We enter 2011 with a few more dollars in our paychecks. For about 98 percent of Americans, the extension of Bush tax cuts and the new payroll tax holiday will make it easier for us to afford a gallon, rather than a quart, of milk for our families each month, and to fill our tanks almost as high as we did with lower gas prices last year.
(We ought to be consuming less gas and driving electric cars, but I’ll leave that for another commentary). On the other side of the Great Divide: the richest two percent of Americans will get vast windfalls from the deal Obama made with the GOP—ample enough to refurnish second and third homes, or get those boats they’ve always needed.
But studies show us that they won’t. They’ll sock that money away for the kids’ inheritance. We’ll get no stimulative boost to the economy, but it sure will help some dynasties from dying. To give the rest of us some lunch money, House and Senate Republicans insisted this Christmas season on stuffing huge lumps of gold into Paris Hilton’s velvet stockings. That’s what happened when they extended tax cuts for the highest-income Americans and lowered the estate tax, which only gets levied on the wealthiest of the wealthy.
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The rich keep getting richer. And richer. But, there is some stimulus in this deal, and it’s better than no deal at all. And hey…didn’t we all get a boost from the “payroll tax holiday?” We didn’t have that before! A holiday after Christmas, for a whole year! Hallelujah, Auld Lang Syne, and Happy Valentine’s Day!
Let’s hold the confetti for a minute and take a closer look. Just because the deal was better than no deal, that doesn’t mean it was a good one, even given this difficult political climate.
In addition to non-stimulative and expensive tax cuts and estate tax favors for the wealthy, this package has another poison pill in it. In the 2009 Recovery Act, the Making Work Pay provision gave those of us making less than $95,000 annually ($190,000 for couples) a refundable tax credit. Income above that level didn’t see a tax credit. It was progressive. Those most likely to use the money, stimulating the economy, received the money.
The new tax deal replaces this Making Work Pay credit with the Payroll Tax Holiday.
According to the Center on Economic Policy Research and the Tax Policy Center, a little more than half of tax-filers will indeed get a bigger paycheck due to a tax holiday than they would have under the Making Work Pay credit. However, about 42 percent of taxpayers will actually pay more taxes in 2011 than they would have if the Making Work Pay Credit had been extended.
So, the less you earn, the more you need, the less you get under this tax deal.
Further, critics of this aspect of the tax deal worry that this payroll tax holiday could become permanent. Congress has been more than squeamish in the past to reinstate taxes after temporary cuts—the incoming Congress even more so. But either way, this shift signifies political willingness to start altering the way we pay for Social Security in way that has never been politically possible before.
As Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cautioned in a floor debate in December leading up to the vote, “You’re talking about the beginning of the end for Social Security.” Couple this with a deficit-hysteric incoming Congress and it’s hard not to fear for the long-term well-being of America’s imperiled middle- and low-income families.
Entering the New Year, I’m feeling less financially secure. There’s not much to celebrate with Obama’s tax deal, which accomplished far less than what is necessary or possible.