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The 'fiscal cliff' con game

January 02, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • Many provisions of the legislation meant to avert the "fiscal cliff" involve some sort of con game, Michael Hiltzik writes.
Many provisions of the legislation meant to avert the "fiscal cliff"… (Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg )

Whatever the ultimate shape of the "fiscal cliff" solution that has preoccupied all Washington, and a fair swath of the rest of country, in the final days of 2012 and into the new year, Americans of all walks of life should be asking themselves this question: How do we like being conned?

The deal, passed by the Senate on New Year's morning, was made final late Tuesday when the House of Representatives signed on. Its essential elements include expiration of the President George W. Bush-era income and capital gains tax cuts on couples' incomes over $450,000, and a modest increase in the estate tax.

Unemployment benefits and tax credits for lower-income families will be extended. The payroll tax holiday that replaced a low- and middle-income tax credit in 2009 will end, but the tax credit won't return. Many other items, including the fate of automatic spending cuts mandated by the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, are being put off for weeks or months. Another debt-ceiling fight looms on the near horizon.

Almost everything mentioned above involves a con game of one sort or another, because almost none of it is what it seems on the surface. Since such fakery is certain to continue well into the new year, here's a quick guide to its basic features.

The deficit con: The big daddy. Despite the lawmakers' claims that the debate has been about closing the federal deficit and reducing the federal debt, none of the negotiating over the past weeks has dealt with those issues. Indeed, the tax and spending package will widen the deficit by some $4 trillion over 10 years, compared with what would happen if the tax increases and spending cuts mandated by existing law were implemented.

The House Republican caucus has consistently looked for ways to protect high-income taxpayers from a tax increase, at the expense of beneficiaries of government programs such as enrollees in Social Security and Medicare. If there's a dominant preoccupation with cutting the deficit lurking somewhere in that mind-set, good luck finding it.

The shared sacrifice con: If the goal has been for an approach to deficit cutting balanced among economic strata — and Democrats and Republicans both pay lip service to this notion — then the final deal is a fraud. Every working person earning up to $113,700 in wages this year will shoulder an instant tax increase of 2%. That's because the payroll tax holiday enacted in 2010 is expiring.

The tax holiday, which cut the employee's share of the Social Security tax to 4.2% from 6.2% of income up to the annual wage cap, was always designed as a temporary stimulus measure. But few people expected that it would expire at a single stroke — and without a countervailing working-class tax credit to soften the blow.

Monkeying with the payroll tax was never a great idea, because it undermined Social Security's essential funding mechanism. But what's often forgotten is that the holiday was implemented to replace an existing tax break for the middle class — the Making Work Pay credit—opposed by the GOP. But the credit isn't coming back, so the end of the holiday means a pure tax increase on the 98% of working Americans earning $113,700 or less in wages. For a couple touching, say, $80,000, the increase will come to $1,600.

Quiz: How much do you know about the "fiscal cliff?"

Compare that with the break reaped by taxpayers declaring income in the $250,000 to $450,000 range. That's the difference between the threshold at which President Obama proposed restoring pre-Bush tax rates and the level enacted by Congress. Exempting that slice of income from higher taxes saves up to $9,200 in taxes for families earning $450,000 or more (depending on the cost of phaseouts of exemptions and deductions for those taxpayers).

The estate tax con: There's no purer giveaway to the wealthy than this. The final deal raises the tax to 40% from 35% on estates over $10 million. (That figure is for couples, whose estates are each entitled to a $5-million exemption upon their deaths.) The alternative was to return to 2009 law, which set the tax at 45% on couples' estates more than $7 million.

Who pays the estate tax? In 2011, about 1,800 taxpayers died leaving estates of more than $10 million. Their average estate was somewhere from $30 million to $40 million. Their heirs cashed in on some of the most nimble tax planning on Earth: Although the statutory top rate was 35%, the average rate on estates of even $20 million-plus (the average gross value of which was $65 million) came to only 16.2%.

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