Say goodbye to all Bush tax cuts?

That’s what the New Republic‘s Jonathan Cohn wants to do:

Unfortunately, raising taxes on the wealthy will probably not be sufficient to solve our fiscal problems. If we are serious about living up to our financial commitments—in particular, the guarantees of financial security in retirement and provision of basic health care to all—then eventually we will need more revenue. There are lots of ways to do this. The ideal would probably be a carbon tax, because it would have the virtue of raising revenue and slowing global warming. There’s also a case for some kind of consumption tax, which economists tend to think is more efficient than income taxes. But since neither option seems to be viable right now, the next best thing might be to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire, so that everybody—not just the wealthy—go back to paying what they did during the Clinton era.

But wouldn’t raising taxes on the middle class slow the economy? Yes, if the rates went up right away. In fact, one of the most worrisome elements of the fiscal debate right now is that deficit reduction has so much focus. As the economist Peter Diamond has said, Washington is acting like we have a debt crisis and an unemployment problem, when the opposite is true: We have a debt problem and an unemployment crisis. Diamond’s point—which Paul Krugman made in the New York Times recently—is that we should concentrate on bolstering the job market now, while working to stabilize federal finances for the future. The former ideally would involve putting more money into the pockets of the poor and middle class, who are most likely to spend it. Raising taxes on the middle class immediately would, of course, have the opposite effect.

That’s why a better approach might be to preserve tax breaks on incomes up to $250,000, and to renew anti-recessionary programs like extended unemployment insurance and a payroll tax holiday, but only on a temporary basis. And rather than setting these measures to expire on a fixed date, Congress could try an idea economist Peter Orszag has floated: Setting these tax cuts to expire when, and only when, the economy had become stronger. For example, Congress could declare that the tax cuts stay in place until four consecutive months of unemployment below 6 percent, at which point they would slowly phase out. Or Congress could set the tax cuts to expire based on some other indicator, like the employment-to-population ratio, or a combination of several.

I’m with Cohn, at least on principle. I’d have to look more into the specifics to see exactly how this would work in practice. But eventually there’s no reason the Bush tax cuts for the middle class should remain as low as they are either, unless we enact significant reform of the tax code.

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