. Oh, and the wonks are convinced “a” is a political impossibility and “b” an economic one. They’re wrong, but that’s what they think.
2) Obama seems to prefer tax hikes to spending cuts. Reduced future healthcare spending needs to be a huge part of the budget solution, and ObamaCare doesn’t make the grade at this point. Right now the various Obamacrat plans actually make things worse by failing to “bend the curve.” What’s more, Obama has proposed nothing as president to make Social Security solvent. And during the campaign, his preferred fix was higher payroll taxes rather than commonsense measures like extending the retirement age or changing how benefits are calculated. Of course, Obama has also proposed raising income, investment, corporate and energy taxes. Cut spending or raise taxes – for Obama it’s an easy pick, unfortunately.
3) Obama has already tried raising taxes. Let’s, for the sake of argument, ignore the increased federal cigarette tax that would certainly seem to be a violation of Obama’s tax pledge. Call it a misdemeanor offense. But what about his cap-and-trade proposal, a de facto energy tax on everyone? Before the plan was modified in the House, the White House expected the plan to bring in some $80 billion a year from 2012 to 2019 by auctioning off carbon emission permits (probably to pay for healthcare reform). And making energy more costly is as about as broad-based a tax as you can get.
4) Obama’s advisers are for higher taxes. Let’s review, for example, what White House economic adviser and guru Larry Summers said on Sunday about tax hikes: “There is a lot that can happen over time. It is never a good idea to absolutely rule things out no matter what.” Indeed, Summers won’t rule it out because he thinks all the Bush tax cuts need to go, not just the ones for so-called rich folks. Here is Summers from earlier this year on Meet the Press when he put no qualifiers on letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2010: “I don’t think there’s any question they have to be repealed. The country can’t afford them for the long run. … They can’t be, they can’t be part of the long-run budget picture.” Not for anyone, it seems.
5) Obama doesn’t seem to think high taxes are harmful. Think about this: Not only was the top income tax rate a stratospheric 70 percent when President Reagan took office in1981, the tax code was not indexed to inflation. A lethal combo for economic growth. But here’s what Obama wrote about the Reagan tax cuts in The Audacity of Hope: “The high marginal tax rates that existed when Reagan took office may not have curbed incentives to work or invest, but they did distort investment decisions — and did lead to the wasteful industry of setting up tax shelters.” That’s it! Heavens, if Obama doesn’t think the pre-Reagan tax code wasn’t a disincentive to working, saving and investing, is there any tax system that he would find anti-growth?
Bottom line: The belief in the need for higher, European-style taxes (like a VAT) fills the policy cloud that surrounds Obama. It’s hard to overstate this. It’s right up there with global warming. Obama knows he faces a looming fiscal crisis and higher taxes will be his weapon of choice. To paraphrase Mondale, “Obama will raise middle-class taxes. He won’t tell you (yet). I just did.