Can We Solve Our Fiscal Problems by Taxing the Rich? I. The Third Way

“I enjoy your blogs and always look forward to the next one.”
“I am amazed when listening to my liberal friends, who could care less about any of the arguments you are making. Their basic belief is that any deficit can be solved in short order by simply raising taxes on the rich. One of these friends just bought a home in Palm Springs and came back declaring, ” Jerry Brown solved the financial problem in California. He raised taxes on the rich and the deficit is gone. California no longer has a financial problem.” He then went on to say that with 40 million people, California will set a good example for the country. After listening to this, I think you should address the issue of why simply increasing taxes will never work. I would start with Simpson Bowles and then go on to more recent findings. I think this argument has to be made over and over again. There are precious few Democrats who think we have a serious or fundamental financial problem that cannot be solved by simply raising taxes on the rich. I believe Obama is leading the charge.”

One response to this argument is provided by the President, Jon Cowan, and the Senior Vice President for Policy, Jim Kessler, of the Third Way, a center-left think tank, in a June 2013 memo, “The Four Fiscal Fantasies” .

  • Fantasy #1: Taxing the rich solves our problems.

Mr. Cowan and Mr. Kessler look at a plan that “completely soaks the rich.”  They stipulate that the top tax rate increases ten points to 49.6%.  They impose the Buffett Rule requiring all millionaires to pay at least 30% in taxes (after deductions).  They raise the estate tax to allow a $3.5 million exemption with a 45% rate.  “If we leave entitlements on auto-pilot in this scenario, our deficit in 2030 will be close to a stunning $1.3 trillion in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars.”
The authors then show that to keep our finances even roughly in check, a middle income family with a $65,000 income, for example, would have to pay several thousand dollars a year in new taxes.
Conclusion:  We cannot keep entitlements on auto-pilot.  Something has to give!

The Four Fiscal Fantasies

Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler from the Third Way think tank have just written a new article, “The Four Fiscal Fantasies”, in which they address our country’s current fiscal situation from a point of view which is sympathetic to, but critical of, the left.

  • Fantasy #1:  Taxing the rich solves our problems.
  • Fantasy #2:  We can have it all.
  • Fantasy #3:  Waiting is benign.
  • Fantasy #4:  The politics get better.

These four fantasies are fairly self-explanatory.  The solution they propose for the long term insolvency of Social Security is an at least partial lifting of the FICA cap as well as chain-weighting of the CPI.  These are both good ideas.
Their solution to looming Medicare insolvency is to trim costs in the current program with, for example: bundled payments, medical homes for end-of-life, a permanent fix for the Sustainable Growth Rate (doc fix), reducing duplicative care, increasing provider coordination, etc.  This however is a band aid approach to getting Medicare costs under control.  We need far greater and more fundamental changes in our entire healthcare system, public and private.  Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy have a plan to do this which I have discussed in my June 5, 2013 blog post, “Free Market Healthcare in America”.
With respect to discretionary spending in the federal budget, Mr. Cowan and Mr. Kessler propose several specific budget cuts in order to boost spending for other programs for kids, science, research, curing disease, infrastructure, etc.  Savings in one area would be spent on investments in other areas rather than being used for reducing the deficit.
To me this whole program represents a step in the right direction even though it does not come close to all of the changes that will be needed to shrink the deficit down to zero.  If national Democratic leaders would propose this sort of a program, it would force Republican leaders to take it seriously and would therefore break the current logjam in Congress.