« Treasury Secretary John Snow Goes Off Message | Main | Nouriel Roubini Is Becoming a Brand »

April 11, 2005

Edmund Andrews Covers the Bush Administration Clown Show

I remember, during a debate with Michael Boskin at Stanford in October 2000, that either most of the proposed Bush tax cuts really weren't there--because they would be clawed back by the Alternative Minimum Tax--or the Bush tax cuts were a much greater threat to the fiscal stability of the American government than the Bush campaign was claiming.

Edmund Andrews reports:

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Economic View: A Tax Increase That Bush Didn't Mention: Baffling in its complexity and often bizarre in its impact, the alternative minimum tax is a giant undeclared tax increase that will ensnare tens of millions of moderate-income families in the next several years. It was created in 1969 to prevent the very rich from using tax deductions to avoid paying a fair share of taxes. But when the deadline for filing income tax returns arrives on Friday, the alternative minimum tax will require 2.9 million families to pay an average of about $6,000 more than what they would owe under traditional calculations

That is just the start. If current law remains unchanged, the alternative minimum tax is expected to wring an extra $33.9 billion from 18 million households in 2006. In 2010, it will rake in an additional $100 billion, and by 2015 an extra $200 billion. Make no mistake: no one says they want that to happen. But it is one thing to rein in or eliminate the tax itself, and an entirely different matter to give up the money that it would generate. President Bush has promised to fix the alternative minimum tax as part a fundamental overhaul of the tax code, and he has ordered a bipartisan advisory panel to come up with recommendations by the end of July.

But in giving the panel its marching orders, White House officials made it clear that they are counting on the extra money regardless of what happens to the alternative tax. Under the president's instructions, the panel's recommendations on addressing the alternative minimum tax are supposed to be 'revenue neutral,' neither raising nor lowering taxes, and to assume that his income-tax cuts will be made permanent rather than expire in 2010, as required under current law. Making those ordinary income-tax cuts permanent would reduce the amount of available revenue by about $1.8 trillion over 10 years. But White House officials told the panel that any change to reduce or eliminate the alternative minimum tax would have to be offset by higher taxes someplace else.

'My understanding is that any reform in the A.M.T. that loses money would have to be made up with offsetting revenue,' said Elizabeth Garrett, a panel member and a professor of law at the University of Southern California. Jeffrey F. Kupfer, executive director of the tax panel and a former Treasury official, confirmed that interpretation. 'Our mandate is to be revenue-neutral, and we are interpreting that with respect to the president's policy baseline, which does not include a permanent fix to the A.M.T.,' he said in an interview last week.

Tax experts have long complained that the alternative minimum tax is a 'stealth tax increase,' one that Congress never intended and that is likely to catch millions of taxpayers by surprise. But a tax increase through tax reform could be even stealthier. If the alternative tax is reduced, the offsetting revenue increases are likely to be buried in so many other changes that most people would never know what hit them. Seen or unseen, the looming tax increases are almost as large as the president's tax cuts. Leonard E. Burman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, estimated that the government would have to raise ordinary income tax rates substantially in every bracket to offset the money lost in each bracket by the elimination of the alternative minimum tax. People in today's 28 percent bracket, for example, would have to pay a top rate of 35 percent. Those who now pay a top rate of 33 percent would pay 41.4 percent.

'The A.M.T. is a huge tax increase built into current law,' Mr. Burman said. 'What the current law assumes is that over time we move to a tax that is much less progressive, that has atrocious marriage penalties and penalizes people with children who live in high-tax states.'

Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, said the administration's goal was to prevent a hidden tax increase by replacing the alternative tax with something that was easier to understand and more predictable. 'What we are trying to do is prevent a stealth tax that sneaks up on you,' he said. 'If we don't do something, millions of Americans will be facing unanticipated tax increases.'

I really don't know what to do with a Treasury Spokesman who is "shocked, shocked" that the tax code contains an AMT--other than to laugh.

Posted by DeLong at April 11, 2005 01:31 PM