At last night's debate, the mathematical impossibility of the Romney tax plan came up, just as it did during the first Obama-Romney debate, and just as it surely will in the second Obama-Romney debate on Tuesday. The real problem with Romney's proposal, though, isn't just that it's mathematically impossible, but that it's logically strange in one important way nobody seems to have noticed yet, namely that Romney seems to be proposing big tax increases for the wealthy. I'll get to why that is in a minute, but before I do let's review the problem. Since Kevin Drum gave a nice explanation, I'll just steal it:
- Romney has promised a 20 percent across-the-board rate cut, which includes people making over $200,000 per year. This would reduce tax revenues by about $251 billion per year.
- But wait! What about the economic growth this will unleash? That's mostly mythical, but let's bend over backwards here. If you incorporate the growth estimate of one of Romney's advisors, Greg Mankiw, Romney's rate cuts would only cost about $215 billion per year.
- Next, try to pick out a set of deductions and loopholes that can be closed to make up for this revenue loss.
- But wait! Romney hasn't said exactly which deductions he would target. So it's not fair to pick and choose specific deductions. Fine. Instead, let's assume that Romney completely eliminates every single deduction for high earners. All of them. It turns out this would make up $165 billion per year.
- So even under the best possible assumptions, Romney's plan would cut taxes on the rich by $50 billion per year.
- But Romney says he won't cut taxes on the rich.
If you want a lengthier explanation of all this, Josh Barro gives it here. To sum up: Romney's now-emphatic promise that he won't cut taxes for the wealthy ("I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans," he said during his debate with Obama, "So any — any language to the contrary is simply not accurate") is just impossible to keep if he's actually going to also reduce their taxes by 20 percent. And that's where we get to the crazy part. Here's what I would ask Mitt Romney if I had the chance:
You say you want to cut income tax rates for everyone, and pay for every penny by eliminating rich people's deductions and loopholes. So if you're paying for it by getting more money from the rich, that means the rich's taxes are going up. If rich people's taxes were staying the same under your plan, we wouldn't be getting the money to pay for the across-the board rate cut for everyone. You keep saying wealthy people won't see a tax cut, but what you're actually proposing is a tax increase on the wealthy. That being the case, why go through this double bank-shot of cutting the rich's income tax rates, then going after their deductions? If what you're proposing is to raise taxes on the rich, why not just raise taxes on the rich, say by raising their income tax rates?
I suppose if somebody asked Romney this, he'd deliver some convoluted explanation involving tax simplification (a reasonable goal in itself, but beside the point) and the explosion of growth that will come from a tax cut. But that wouldn't make sense either—if all those "job creators" are getting their taxes increased, won't that hamper their ability to do their divine job-creating work? Because as Republicans never tire of telling us, if you raise taxes on job creators, the economy inevitably goes down the toilet.
So how do we account for the logical conundrum of Mitt Romney's tax plan? Someone would have to go back and check, but I'm guessing the whole thing evolved piecemeal, in a combination of actual proposals somebody sat down and worked out, and rhetorical moves Romney made in both planned and extemporaneous contexts. After proposing the 20 percent rate cut, at some point he started promising not to cut taxes for the wealthy because he didn't want to seem like the plutocrat the Obama campaign is making him out to be, and that backed him into a corner he now can't get out of. I haven't seen anybody ask him about the fact that he's actually proposing raising taxes on the rich, even though that's what he's doing. Maybe when someone does, he'll embrace his new populist self.