Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan and the 99%

In the constantly churning pool of Republican Presidential candidates, a seemingly political newcomer has risen to the top (for now): Herman Cain.  Mr. Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza where he engineered a leveraged buy-out from Pillsbury, isn’t really a political newcomer or outsider, though.  He only appears to be because he personally has never won an election despite several attempts.  (see Wikipedia biography). In fact, he’s been a campaign insider and advisor for many Republican candidates going back to at least Bob Dole in 1996. He also played a key role in defeating President Clinton’s attempts to reform healthcare in the 1990’s.

Herman Cain has risen to the top (some recent polls show him essentially tied with Mitt Romney) largely because of his “9-9-9” tax plan.  So what’s it all about and what are the likely consequences? Let’s explore what the plan is first.

I will summarize here.  A more in-depth analysis (pdf) is available from the Tax Policy Center.  The Cain campaign’s page on the plan is here. Cain is proposing to eliminate the existing corporate income tax and payroll taxes. I assume that this includes eliminating the Social Security tax and Medicare taxes, although the Cain campaign avoids saying that clearly by referring only to “payroll taxes”.  He then proposes to radically reform the existing individual income tax system and adding two new taxes.  The result is that the existing triad of corporate income tax, payroll tax, and individual taxes is replaced by a triad of three taxes which each have a 9% tax rate, hence the name for the plan.

  • Change existing Individual income tax system – charge a flat 9% on gross income with the only deduction allowed being for charitable contributions.  Home mortgage interest deduction is gone.  Personal exemptions are gone.  This means a single person with no dependents and $50,000 income pays $4,500 (9%), the same exact amount as a family of four with two small children and a $50,000 income.  It is unclear whether deductions for the expense of earning income are allowed or not such as sales representative deducting business expenses.  I presume they are not.  Only earned income from employment is taxed, not dividend income. It is unclear whether Cain would tax pension income or Social Security benefits.  He doesn’t clarify those.  My guess is they would be taxed.
  • A new national sales tax of 9% on everything.  Although most states currently exempt food and other essentials from sales tax, Cain does not.  Plan to add 9% to whatever you buy. The consumer pays the sales tax directly at the time of purchase.
  • A new national business tax of 9%. This is a modified form of value-added tax (VAT) commonly called a business transfer tax.  It essentially means that all businesses pay a 9% tax on everything they sell minus a deduction for whatever purchases they have made, not counting purchases of labor. I find the enthusiasm among Republicans for this part for the tax kind of strange.  The state of Michigan had a similar business transfer tax called the Michigan Business Tax (MBT) in recent years and it was the #1 target of Republicans to repeal when they came into office.  The MBT was absolutely hated.  That makes me skeptical that Cain either could actually get a a national business tax or that it would survive for longer than a year or so.  I expect that in implementation, the national business tax would soon be eliminated in favor of a higher individual income tax and/or higher sales tax and/or larger deficit. A business transfer tax like Cain’s proposed national business tax requires significant accounting and record-keeping.  Businesses would no doubt attack such a tax as a “heavy regulatory and reporting burden”.

Overall, estimates of the immediate effect of the 9-9-9 plan on tax revenues to the government show it would be largely neutral.  That is, the plan, when applied to today’s economy this year, should produce approximately the same revenue as today’s tax system produces.  In that sense, the plan represents neither a tax cut nor a tax increase in the overall macro sense.  At the individual  level, though, it’s a different story.  The 9-9-9 plan is either a really heavy tax increase or a really huge tax cut depending upon how high your income is.

For people who are in the lower 80% of the income distribution, meaning the poor, the working class, and the middle class, Cain’s plan represents a very, very serious tax increase.  Even households in the lowest 20% of the income distribution would pay an average of $1,854 more in taxes than they do currently each year.  The typical or normal household, the folks that are in the middle, the 60% of us that are neither in the top 20% or the bottom 20% (which most likely means you!), would pay more than $4,000 more each year in taxes.  That’s a serious tax increase.  How? Why? Currently people in these brackets, the majority of us, pay around 23-30% of our income in the form of all taxes to the all levels of government. Of those 23-30% points, approximately 10% points are taxes for state and local government.  Those taxes remain under Cain.  So currently the middle income ranks pay between 13-20% of their incomes to the federal government.  That initially sounds like it’s higher than Cain’s 9%.  But remember, Cain’s plan is a 9-9-9 plan.  You will pay a 9% income tax.  You’ll also pay 9% sales tax on everything you buy.  Let’s say you’re fortunate and prudent and only spend 90% of your income, that sales tax still equates to being 8% on your income.  But the sales tax is being applied to goods that have already been marked up in price by 9% by the retailer to pay for the business tax.  In effect, you’ll pay an 18% sales tax. That means that your real tax burden for the federal government will be closer to 9+9+9.  I expect the effective federal taxes paid by individuals in the middle income ranges under the Cain plan to be 24-27% depending on how much you save vs. spend.  Add in the 10% for state and local and you’ve got an individual tax burden in the 34-37% range – much, much higher than today.  The Tax Policy Center graphs out the actual expected change in your taxes in dollars by income quintile here:

Now what about the top 20%?  They come out ahead.  The average household in the top 20% gets a $14,442 tax cut.  If you’re not one of these fortunate rich people to get this large tax cut from the 9-9-9 plan, remember Herman Cain says it’s your fault you’re not rich.

In summary, the Cain 9-9-9 is a massive redistribution of the tax burden away from rich households onto the backs of poor and middle-income households.  As Jared Bernstein notes:

Conclusions:

–to implement the 9-9-9 plan would truly be the most dramatic and regressive shifting of the tax burden in the history of our nation;

–based on this policy, Herman Cain’s campaign is deeply out of touch with the challenges facing the American middle class;

But we haven’t really looked at the impact on the top 1% or the top 0.1%, the really, really rich folks, the Wall Street CEO’s and big hedge fund managers, the ones who have gotten large bonuses in recent years paid for by government bank bailouts.  The top 1% (which includes Herman Cain himself) will save on average $238,422 in taxes.  The top 0.1%, the 150 thousand or so households that are really, really rich and powerful, will get even more.  They will see an average cut of $1,356,078 in their taxes.  I also have a properly scaled graph to show this too, but it’s only after the jump for formatting reasons.  So click and take a look to see what Herman Cain calls making the tax system more fair.  It should add fuel to the Occupy Wall Street fires.

Continue reading

What’s the 99%, the 1%, and the 53% All About?

The OccupyWallStreet movement has helped push the meme of the “99%”.  But to what are they referring? And what’s the remaining 1%?  The 99% reference refers to income distribution in the U.S.  Income distribution is when we line up all the households in order according to their income from lowest to highest.  Obviously with somewhere around 150-200 million households in the U.S. we can’t deal with each individually.  Instead we group them into percentiles.

The 99% refers to the 99% of all households that have the lowest incomes.  Obviously this means nearly everybody – 99% of us to be exact.  What is not in the 99% is the 1% with the highest household incomes – the really rich.  What has the OccupyWallStreet movement so energized and angry though isn’t just the idea that the 99% make less money than the 1%.  It’s the idea that the rich, the 1% are getting richer faster than the 99%.  In fact, the 99% aren’t really getting richer at all.  Instead they (we) have been losing both relative to the rich (the gap is growing) and in absolute terms.  Let’s check out a few graphs to illustrate.

First, economix at the New York Times reported on the basic income distribution data recently:

The graph below shows how much income is earned by a household at any given percentile in the income distribution, based on these new numbers for 2011:

DESCRIPTIONTax Policy Center

Incomes grow much, much faster at the top end of the income distribution than in the middle or at the bottom end. That is, the disparity in income between one percentile and a consecutive percentile is bigger among the very rich.

For example, the difference in income between a household at the 50th percentile and a household at the 51st percentile is $1,237 ($42,327 versus $43,564). But the difference in incomes between a household at the 98th percentile and the 99th percentile is $146,118 ($360,435 jumps up to $506,553).

The gaps become even wider at the extreme top of the income ladder: A family at the 99.5th percentile makes $815,868; its neighbor at the 99.9th percentile makes more than double that, at $2,075,574 a year.

In fact much of the rise in inequality over the last few decades has been because of the increasing inequality isolated among the very top members of the income distribution, as America’s wealthiest have pulled further and further away from their slightly less wealthy peers.

This leads us to another similar graphic (graphic from occupydesign.org, but the data is from standard U.S. economic reports). This one reports not income, but wealth (income is what you $ you receive this year, wealth is how much you own).

 

The disturbing part of the income distribution is that it is getting much worse.  Since the recession/depression started in 2007, the median income for Americans, a number that fairly represents what’s happening to the typical member of the 99% show that incomes have decreased.  CalculatedRisk blog reports:

Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling. A few excerpts:

Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 6.7 percent, to $49,909, according to a study by two former Census Bureau officials. During the recession — from December 2007 to June 2009 — household income fell 3.2 percent.

So the inflation-adjusted median household income has continued to decline even after the recession ended.

And for people who lost their jobs – and were lucky enough to find a new job:

In a separate study, Henry S. Farber, an economics professor at Princeton, found that people who lost jobs in the recession and later found work again made an average of 17.5 percent less than they had in their old jobs.

And on education:

Median annual income declined most for households headed by someone with an associate’s degree, dropping 14 percent, to $53,195, in the four-year period that ended in June 2011, the report said.

For households headed by people who had not completed high school, median income declined by 7.9 percent, to $25,157. For those with a bachelor’s degree or more, income declined by 6.8 percent, to $82,846.

Grim numbers. This is no surprise given the high level of unemployment and underemployment.

If we look at hourly wage rates by income groups over the last couple decades we the same story: the rich are getting richer and the vast majority of Americans aren’t improving at all.  From the Congressional Budget Office via EconomistsView’s Mark Thoma:

Essentially, since around 1980 whatever increases in national income (GDP) have occurred have all gone to the top 1% or so of Americans.  The rest, the 99% have not enjoyed the growth but they are the ones who worked and produced it. See my post on that here.  The inequality in the income distribution in the U.S. is at a highest (most unequal) that it has ever been since the 1920’s and the era of Robber Barons and the Gilded Age.  That period didn’t end well resulting in the Great Depression.

 

Finally, when the OccupyWallStreet movement began, some right-wing opponents tried to counter the whole 99% meme.  They attempted to create an identification with the moniker “the 53%”.  What they were referring to is the fact that of all U.S. households, only 53% pay any U.S. federal income tax after accounting for deductions and tax credits.  The implication or suggestion was that the “53%” are the ones who are paying to carry some freeloading 47% of households who supposedly aren’t working and definitely aren’t paying income tax.  The problem with this idea is two-fold.  First, it’s absolutely not true that 47% of households don’t pay any taxes.  They most certainly do pay taxes – a lot of taxes and at nearly the same rates as other households.  The 47% just don’t pay federal income tax.  They do pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, state taxes, and other taxes. Second, a lot of those households don’t pay federal income tax because they are retirees who are living on either tax-exempt pension income or Social Security benefits. Others are simply too low-income despite working to incur federal income tax.  A few are very-high income earners in the top 1% who avoid income taxes through deductions and special tax breaks.

 

 

 

Government Tax Breaks for People Who Speculate in Oil Futures

Gas prices have come down a bit recently, but it’s not hard to remember the over $4 a gallon gas prices of just a few weeks ago.  At the time, I wrote that I (and some others) suspect that these occassional spikes in oil and gas prices were due to speculators, particularly hedge funds and global banks.

Now comes the news that those people who speculate on commodity futures like oil futures get a break on their taxes.  The profits from speculating in commodity futures contracts are taxed at only a maximum rate of 23%.  From Dealbook of The New York Times:

Here’s another little-known group of tax code beneficiaries that he might want to add to the list: day traders and speculators who buy and sell futures contracts.

For years, futures contracts, which are essentially bets on the price of commodities, stock indexes and the like, have received a more favorable tax treatment than stocks. A trader who buys and sells an oil contract in less than a year — even in a matter of minutes — pays no more than a 23 percent tax on the profits.

There are no jobs created from this activity.  It’s mostly speculation – the fancy financial term for gambling. Yet, the government gives these traders a huge tax break.  Traders who buy and sell corporate stocks and bonds within less than a year are subject to regular taxation – max rate of 35%.  But commodity speculators, the folks who collectively can drive up beef, corn, oil, gas, pork, and other prices get a break.

Now one would think that people in Washington who claim they are worried about the deficit and rising debt would look at this and go “aha, a loophole we can end, gain some revenue, and reduce the deficit”.  You would be wrong though.  The Republicans explicitly rejected closing tax loopholes as a method of reducing the deficit.

Robert Reich Connects The Dots to Tell What’s Happened To Our Economy In 2 Minutes

Berkeley Professor and former U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Robert Reich has put together a good, short 2 minute 15 second video that explains a large part of what’s happened to the economy over the last 30 years.

In summary, Reich connects five “dots”:

  1. The economy has doubled since 1980 but wages have been flat.  So where did the money go?
  2. All the gains have gone to the super rich.   And…
  3. With money goes political power.  Taxes on the super rich have been slashed, government revenues have fallen, leading to…
  4. Huge budget deficits. The middle class gets agitated.  To balance budgets, governments slash spending and set middle class to fighting amongst itself…
  5. Middle class is divided.  It fights for scraps.  When borrowing ability dries up, spending slows and can’t return…
  6. We get an anemic recover.

He explains it better (and draws neat pictures, too), but that’s the jist of it.  I would add more such as how the financial industry gained such power in Washington and pushed an ideological but economically flawed agenda of deregulation that led to the monumental but avoidable financial crises in 2007-2009.  But Reich gets the basics right.

Millionaires Don’t Move to Avoid Taxes – Empty Threats

I’ve commented on this before, but it’s worth repeating.  Millionaires, despite all their bluster and threats to move when taxes are raised, simply don’t move.  It’s empty threats.  If income tax rates are raised on millionaires, they actually stay put.  This means it is indeed possible to improve state government finances by using a very mildly progressive income tax, a tax with a higher rate for very high incomes.  The evidence comes from academic studies of a near-perfect test case: New Jersey.

I’ll let Ezra Klein of the Washington Post explain:

When anyone brings up new taxes on the rich, the big objections is that such taxes end up being counterproductive because the rich simply flee to places that don’t tax them. This is, in theory, particularly true at the state level. It just doesn’t appear to be true in practice.

A few years ago, New Jersey instituted a tax that raised rates on those making more than $500,000. Predictably enough, some clever academics swooped in to test the prediction that all the rich folks would leave. So how’d it fare? Poorly:

The study found that the overall population of millionaires increased during the tax period. Some millionaires moved out, of course. But they were more than offset by the creation of new millionaires.

The study dug deeper to figure out whether the millionaires who were moving out did so because of the tax. As a control group, they used New Jersey residents who earned $200,000 to $500,000 — in other words, high-earners who weren’t subject to the tax. They found that the rate of out-migration among millionaires was in line with and rate of out-migration of submillionaires.  The tax rate, they concluded, had no measurable impact.

The study went on to conclude that “the policy effect is close to zero,” though if it exists for anyone, it’s for the over-65 crowd who live off their investments.

I Don’t Think Corporate Taxes Are Too Low

Ok, just a quickie about taxes with two more startling graphs.  Another proposal that’s making the rounds in Washington is to cut the corporate income tax rate.  This proposal is originally coming from the Republicans, but it looks like Obama has drunk the kool-aid too.  The argument goes that corporations in the U.S. are taxed too much and that’s why corporations don’t invest in the U.S. and therefore don’t grow jobs here.  The “evidence” cited is the fact that the U.S. statutory income tax rate for corporations (at least any with substantial income) is 35%, one of the two highest in the developed, industrialized world.

But it’s a deceptive piece of evidence because what matters is what corporations actually pay, not the statutory rate.  As I’ve noted before, U.S. corporations, particularly multinationals pay little in income tax.  GE, especially,is a welfare queen that pays no taxes despite taking huge contracts from the government. So what’s the trend been for corporate taxes as part of our GDP? The CBPP obliges with a graph:

Um, that doesn’t look to me like a severely burdensome corporate tax rate.  In fact, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, back when corporate managements were focused on making products and opening markets instead of focused on spreadsheet tricks to gimmick-up this quarter’s earnings, the corporate tax rate was higher.