The United States might well be headed for a double-dip recession regardless of who wins the presidential election in November. Two years ago, President Obama convened a bipartisan commission to examine ways to deal with the ballooning federal debt. The Simpson-Bowles commission recommended a variety of fixes including spending cuts and tax reform, but Congress and the president could not agree. The result of the stalemate was a compromise in which automatic spending cuts and tax increases were slated to go into effect on January 1, 2013 if Congress did not act. Now, three months away from the deadline, it appears likely that the doomsday plan will become reality.
It has been called “the tax cliff” or “Taxmageddon.” Regardless of the name, the approaching tax increases represent a significant threat to the already fragile economy. According to a new report released this week by the liberal Tax Policy Center, nearly every tax cut passed since 2001 will expire at once leading to double or triple digit increases on January 1. Taxes will go up an average of $3,500. Nine out of ten Americans will see their taxes increase.
First, there is the expiration of the low Bush-era tax rates which will increase income tax rates for almost all Americans. The top marginal rate will increase from 35 to an effective rate of 39.6 percent. Without action from Congress, rates for lower tax brackets will also increase so middle and lower income taxpayers will also see increases. Many Americans who currently have no tax liability would have to start paying taxes again. The marriage penalty would return.
Second, the capital gains tax will increase from 15 percent to 23.8 percent. This is an increase of more than 38 percent. History has shown that the increasing the capital gains tax discourages investment and businesses seek tax shelters to protect their cash. According to the Wall Street Journal, rate reductions in the capital gains tax in 1978, 1981, 1997 and 2003 helped fuel the tech boom of the 1980s and 1990s and spurred the growth of companies like Wal-mart, Home Depot, Apple and Google.
Third, the dividend tax is slated to increase from 15 percent to 43.8 percent, the same rate as ordinary income. This means that the tax rate for dividends is increasing by a margin of 192 percent in spite of the fact that dividends have already been taxed as corporate income. The U.S. corporate tax rate is already the highest in the world. The dramatic increase in the dividend tax will be a shock to the economic system that will discourage investment in American companies.
Finally, the death tax will increase from 35 percent to 55 percent, a 57 percent increase. The increase in the death tax includes a double whammy since, at the same time the tax rate increases, the exemption for gift and estate taxes will be lowered from $5.12 million per person to $1 million. This means that not only do heirs and recipients have to pay a higher rate on gifts or inheritances, but more of the money in question is taxable. The death tax also represents double taxation since money in an estate or given as a gift has already been taxed as income, capital gains, or dividends.
If Mitt Romney wins the election, his tax reform plan calls for lowering tax rates across the board and simplifying taxes by eliminating some deductions that favor certain categories of taxpayers or businesses. Romney would keep the current 15 percent rate for capital gains and dividend taxes and would eliminate the death tax entirely.
President Obama would keep current rates for the middle class and lower income taxpayers, but would increase rates on taxpayers who earn more than $217,000. The president’s plan would also increase taxes on dividends, capital gains, and estates. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, President Obama would increase the dividend tax rate to 43.4 percent, the capital gains tax rate to 30 percent, and the death tax to 45 percent.
The rub lies in President Obama’s desire to raise taxes on the wealthy to help pay for the increased spending of his administration. Republicans as well as many Democrats believe that increasing taxes would destroy the recovery and plunge the country back into recession. While some Democrats have indicated a willingness to compromise to avoid the tax cliff, others, including President Obama, have drawn a line in the sand against extending the current low tax rates for the wealthy. Some Democrats have even spoken in favor of allowing the automatic tax increases to go into effect for Americans of all incomes.
Most analysts believe that a compromise to stave off the looming tax increases is unlikely before the election. The Republican base will not accede to any tax increases while the Democratic base is adamant about the need to force the wealthy to pay their “fair share.” Fears of alienating supporters mean that neither side is likely to budge until after the results of the election are determined.
Compromise may be elusive even after the election. President Obama will still be president and the Democrats will still control the senate for almost three weeks after the tax increases go into effect. If President Obama and the Democrats win the election, they will not see a need to compromise since they will be able to hold out and then craft their own bill. Likewise, if the Romney and the Republicans win the election, President Obama and the Democrats may see the doomsday tax hikes as their only means of getting the tax increases on the wealthy that they spent the last two years pushing for. If the tax hikes go into effect and the economy crashes, they can blame President Romney and the Republicans who will be taking office just as Americans are feeling the effects of the Taxmageddon.
Recent reports in the New York Times indicate that congressional leaders are hoping to work out a compromise in the post-election “lame duck” session. By then it may too late to avoid much of the damage however. The Washington Post notes that uncertainty and the inability to plan for the future is already having a negative impact on businesses. Investments and expansion plans are being postponed until the true shape of the tax climate can be determined. More and more businesses are deferring investment until after the election or the first of the year, making a significant recovery unlikely for months.
Originally published on Examiner.com: