A Philosopher's Blog

Taxes & Loopholes

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2012
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The upcoming election will be, in part, about who voters believe (correctly or not) will be able to restore the economy. Laying aside the matter of perceptions, there is also the question of whether or not the president actually has a significant impact on the economy. However, this question goes beyond the intended scope of this essay.

Obama has, of course, had his first term to create (or destroy) the perception that he can succeed over the next four years. Supporters of Obama point towards the fact that the free-falling economy did not hit the bottom and eventually started recovering. They also claim that the Republican’s main argument is that Obama should be replaced because he failed to clean up their mess fast enough. They add to this that the Republican plan is to return to the approach taken under the Bush administration. If this were true, there would seem to be little reason to believe that the Republicans could achieve something different by doing the same things.

Ryan and Romney were somewhat vague about their proposals, although Ryan believes that  “the secret to economic growth is lower tax rates for families and successful small businesses by plugging loopholes.” Ryan seems to claim that closing the loopholes will impact high-income earners the most since they use the majority of loopholes. Under the current system, this allows them to use the loopholes to shelter their income from taxation. Ryan has also made the point that lowering the tax rates and plugging loopholes will be revenue neutral. That is, the government will receive the same amount of money. This, of course, would seem to require that the loopholes that are closed will generate revenue equivalent to the tax cuts (although one might argue that the economic growth alleged to arise from the tax cuts would also be a factor-this would generate more tax income).

In theory, this could be done-it is, after all, a matter of math as to whether the tax cuts would be offset by the loophole closings. Of course, a proper calculation would require knowing the nature of the tax cuts as well as the loopholes that will supposedly be closed. However, Ryan has been reluctant to reveal the specifics of this plan. He did say that he and Romney intend to “show the framework, show the outlines of these plans, and then to work with Congress to do this.”

Not surprisingly, some critics have accused Romney and Ryan of having a secret plan. Given that critics made a similar point against Obamacare (noting that the idea that we would find out what is in it after it passed seemed problematic), this would certainly have some bite against the Republicans, assuming a consistent stance was taken against not knowing what was in it until it was rather late in the day, so to speak.

Ryan’s counter is that the plan is not a secret one because he wants to resolve the details “with the consent of the elected representatives of the people and figure out what loopholes should stay or go and who should or should not get them.” On one hand, this would not be a secret plan, at least not in the sense of having the hashing out of the actual details in secret (assuming, of course, that the elected officials do not do things in secret-which is often business as usual in political matters). On the other hand, it can be seen as a secret plan in the sense that we will not know what loopholes will be plugged until after the election. This is somewhat like saying that the contents of a wrapped present are not secret on the grounds that the present will eventually be opened in front of people. In this case, all we need to do to see the mystery present opened is to vote for Romney and Ryan. At this point, what might be  under the wrapping paper is a matter of speculation.

While Ryan claims that the majority of loopholes are used by higher income people, without knowing what loopholes will be plugged it is not clear that the majority (or any) of the plugged loopholes will be those that are used primarily by those with higher incomes. After all, there are numerous loopholes that are also used by people with lesser incomes, such as the tax deduction for mortgages. Plugging that loophole would impact more than just higher income people. For all that is known now, the result might be that a significant number of the loopholes that end up being plugged are those that are used by people with lesser incomes. As such, the tax cuts mentioned by Ryan might be balanced by increasing the tax burden of those with lesser incomes. While this would technically not be a tax increase in the sense of an increase in the tax rate, it would be an increase in the amount of taxes that would be paid. After all, in terms of the money a person has to send in to the IRS it matters little whether that increase was due to a tax rate increase or the removal of a previous loophole. Thus, while Ryan seems to be indicating that the tax decrease will be compensated by closing loopholes that are mostly used by the higher income folks, there seems to be no reason to believe that will be the case.

Naturally, it can be predicted that those who will pick the loopholes to close will endeavor to steer clear of closing popular loopholes (since closing them would be politically damaging). It also seems likely that they will avoid the loopholes dear to those with influence over the deciders. This would seem to leave only unpopular loopholes that benefit people with little or no influence. It is somewhat hard to imagine that closing such loopholes would be enough to offset  a significant tax decrease. But perhaps such loopholes exist. Or perhaps the deciders would be able to cut popular loopholes and those used by the influential. Looking at the track record, this seems somewhat unlikely.

Another point worth considering is whether or not this approach would have any effect. After all, if the plan is supposed to be revenue neutral, then the only meaningful impact would seem to be to shift the burden. While Ryan seems to be indicating the shift will be upwards, there is not clear evidence that this will actually be the case. There is also the obvious concern that keeping revenue the same will not, by itself, have any impact on the deficit. If revenues are not increased, this would mean that spending would have to be cut in order to reduce the deficit. Naturally, Ryan has already proposed a budget-one that was condemned by religious leaders as immoral and unpatriotic.  While I sometimes  differ with the Catholic church on matters, I do find their moral arguments against this proposed budget compelling. This might, however, be due to the influence of my Catholic friends and family.

Since I do not actually know what loopholes would be closed under a Romney-Ryan administration, I cannot say with any confidence that this would lead to good or bad results. I do agree with Ryan that there are loopholes that should be closed, although we might differ in the specifics. My inclination is, however, to see the Romney-Ryan plan regarding loopholes for what it is-something I mainly cannot see.

While the Democrats have provided more in terms of specifics, there are still questions about exactly what Obama would do in his second term. More importantly, there is the question of whether or not his plans will work. At this point, however, Obama has a significant edge in terms of details. Also, the new Republican plan that has been revealed seems to be rather similar to the old Republican plan, namely the one in effect when the economy slid into ruin. Romney and Ryan need to offer more if they wish to provide reasons to think that they can do a better job. After all, while the economy is still weak, it is improving. Going on with Obama would thus seem to lead to a continuance of improvement, although perhaps at a slow rate. Going back to the old Republican plan would presumably have the same results as before, namely ruin. As far as the new Republican plan, the details, if not secret, remain ahead in some possible future.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 12, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Here is why Obama does not deserve a second term:

    1) He is a divider, not a uniter. If you disagree with Obama you will be called a racist. Obama even called Bill Clinton a racist at one point. But unlike Clinton, he is unable to work with a Republican Congress.

    2) He is not a gentleman. Examples: giving Hillary the finger, hogging the credit for the killing of Bin Laden.

    3) His foreign policy has not been particularly successful. He did not support the resistance in Iran, but supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Libyans have just killed our ambassador. I guess they are not very grateful that we helped them. Our influence in the Middle East is gone. He has also managed to alienate staunch allies like Canada, Poland, and Israel.

    4) The economy is not improving, not even slowly. We have probably even entered another recession, but won’t know until the numbers are revised after the election. What is required to improve the economy is a big agreement on entitlement reform, taxes, etc. This will not happen with Obama as president because Obama won’t work with the Republicans.

    5) Civil liberties have not improved under Obama.

    6) The war in Afghanistan has not been managed well.

    7) Obama has provided no leadership on deficits. He could have embraced the Simpson-Bowles recommendations, but did not. Obama’s last budget did not even receive a single vote in Congress.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2012 at 11:32 am

      1) While that is a stock talking point, one should also consider the Republicans. After all, they made their goals clear: opposing Obama and ensuring he is a one term president. As far as racism goes, some of the attacks on Obama certainly seem racially based. However, Obama does not seem to have a general policy of deploying the race card against critics.

      2) He seems rather polite. At the very least, I have not seen him yell out an accusation of lying during another person’s speech. As far as hogging the credit, the videos of his speeches show that he clearly mentions everyone else and credits them. There is also the obvious point: if you think he must share credit for his success, then you would need to accept that blame must also be shared.

      3) Bin Laden is dead. Qadaffi is dead. The reputation of the US is better than it was before.

      4) Unemployment is decreasing, jobs are being created, and corporations are making record profits. I think the evidence shows that Republicans will not work with Obama.

      5) True. He has extended the policies Bush began, plus has been extra tough on whistleblowers who expose problems.

      6) True-I oppose the drone assassinations. To be fair to Obama, even Alexander the Great could not win there. No one ever has-so if he has any success, that would be impressive.

      8) He did not do as much as he could have for Simpson-Bowles. However, the narrative that he is to blame is in error-check out the analysis at PolitiFact http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2012/aug/30/ryan-and-simpson-bowles-commission-full-story/

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 12, 2012 at 10:42 pm

        1) Opposition parties oppose. It is what they do. It is what they are supposed to do. When I voted for John Kerry in 2004 I wanted him to make Bush a 1 term president. What is the problem?

        Race card, played:

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm

          Opposition parties do oppose. But, I have two responses. First, if you defend the Republicans on the grounds that they are the opposition party, then the same standards must be applied to the Democrats. After all, they are the opposition party to the Republicans. Second, there is a distinction between opposition and obstructionism. The Republicans have, largely, acted as obstructionists and have been criticized for doing do in ways that are detrimental to the good of the country.

          You’ll need more examples to support the claim that “If you disagree with Obama you will be called a racist.” One is a start, but hardly adequate evidence for such a conditional claim (which can be cast as a categorical claim “All people who disagree with Obama are people who are called racists”). Or do you mean something more limited, such as “Obama once accused Clinton of being a racist”?

          • T. J. Babson said, on September 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm

            Race card, played:

            Ferraro’s Obama Remarks Become Talk of Campaign

            PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic presidential contest was jolted Tuesday by accusations surrounding race and sex, set off by remarks from Geraldine A. Ferraro that Senator Barack Obama had received preferential treatment because he is a black man.

            Ms. Ferraro, the former congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate who backs Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, told The Daily Breeze, a newspaper in Torrance, Calif.: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

            She made the comments last week, but on Tuesday, the Obama camp latched on to them, calling them outrageous and demanding that Mrs. Clinton repudiate them.

            In an interview on Tuesday night, Ms. Ferraro defended her comments and said she was furious with the Obama campaign, accusing it of twisting her words.

            “Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist,” she said. “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white. If they think they’re going to shut up Geraldine Ferraro with that kind of stuff, they don’t know me.”


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

              Okay, you are up to two examples from 2008.

            • T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:26 am

              The point is that if Obama will use the race card against people like Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro, is there any reason to believe that he has not used the race card against the GOP?

          • T. J. Babson said, on September 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm

            Race card, played:

            Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, who became the first African-American to be elected as a U.S. governor since Reconstruction in 1989, told Fox News host Neil Cavuto on Wednesday that the negative tone of President Barack Obama’s campaign is regrettable.

            Wilder singled out Vice President Joe Biden’s remark Tuesday at a rally in Danville, Va. Biden told his heavily African-American audience that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney “is going to put y’all back in chains.”

            Wilder said that type of rhetoric would make it “daunting” for Obama to work with Republicans, if he is able to win re-election. And he noted that Republicans may be poised to take over the Senate as well as holding onto the House.

            Of Biden, Wilder remarked: “Even though he says, ‘I don’t have any regrets about what I’ve said,’ there are others who regret that it was said. And I’m one of them.”


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:26 am

              Okay, now you have one example for Joe Biden-assuming that his intent was to play the race card and it was just not some Joe Biden moment.

              Even assuming all three examples are examples of the race card, that still hardly suffices to establish your original claim.

            • T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:32 am

              Actually, I don’t see why the burden of proof is on me. Obama promised to heal the red-blue divide in the country, and also implicitly promised to make us a post-racial society. He has objectively failed to deliver on his promises.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:53 am

              For which claim?

              True, he did say he was going to heal the divide and that did not occur. However, blame is not a simple matter of “Person A promised P, but P did not occur so A is to blame.” After all, there can be factors that prevented P from occurring that are not fully under the control of A. While Obama failed to bring the Republicans into a bipartisan consensus, it would seem odd to claim that the Republicans had no role in the failure of cooperation. Naturally, the same principle applies uniformly-so, for example, if Romney promises something, gets elected and the Democrats crush his efforts in the Senate, then the blame would not rest fully on Romney.

              I don’t think Obama implicitly promised that he would be able to make the United States post racial. True, some people thought this would happen but the unrealistic expectations of some folks does not make a promise.

              Now, there is a list of promises Obama did make that were in his power to keep. He failed on some of those-PolitiFact has a handy broken/kept/working promise board for him. Overall, he seems to be well within the tolerance range set by past presidents-he does not stand out as a promise breaker. Yes, this same standard of expectation applies to Romney-I expect that if elected he will keep some of his promises, be thwarted in others, and simply break some of them. This is not to say this is right or good, just that it would be unfair to single out a specific president for promise breaking without using a consistent standard of assessment for all of them (in which case they are all promise breakers).

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    “Unemployment is decreasing, jobs are being created, and corporations are making record profits”

    What planet are you living on, Mike? The only reason unemployment is “down” is because people have given up looking for work.

    The economy added 96,000 jobs in August, down from 141,000 jobs in July, the Department of Labor said Friday. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 8.1%, from 8.3% in July.

    Economists polled by CNNMoney were expecting 120,000 jobs to be added in the month, and the unemployment rate to remain unchanged.

    The unemployment rate fell largely because 368,000 people stopped looking for work, many of them young people. Just 63.5% of the working-age population was either employed or actively looking for work — a 30-year low.

    “These numbers are not very strong,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “The job market is improving, but only gradually.”

    At least 150,000 jobs need to be created each month to simply keep pace with the growing population.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      Earth. Third planet out from the sun. The weather is…hot.

      As you note, 96,000 jobs were added. That is certainly an improvement over what was happening during the height of crisis. After all, adding jobs is an improvement over losing jobs. As I said (and LaVorgna said) the economy is slowly improving.

      You do make an excellent point about how the unemployment numbers are calculated. Leaving out people who have given up is certainly misleading. While it does make sense to leave out people who are not looking for work for certain reasons (they are retired, for example) leaving out people who have given up creates a distorted picture of the situation.

      I do wonder what people who give up end up doing to survive. After all, benefits run out after a while and these people will need to find a way to get food, shelter and so on. Do you happen to know how, in general, such people cope with giving up seeking work? Is it a permanent thing or do they give up a while and try later?

      I am still waiting to see some details regarding the Ryan-Romney plan. They have talked about tax cuts and reducing regulation, but that would seem to send us back to the same system that collapsed.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm

        “I am still waiting to see some details regarding the Ryan-Romney plan. They have talked about tax cuts and reducing regulation, but that would seem to send us back to the same system that collapsed.”

        Fair enough. Romney has been the nominee for about 3 weeks and has yet to produce a very detailed plan. He has said he will keep tax rates the same but will cap mortgage interest deductions and charitable deductions. Ryan has produced two budgets that have passed the House, but which never had a chance of passing in the Senate.

        In all honesty, can you tell me how Obama plans to reform entitlements and the tax code? Can you tell me how he plans to reduce the deficit? Where will the money come from? We know he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, but we also know this only puts a small dent in the deficit. What is Obama’s plan? He has been the president for 3.5 years, whereas Romney has been the official nominee for only about 3 weeks, and the unofficial nominee for only a couple of months.

        What is Obama’s plan, Mike? He is the president and is supposed to lead. What is his plan?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

          We have seen his plans-so we know what he did. As far as what he will do, one would expect that he will do similar things. However, while this approach has been keeping the economy afloat and slowly moving towards recovery, it is reasonable to inquire into what he will do differently.

          In the case of Obama, we know more about what he will probably do because we know what he did. Romney also has a record as the governor of Mass., but he seems to have disavowed what he did then so perhaps that is not a good indicator.

          • T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2012 at 10:34 am

            The truth is that we have no idea how the Democrats will deal with entitlement reform, tax reform, or the deficit.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 11:20 am

              We have their past history to go by. I would surprised if they deviated from past behavior significantly.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on September 12, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    “Bin Laden is dead. Qadaffi is dead. The reputation of the US is better than it was before.”

    Killing Bin Laden is hardly a foreign policy. Qadaffi was not threat to us, but we killed him anyway. And while the U.S. may be better liked, it is weaker and less respected.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      I would contend that killing him has been a significant focus of US foreign policy since 9/11. Qadaffi had been a threat to us over the years and the US handled the situation very well.

      We do not seem to be weaker-Obama has racked up a lot of kills.

      I would say that we have lost influence in the Middle East. Egypt, which was once run by our dictator, is now neutral-although they do want our aid. We are also a convenient focus for the rage of the unemployed young people of the Middle East. As the dictators and tyrants of old are brought down, the lid has been lifted on that rage. Apparently we are still the “go to” target for such anger. I wonder when they will start calling us the “great Satan” again. Or maybe we are just the little devil now?

    • T. J. Babson said, on September 16, 2012 at 8:58 am

  4. T. J. Babson said, on September 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    “He did not do as much as he could have for Simpson-Bowles. However, the narrative that he is to blame is in error-check out the analysis at PolitiFact http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2012/aug/30/ryan-and-simpson-bowles-commission-full-story.”

    You’ll have to walk me through this one, Mike. The Politifact article was about Paul Ryan, not Obama. In 2010 Ryan’s party did not even control the House, yet somehow Ryan is to blame for the president not taking the lead on Simpson Bowles? You have really lost me.

    Here is a WSJ article from 2 days ago on this issue:

    The commission nonetheless divided into topical working groups, with Mr. Ryan joining Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution to propose a modified version of the premium-support Medicare reform he would later include in the House budget.

    For political reasons, Messrs. Simpson and Bowles decided not to add this proposal to their final document. In December 2010, they were trying to get support from at least 14 of 18 members that Mr. Obama’s executive order required for a formal consensus. Ultimately three Republicans including Mr. Ryan voted no, and four Democrats voted no, with 11 members in favor.

    So in fact Democrats quashed the necessary supermajority even after they first vetoed any serious reform of Medicare. And Mr. Ryan is the “rigid” one? The beads-for-Manhattan logic seems to be that Mr. Ryan should still have gone along with this entitlement status quo and also tacitly endorse the Affordable Care Act to show he’s a statesman. So he should have done Democrats a favor, become politically irrelevant and not solved the real fiscal problem in return for some nice mentions from NPR commentators.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

      The article does the walk through. I agreed that Obama did not do as much as he could (or perhaps should) have. However, the full blame cannot be laid at Obama’s door for the failure of that proposal.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2012 at 11:11 am

        Student: Professor, I’m having trouble understanding the selection from Kant you assigned for homework. Can you explain it to me? Maybe get me at least pointed in the right direction?

        Professor: The selection from Kant is perfectly clear. If you don’t understand it you should read the relevant sections in his Critique of Pure Reason, where he treats the issues in much greater detail. If you are still having trouble we can talk about it after the midterm.

        A minute passes.

        Professor: Why are you still here?

  5. T. J. Babson said, on September 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    How Obama deals with dissent:

    The latest Bob Woodward books reveals that Peter Orszag, at the time a columnist for the New York Times, sent a draft of an article to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett for review and comments before publishing.

    “Orszag continued his star turn in the op-ed spotlight and a month later drafted a column to appear October 20, 2010, on the sensitive subject of Obamacare,” writes Woodward of Orszag, the former OMB director. “He wanted to focus on one of its weaknesses. The health care legislation ‘does many things right,’ he wrote. ‘But it does almost nothing to reform medical malpractice laws.’”

    Woodward adds, “Should he alert the White House? [Orszag] wondered. Better not to surprise them. With some discomfort, because a columnist is supposed to speak for himself, not his former employer, Orszag sent his draft to Valerie Jarrett. It was about three days before the column was scheduled to run. Here’s a draft, he wrote in an email to her. Let me know if you have any comments.”

    Jarrett did have a comment for Orszag, according to Woodward:

    “Thanks, Jarrett wrote back. She offered no comments on the draft. The column ran as scheduled, unchanged from the draft Orszag had provided the White House. Orszag was in an airport when he got Jarrett’s email. How could you have done this? It’s ridiculous. You’re so disloyal. You have got to realize the health care bill is wildly unpopular, Orszag replied. Every single speech I give, if I lead with this reflection on its imperfections, the dynamic changes. People will then listen. You can’t hold this law out as perfect. It won’t sell. People think it’s a piece of crap. The weaknesses must be acknowledged. Then it’s credible to say, here’s why it is good and why it is the only thing that will work. Jarrett’s answer was delivered with Politburo finality: You have burned your bridges.”

    The column in question ran in the New York Times on October 20, 2010. It was titled, “Malpractice Methodology.”

    The bottom of the article carries this biographical information for Orszag: “Peter Orszag, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010 and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing columnist for The Times.”

    Nowhere in the article does it state that it had been reviewed by the White House.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Are there more examples? After all, a good argument by example or inductive generalization requires the weight of examples/instances to adequately support the conclusion.

      Inferring from a small number of examples leads to a hasty generalization.

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