The Spectacle Blog

The Buffett Rule and Fiscal Honesty

By on 4.16.12 | 8:24AM

In my column on today's main site, I mention Brian Beutler's defense of the Buffett Rule. He argues that the media is getting the story wrong, because the minimum tax proposal was never intended to be a stand-alone solution to the country's fiscal problems.

It wouldn’t on its own solve the country’s long-run budget problems, but that wasn’t the point — this was a small piece of a broader package of fiscal policies Obama had introduced. But it served a huge symbolic purpose. The real point was to pull back the veil on the GOP’s true vision for the country, force them to deal sensibly on key national priorities.

Beutler also notes that it will raise more revenue if the Bush tax cuts remain in place, because more millionaires will need to pay the Buffett alternative minimum rate (though the estimated $160 billion over ten years still isn't much). The widely touted $47 billion figure assumes the tax cuts expire, which means the small boost "would come on top of a flood of new revenue that would swiftly fill the country’s budget hole." He concludes that the Buffett Rule still plays a useful pedagogic role:

All Buffett Rule critics knock Obama for not pursuing more comprehensive tax reforms. If they’d paid even passing attention to the events of 2011, they’d know that the only tax reforms Republicans back either raise no revenue, or are conditioned on the idea of locking in the Bush tax cuts permanently. They imply future cuts to government programs that neither Democrats nor most Americans are prepared to accept, but are at the root of the GOP’s tax strategy. The Buffett Rule is designed to make those demands politically noxious — and perhaps clear the way toward a more reasonable approach to balancing the country’s priorities.

But maintaining the spending commitments the Democrats want to protect also requires higher taxes than Republicans, many Democrats, and most Americans are prepared to accept. The Democrats are still pretending that this can be done exclusively with Buffett-style tax increases on the rich without asking anything of the middle class. The numbers suggest otherwise.

Whatever criticisms can be made of what Paul Ryan wants to do to the structure of Medicare, Republicans who support his plan have at least given some details of how they would rein in spending commitments to keep the tax levels they want. The Democrats are, for the most part, not acknowledging that the alternative vision implies higher taxes than just a return to the top Clinton tax rate or the Buffett Rule.

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