The Real Problem with Obama's Tax Plan

Although Senator Barack Obama promises a tax plan that will benefit the middle class, his new tax credits fail to provide adequate incentives for harnessing economic growth. High marginal tax rates, brought about by new tax credit phase-outs, will discourage work and saving activity and will lead to a less productive economy.

Research Fellow
Alex Brill
Visiting Scholar
Arthur C. Brooks
Resident Scholar
Alan D. Viard
We've heard a lot this month about how Senator Barack Obama's tax plans would affect Joe the Plumber--the Ohio man who recently asked the Democratic nominee whether Obama planned to raise his taxes. Opponents of Obama seized on the incident to argue that his middle-class tax cuts are a scam. Some have even claimed that he has proposed tax increases for people with incomes as low as $32,000. Obama's supporters responded that the tax cuts are real (and noted that Joe is not a licensed plumber). The entire episode has only added to the confusion over what Obama is proposing for middle-class taxes.

How should an honest fiscal conservative see the situation? For those making less than roughly $200,000 ($250,000 for couples), Obama would not only make President Bush's tax cuts permanent but would also offer an array of new tax credits. Nobody should deny this.

If rewards for America's entrepreneurs and firms are reduced through higher marginal tax rates, their incentives to earn, invest and create jobs will be diminished.

To be sure, these "tax cuts" contain some sleight of hand. More than $400 billion of the money over the next 10 years would take the form of refundable tax credits paid in cash to people who already pay no federal income tax. It would be more accurate to refer to these cash outlays as cuts in payroll tax or--even more accurately--as transfer payments. Regardless of what the credits are called, though, they would put more money in the pockets of some American families. That sounds great in these tough economic times. Who can be against a boost to spending power and consumption?

We can. While a few of Obama's proposals may be sensible, the overall package would be bad for the economy. Unlike rate cuts for high incomes or reductions in investment taxes, most of Obama's proposed tax cuts would do little to reduce the tax penalty on work and saving. For some households, the penalty on work and saving would even increase because the new tax credits would be phased out as income rises. These proposals wouldn't deliver the economic growth that incentive-based tax cuts would.

Furthermore, there is no free lunch. Obama's middle-class tax relief would have to be paid for, either now or later. Middle-class tax cuts might make sense if they were paid for by spending cuts, but that is not Obama's plan. Like his opponent, Obama points to vague savings from reducing waste, the kind of savings that never seem to materialize. He also hopes to reap savings by accelerating our redeployment from Iraq, a project with an uncertain fiscal impact. At the same time, he proposes a wave of new spending on health-care, education, energy and infrastructure programs and declares his opposition to reforms that would reduce the growth of Social Security and other entitlement benefits.

So where would the money come from for the tax cuts and new spending? Largely from raising other taxes: the ones that have the biggest impact on economic growth. Obama would let key parts of the Bush tax cuts expire, causing the top tax rate on ordinary income to go back to 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent today. The capital gains and dividend tax rates would rise to 20 percent from today's 15 percent. Obama might also impose Social Security tax at a rate of up to 4 percent on wages and self-employment income above $250,000, starting in 2019.

These tax increases are not as bad as some Obama statements during the Democratic primaries suggested they would be, and they fall well short of what some of his conservative critics claim. For example, Obama does not propose to tax dividends at 40 percent or to impose the full 12.4 percent Social Security tax on high earners.

His real proposals, however, would still be plenty damaging. If rewards for America's entrepreneurs and firms are reduced through higher marginal tax rates, their incentives to earn, invest and create jobs will be diminished. Americans will have less incentive to save, and firms will have less incentive to pay dividends. Tax avoidance will become more profitable. A smaller capital stock will mean a less productive economy and lower wages for middle-class and other workers. These disincentive effects also mean that the revenue gain is likely to be smaller than Obama envisions.

In sum, Obama may very well give Joe the Plumber a tax break, but only if Joe does not become too successful. Obama is offering real tax favors for the middle class, but not real benefits for the economy.

Alan D. Viard is a resident scholar at AEI. Alex Brill is a research fellow at the AEI. Arthur C. Brooks is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Alan D.
  • Alan D. Viard is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies federal tax and budget policy.

    Prior to joining AEI, Viard was a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and an assistant professor of economics at Ohio State University. He has also been a visiting scholar at the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis, a senior economist at the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, and a staff economist at the Joint Committee on Taxation of the US Congress. While at AEI, Viard has also taught public finance at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. Earlier in his career, Viard spent time in Japan as a visiting scholar at Osaka University’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

    A prolific writer, Viard is a frequent contributor to AEI’s “On the Margin” column in Tax Notes and was nominated for Tax Notes’s 2009 Tax Person of the Year. He has also testified before Congress, and his work has been featured in a wide range of publications, including Room for Debate in The New York Times,, Bloomberg, NPR’s Planet Money, and The Hill. Viard is the coauthor of “Progressive Consumption Taxation: The X Tax Revisited” (2012) and “The Real Tax Burden: Beyond Dollars and Cents” (2011), and the editor of “Tax Policy Lessons from the 2000s” (2009).

    Viard received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University and a B.A. in economics from Yale University. He also completed the first year of the J.D. program at the University of Chicago Law School, where he qualified for law review and was awarded the Joseph Henry Beale prize for legal research and writing.
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  • Alex Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies the impact of tax policy on the US economy as well as the fiscal, economic, and political consequences of tax, budget, health care, retirement security, and trade policies. He also works on health care reform, pharmaceutical spending and drug innovation, and unemployment insurance reform. Brill is the author of a pro-growth proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and “The Real Tax Burden: More than Dollars and Cents” (2011), coauthored with Alan D. Viard. He has testified numerous times before Congress on tax policy, labor markets and unemployment insurance, Social Security reform, fiscal stimulus, the manufacturing sector, and biologic drug competition.

    Before joining AEI, Brill served as the policy director and chief economist of the House Ways and Means Committee. Previously, he served on the staff of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He has also served on the staff of the President's Fiscal Commission (Simpson-Bowles) and the Republican Platform Committee (2008).

    Brill has an M.A. in mathematical finance from Boston University and a B.A. in economics from Tufts University.

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Arthur C.
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.

    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

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