What’s So Good about America’s Tax Package?

CAMBRIDGE –The tax package agreed to by President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents in the United States Congress represents the right mix of an appropriate short-run fiscal policy and a first step toward longer-term fiscal prudence. The key feature of the agreement is to continue the existing 2010 income-tax rates for another two years with no commitment about what will happen to tax rates after that.

Without that agreement, tax rates would have reverted in 2011 to the higher level that prevailed before the Bush tax cuts of 2001. That would mean higher taxes for all taxpayers, raising tax liabilities in 2011 and 2012 by about $450 billion (1.5% of GDP).

Because America’s GDP has recently been growing at an annual rate of only about 2% – and final sales at only about 1% – such a tax increase would probably have pushed the US economy into a new recession. Although the new tax law is generally described as a fiscal stimulus, it is more accurate to say that it avoids a large immediate fiscal contraction.

The long-term implications of the agreement stand in sharp contrast both to Obama’s February 2010 budget proposal and to the Republicans’ counter-proposal. Obama wanted to continue the 2010 tax rates permanently for all taxpayers except those with annual incomes over $250,000. The Republicans proposed continuing the 2010 tax rates permanently for all taxpayers. By agreeing to limit the current tax rates for just two years, the tax package reduces the projected national debt at the end of the decade (relative to what it would have been with the Obama budget) by some $2 trillion or nearly 10% of GDP in 2020.