Jeff Gelles: Trying to figure out Romney's figures

Posted: October 15, 2012

It was just four years ago - yeah, I know, it seems like ancient history - when Rahm Emanuel uttered his famous dictum that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Though the line has been skewered ever since, Emanuel was hardly whispering conspiratorially. He was speaking at a forum for corporate CEOs.

Love them or hate them, you have to credit President Obama and his party for plowing forward as promised - for making use of the historic economic crisis they inherited.

And as you weigh your choice in next month's voting, you should expect GOP nominee Mitt Romney and a Republican Congress to do much the same if elected - good reason to closely consider Romney's promises, particularly his central economic proposal: nearly $5 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years, including a 20 percent across-the-board cut in income-tax rates, that would be paid for, well, somehow.

Romney and Obama's contrasting plans for taxes - Obama wants to raise them on higher-income families - reflect major differences in philosophies. And if nothing else, the last four years illustrate why parties' promises and priorities should matter more to voters than the ephemera of campaigns, such as who looked sharp or listless in a debate or who's up or down in the polls.

Although Obama never won the bipartisan support he envisioned, he pursued most of the goals that his soon-to-be chief-of-staff outlined that November day on health care, education, energy, and regulatory reform.

Obama's signature achievement, extending health-care access to the nation's 50 million uninsured, is the largest expansion of America's safety net since Medicare - or will be, if Romney and a Republican Congress don't get a chance to repeal it as promised before it's fully implemented in 2014. To some - on both sides of the debate - that issue alone may be enough to decide how to vote.

But health care is just one of the major issues facing the country after a slump worse than any since the Great Depression. And one of the biggest is the question of what to do about taxes in the face of deep deficits while also trying to encourage growth.

Watching politicians talk about taxes is a little like watching a magician doing card tricks. Even if you watch closely, you may not know enough to catch what you're missing.

As the incumbent, Obama has already shown most of his cards - though that could change if he again pursues a "grand bargain" over taxes and spending to get the nation's long-term finances in order.

Obama wants to extend Bush-era tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 a year but let cuts on high earners expire, as now scheduled, on Jan. 1. If he gets his way, the top rate - charged on annual income above $397,000 - would return to 39.6 percent from today’s 35 percent. And unless Obamacare is repealed, couples with taxable income above $250,000 a year will face a new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on unearned income above that threshold and pay an additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax on wages above $250,000.

Obama has also proposed raising the capital-gains tax rate to 20 percent from its current 15 percent, and imposing a minimum 30 percent tax rate on people who make more than $1 million a year - a proposal he's named the "Buffett Rule" for billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, who famously said it was unfair that he paid an effective tax rate, 17.4 percent, that was less than half the rate paid by his secretary.

And Romney? A month later, the former governor who built a quarter-billion-dollar fortune in private equity delivered the tax proposal his website describes as the "Fairer, Flatter, Simpler" plan.

Its centerpiece is the 20 percent across-the-board cut in income-tax rates, which would reduce the top rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, offset by unspecified "base broadeners" - elimination of deductions, exemptions and other preferences - that Romney says would ensure that the rate cuts don't blow up the deficit. He also proposes three other key cuts: repealing the federal estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and eliminating all taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes below $200,000.

When he proposed his plan in February, Romney said it would cut taxes by 20 percent for everybody, "including the top 1 percent." But he has since made a remarkable set of promises. At his first debate with Obama, Romney said the plan would simultaneously "lower taxes on middle-income families" and "not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans," all without the stain of more red ink.

Those promises have led to a high-profile debate over the math behind his plan, not just with Obama but with experts at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

The center says that under any reasonable set of assumptions - including a spur in growth from cutting top rates paid by the wealthy taxpayers Romney likes to call "job creators" - Romney's plan would have to raise taxes on middle-class families to stay revenue neutral. It estimated that the average family earning less than $200,000 would pay about $2,000 more a year. Even tweaking the numbers with extra broadeners, such as ending the tax break for municipal-bond investments, can't make them add up.

In Thursday's debate with Vice President Joe Biden, Paul Ryan echoed Romney's claim that the Tax Policy Center's findings had been refuted. "Six studies have guaranteed - six studies have verified that this math adds up," Ryan said.

The trouble is, it really doesn't, says economist William G. Gale, one of the authors of the Tax Policy Center analysis. And one reason is that Romney has vowed to maintain one of the biggest preferences aiding high-income households: the favored treatment of capital gains - a preference that Ronald Reagan's vaunted 1986 tax reform eliminated until lobbying won it back, and that allowed Romney and his wife to pay an effective rate last year of 14.1 percent on $13.7 million in taxable income.

"There's a tendency for these arguments to get very complicated, and the basic story is very simple," says Gale, who likens it to claiming you can drive cross-country in 15 hours without speeding. "You can't get there from here."

Does that mean you should ignore or discount the plan? Not at all. You can tell a lot by a politician's priorities. In this crisis, Romney has gravitated to his party's perennial solution - tax cuts - in a form that would benefit taxpayers a lot like himself.

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or

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