The Deal Dilemma

austeritythatsenough

First things first: cutting Social Security benefits is a cruel, stupid policy — just not nearly as cruel and stupid as raising the Medicare eligibility age. But sometimes you have to accept bad things in pursuit of a larger goal: health reform should have included a public option — heck, it should have gone straight to single-payer — but a flawed route to universal coverage was better than none at all.

The question about this looming deal is whether the end justifies the means. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as clear a case as the health care deal, and I’m agonizing, big time; as of last night I was marginally positive, right now marginally negative.

Let’s talk about what’s going on.

First of all, the comparison has to be with what we think Obama can get if he goes over the cliff; if that happens, all the Bush tax cuts expire, and he can propose and probably get accepted a new round of middle-class cuts — but nothing else: no extension of unemployment benefits (another cruel, stupid action), no infrastructure spending to boost the economy.

So how does the possible deal differ? It doesn’t raise rates on the second-highest bracket, which means that the tax hike on earned income only falls on those making $400,000 or more. As I understand it — the reporting is weirdly silent on this, but it’s what I got from my own conversation with an SAO* — is that taxes on unearned income are going back to pre-Bush levels: capital gains at 20 instead of 15 percent, dividends taxed as ordinary income. If I’m wrong about that, this is easy: no deal.

And there’s extra revenue too, notably from changing the treatment of itemized deductions: instead of being a deduction from taxable income, they offer a tax credit, not to exceed 28 percent — which means a further substantial tax rise for people in the top bracket. Overall, there’s more revenue in this deal than you get from letting the high-end tax cuts expire after the cliff.

So the revenue side isn’t that bad; we do make some headway on unstarving the beast. On the other hand, I really don’t think of revenue — as opposed to preserving the social safety net — as being the most important thing.

Also on the plus side, extended unemployment benefits and more infrastructure spending. But no payroll tax cut extension, which means a fairly big dose of austerity despite the deal.

But then there’s the Social Security cut.

Switching from the regular CPI to the chained CPI doesn’t affect benefits immediately after retirement, which are based on your past earnings.What it does mean is that after retirement your payments grow more slowly, about 0.3 percent each year. So if you retire at 65, your income at 75 would be 3 percent less under this proposal than under current law; at 85 it would be 6 percent less; there’s supposedly a bump-up in benefits for people who make it that far.

The full article originally appeared at Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog. 

 

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