Friday, October 03, 2008

Tax Misrepresentations in Vice Presidential Debates

As many of you know, last night was the first and only Vice Presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin. The debate covered a wide range of topics, but not surprisingly taxes and the economy engulfed a large part of the discussion. As usual, there were quite a few misrepresentations of the facts from both sides.

Fortunately the experts at The Tax Foundation have reviewed the debate transcripts and outlined all the inaccuracies in both candidates’ arguments. Below are snippets from both Biden’s and Palin’s gaffes, but you can read the full review by clicking here.

Sen. Biden's Errors

First, Joe Biden responds to a charge by Gov. Palin, who said that Sen. Obama voted to raise taxes on people making as little as $42,000. We've been over this numerous times, and while Gov. Palin's claim is misleading (see below), Sen. Biden's response contained an error as well:

The charge is absolutely not true. Barack Obama did not vote to raise taxes. The vote she's referring to, John McCain voted the exact same way. It was a budget procedural vote. John McCain voted the same way. It did not raise taxes.

While Sen. Biden is correct to say that the vote did not raise taxes, actually, Sen. McCain did not vote on this non-binding resolution. It passed 51-44, but Sen. McCain was one of five members of the Senate who did not vote in that roll call vote. Therefore, Sen. Biden's claim that he "voted the same way" is incorrect.

A little later in the debate, Joe Biden made this statement:

The middle class under John McCain's tax proposal, 100 million families, middle class families, households to be precise, they got not a single change, they got not a single break in taxes. No one making less than $250,000 under Barack Obama's plan will see one single penny of their tax raised whether it's their capital gains tax, their income tax, investment tax, any tax. And 95 percent of the people in the United States of America making less than $150,000 will get a tax break.

Actually the "100 million" figure is not families. It is not households. It is tax returns. But that's a somewhat minor issue in the whole scheme of things. The figure is incorrect because Sen. McCain, even relative to a current policy with Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch baseline, does cut corporate income taxes and provides his refundable health care tax credit, which would reduce that "100 million won't get a tax break" figure. That figure is technically correct if you look only at the individual income tax and ignore Sen. McCain's health care tax plan, and if you do it relative to a current policy baseline with AMT patch. Furthermore, Sen. Biden makes the same error as Barack Obama in mixing baselines. The "95 percent" figure (when properly used) gives Obama credit for an AMT patch whereas he does not give McCain credit for an AMT patch tax cut when referring to the 100 million figure.

But the "95 percent" figure is just plain wrong as well. According to the Tax Policy Center, no income quintile (including those earning under $150,000) would even see 95 percent of its tax units receiving a tax break under Pres. Obama's tax plan in 2009. Even in 2012 under Obama's tax plan relative to current law, an average of the fraction of tax units that receive a tax cut in the bottom four quintiles is less than 90 percent. In other words, Biden's statement is factually incorrect. The "95 percent" figure is fairly accurate when Obama uses it to talk about the fraction of working families that would receive a tax cut under his plan, but not the entire population nor the entire population earning under $150,000.

Gov. Palin's Errors

Gov. Palin started off early in the debate trying to label Sens. Obama and Biden as tax hikers. She said:

Now, Barack Obama and Sen. Biden also voted for the largest tax increases in U.S. history. Barack had 94 opportunities to side on the people's side and reduce taxes and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction, 94 times.

This is not true. Even if one considers the expiration of the so-called Bush tax cuts to be a tax increase (it is technically not a tax increase), it would not be the biggest tax increase in history under almost any measure that adjusts for the size of the economy. And Sen. Obama's presidential tax plan does "raise taxes" relative to a current policy baseline over ten years, but it's not even close to being the largest tax increase in U.S. history. Relative to a current law baseline, Sen. Obama is actually cutting taxes rather significantly in the aggregate (nearly $3 trillion).

Sticking with the "Obama will raise your taxes" theme, Palin also repeated the "$42,000" line that Sen. McCain has repeated over and over and over:

But we do need tax relief and Barack Obama even supported increasing taxes as late as last year for those families making only $42,000 a year. That's a lot of middle income average American families to increase taxes on them. I think that is the way to kill jobs and to continue to harm our economy.

As I wrote when Sen. McCain said this in the first debate: That was a non-binding Senate vote earlier this year, and it's different from what Obama is proposing as a candidate. Very few households making $42,000 per year would pay more in taxes under Obama's tax plan. Some may say that Obama is voting one way and proposing something else on the campaign trail. If that's fair, then McCain's drastic change of heart on the Bush tax cuts is fair game as well. McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, but now supports extending almost all of them with the exception of the full repeal of the estate tax.

Gov. Palin's most egregious error of the night was actually repeated twice in 20 seconds. It was on the issue of Sen. McCain's health care plan, which neither side appears to understand.

I am because he's got a good health care plan that is detailed. And I want to give you a couple details on that. He's proposing a $5,000 tax credit for families so that they can get out there and they can purchase their own health care coverage. That's a smart thing to do. That's budget neutral. That doesn't cost the government anything as opposed to Barack Obama's plan to mandate health care coverage and have universal government run program and unless you're pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don't think that it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds. But a $5,000 health care credit through our income tax that's budget neutral. That's going to help. And he also wants to erase those artificial lines between states so that through competition, we can cross state lines and if there's a better plan offered somewhere else, we would be able to purchase that. So affordability and accessibility will be the keys there with that $5,000 tax credit also being offered.

Sen. McCain's health care tax plan is not budget neutral. It is a $1.3 trillion tax cut over the next ten years, which is therefore the amount that would be added to the national debt under this proposal. It does cost the government something over the next ten years, and it's almost as expensive as Sen. Obama's health care tax plan, according to Tax Policy Center preliminary estimates ($1.6 trillion). To be budget neutral, Sen. McCain would essentially have to eliminate the exclusion from payroll taxes for employer-provided health insurance as well as the income tax exclusion. He does not do that. Notice that Gov. Palin, like Sen. McCain did in the first debate, doesn't give you the whole story on this plan, avoiding the inconvenient fact that he would tax employer-provided health insurance.

Blog Archive