Thursday, December 9, 2010

Obamanomics Takes a Holiday: Two-year tax reprieve is far from ideal.

Obamanomics Takes a Holiday
A two-year tax reprieve is better than current law but far from ideal. The tax deal is at best a transition from the failure of Obamanomics to what we hope is a better growth agenda.

Does President Obama like or loathe the two-year tax deal he has struck with Republicans? It was hard to tell from his grudging, testy remarks Monday and yesterday, but perhaps that's because he realizes he is repudiating the heart and soul of Obamanomics as the price of giving himself a chance at a second term.

In accepting the deal to cut payroll and business taxes and extend all of the Bush-era tax rates through 2012, Mr. Obama has implicitly admitted that his economic strategy has flopped. He is acknowledging that tax rates matter to growth, that treating business like robber barons has hurt investment and hiring, and that tax cuts are superior to spending as stimulus. It took 9.8% unemployment and a loss of 63 House seats for this education to sink in, but the country will benefit.


In this sense, the political symbolism is as important as the policy. Mr. Obama is signaling that businesses must be encouraged to make profits again so they can hire more workers, that "the rich" he so maligns should be able to keep more of what they earn, and even that wealth built up over a lifetime shouldn't be confiscated wholesale at death. In policy if not in Presidential rhetoric, class war and income redistribution are taking a two-year holiday.

This is not to say the deal is optimal for economic growth, and Republicans should not pretend it is. A two-year reprieve is far better than an immediate tax increase amid a still fragile recovery, but it also means that the policy uncertainty is carried forward. In the Keynesian universe, "temporary" tax cuts are virtuous because they stimulate immediately while ostensibly allowing government to reclaim the revenue later when the economy is stronger.

In the real world, businesses make investments based on the estimated return on capital over time, including the expected tax rate. What matters is the overall cost of, and return on, capital. The temporary nature of the tax cuts will provide less incentive to invest than would permanent reductions in the cost of capital. (See Messrs. Cooley and Ohanian nearby.)

The provision to allow business a 100% expensing deduction for 2011, and 50% in 2012, will help growth in those years. But it will do so in part by pulling investment forward from 2013. This is good for President Obama's re-election chances, but not so good for increasing the permanent level of business investment.

The same goes for the temporary cut in the payroll tax in the name of encouraging more hiring. The one-year cut to 4.2% from 6.2% in the employee portion of the Social Security tax increases the incentive to work. Because it doesn't favor some workers over others, it is also superior to the tax credits that Democrats wanted. But the proposal does nothing to reduce employer costs, even as ObamaCare is raising those costs as its mandates and regulations take effect.

This incentive to work also conflicts with the disincentive to work provided by another extension in jobless benefits. The deal's 13-month extension will cost taxpayers about $56 billion. As economist Larry Summers noted before he joined the White House, every jobless person has a "reservation wage," or the minimum wage he'll accept to take a job. The jobless rate will thus stay higher for longer as benefits induce some people to hold out for a better job than those that are available.

Another half-victory is the provision to set the estate tax at 35%, with an exclusion of $5 million. The rate was set to return to 55% with a $1 million exclusion on January 1, and Mr. Obama had wanted 45%. While the 35% rate also lasts only two years, the level of bipartisan support will make this rate politically difficult to increase even if Mr. Obama wins re-election. Meanwhile, Republicans can continue to campaign for repeal of this immoral tax on a lifetime of thrift.

Should Republicans have held out for more, since they would return in January with a stronger position? We wish they had won a longer extension, kicking the next possible tax hike further into the future. As it is, Mr. Obama made clear on Monday that he'll try again to raise taxes in 2013, figuring he'll be politically stronger if the economy improves. The growth policy victories here are partial and temporary.

Yet this deal is superior to anything we could have imagined six months ago. Much credit goes to Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans for holding together against the class war attacks of Chuck Schumer and other Democrats. By holding firm, they divided the opposition. This proves again that Republicans win the economic debate when they make the case for lower taxes for everyone in the name of faster growth and job creation.


They should nonetheless not advertise this deal as an economic panacea. It is at best a transition from the failure of Obamanomics to what we hope is a better growth agenda when it expires in two years. GOP Presidential candidates in particular can explain why this deal improves on the last four years but also where it falls short and how to restore the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s. Tax reform is one promising area for Republicans to tackle in the wake of endorsements by the deficit commission and Mr. Obama's own economic advisory group.

As for Democrats, many and perhaps most in Congress will oppose this deal as an ideological betrayal by Mr. Obama, but it is really an admission of reality. Democrats lost the election because their economic policies failed. Their caterwauling now is mostly short-attention-span theater for the MSNBC crowd. Mr. Obama's heart is still with the left, and he's making it very clear that he'll return to fighting to redistribute income in 2012, but for now he had to dump the Democrats to save his Presidency. As he likes to say, elections have consequences

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