Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Where Are Those New Ideas?

At the end of June, I published a post in which I marveled at Newt Gingrich's reputation as a guy with a lot of ideas, even though there is precious little evidence that he has ever had an innovative idea in his life. Once a media narrative is put in motion, however, it is nearly impossible to dislodge it. We can, therefore, count on being treated to regular reminders of what a smart guy he is, even though he seems to spend most of his time on TV talking about "death panels" and peddling other outright lies and distortions.

Possible evidence to the contrary did, however, show up on the TaxProf blog recently. It seems that Gingrich's new lobbying organization (which has one of those generic names beloved on both sides of the aisle in Washington, combining -- seemingly at random -- words like "future" and "solutions" and "American," but somehow skipping over "freedom" and "liberty" and "progress") has started a petition drive in support of a plan to fight the recession and create jobs, jobs, jobs. Truly a worthy goal. The innovative, breakthrough tax planks of the plan are:

(1) Cut the payroll tax in half for two years,
(2) Abolish the capital gains tax permanently,
(3) Reduce the corporate tax rate, and
(4) Abolish the estate tax. (Not that they used the term "estate tax," of course.)

A few things immediately leap from the screen. First, there is absolutely nothing new in #2-#4. It is always about tax cuts, and it is always about cutting or eliminating these particular taxes. We have even been told that the only proper response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 was to cut the capital gains tax. (For my critique of that bit of opportunism, see here.)

Second, the only thing that seems to vary is whether we are being told that we must reduce or completely abolish capital gains and corporate income taxes, while the estate tax must always be eliminated entirely. Why the difference? We are never told, and even within the economics literature that attempts to measure the supposed damage to the economy of these taxes, there is precious little support for the idea that the estate tax is the worst of all the taxes on capital.

Of course, the heavily-financed public relations campaign against the estate tax has been so successful that, as a political matter, the base (who, one might expect, would be the target of such a petition/fundraiser) is most revved up about eliminating that tax in paricular. What's the matter with Kansas?

Third, the only mildly unusual (but hardly new) proposal is #1, which at least appears to be a cut in taxes on labor rather than capital. Of course, after describing this tax proposal as a "take home pay raise" for all workers -- yet inexplicably and arbitrarily limiting the cut in this tax to two years, rather than a permanent reduction or outright repeal -- Gingrich's group then describes the proposal as a business tax cut: "This would also immediately increase the liquidity of every small business, because there would be more money available to put back into the business and create more jobs."

It is especially interesting that this argument is coming from the people who also tell us that the tax rate that workers pay includes the the employer's half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. (This is part of, for example, those high combined rates of taxation that we sometimes see trumpeted in the news, claiming that people are forced to pay rates of more than 50% on their additional earnings.) If businesses would use the reduced payroll taxes for something other than increasing the take-home pay of workers, that exposes as a fraud the idea that workers really pay the full amount of payroll taxes.

Moreover, if workers will not receive the full amount of the cut in payroll taxes on the business side, why should we expect that they will receive all -- or any -- of the cut in the workers' half of payroll taxes? This is, of course, just an application of the age-old question of "tax incidence." If I am an employer, and I know that my workers are currently willing to work for me at a take-home salary of, say, $30,000/year, why would I let them keep the cut in their half of the payroll tax? I can cut their gross salary and leave them no worse off than before. In an economy with no bargaining power for workers (lack of jobs, jobs, jobs), how could workers complain?

Still, this proposal might be acceptable (though dishonest marketing) if the businesses were to use the money that they keep from the tax cuts actually to create jobs. Unfortunately, the problem in today's economy is not the supply side. Businesses are failing to create jobs because they cannot sell the products that those new workers might produce. Stimulus spending that would generate demand and thus make it worthwhile to hire workers is, of course, not part of the plan.

In fact, and as a fourth and final point, the plan would directly undercut the stimulus by redirecting unspent stimulus money (and remaining TARP funds) to replace the money that the payroll tax cuts would otherwise drain from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Essentially, therefore, the payroll aspect of the tax plan is just a way to tilt the balance ex post between tax cuts and spending in the anti-recessionary policies that have already been adopted.

It is possible, one might suppose, to count as an "idea" a proposal to undermine despised policies by simply repackaging familiar anti-tax rhetoric. If this is the basis for a reputation as an idea man, however, the term is even more degraded and empty than we might have suspected.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


  1. Three quick points:

    1. It's not necessarily a compliment to have ideas. Hitler had ideas. It is a compliment to have good, creative, and constructive ideas.

    2. Gingrich is not especially creative intellectually. But neither is Obama. Everything now being proposed, including national health care, cap and trade, etc. has been around for a long time. They may likewise be good ideas, but they're no newer than what Gingrich is proposing.

    3. On a political level, at least, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Gingrich. He's a survivor, has lots of energy, and at least a patina of intellectual respectability. In today's Washington, that makes you something of a superstar. He may never teach at Harvard, but he might just be president some day.

  2. Michael,

    Although Neil no doubt dislikes the content of what NG is peddling here, I don't read him as primarily making a substantive point. Thus, to date us all, Gary Hart's campaign of "new ideas" was devoid of ideas. And to make your point, Obama's campaign slogans of "Hope" and "Change" were completely empty, as even those of us who strongly supported his candidacy had to admit.

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  4. Professor:

    1. Even if the payroll-tax cuts would not go entirely to employees, surely the employers would not stick it under their mattresses. Even if they passively invested some of the money, would that not stimulate employment?

    2. Why wouldn't cutting taxes and getting the money directly into consumer's hands be more of a stimulus than what the government is doing now? Isn't it one of the problems of the stimulus plan that it takes too long for the money to get through the system?

    3. This isn't that great of a point, but I think it is worth mentioning: even if the tax incidence is such that employers reap the majority of the benefits, aren't employers consumers as well? Wouldn't we need a cost/benefit analysis before concluding that one plan is better than the other?

  5. Anthony's questions are very good -- so good, in fact, that I'm going to write my post for tomorrow morning to answer them.

    Mike Dorf is right that my point re the newness of Gingrich's ideas was not "substantive," i.e., an attack that attaches to his ideas any more than Barack Obama's or Gary Hart's (or Adolf Hitler's, or mine).

    I should add, though, that my critique of the (old) ideas themselves was intended to be quite substantive. That is, they're bad policy ideas, they're unprincipled (even on their own terms), they expose the hypocrisy of Gingrich and his partisans, and they are a poorly disguised Trojan horse.

  6. Michael,

    I think unfortunately that Neal's post is rather consistent with his previous posts on this subject: a combination of high erudition and an almost complete inability to understand how people perceive things differently than he does. Were this merely careerism it would not be so upsetting. But I think he is quite sincere, and it makes me very concerned for the future of discourse on public policy issues in this country.

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