Last week Senator John McCain finally completed a process that has been underway for some time now. McCain has worked his way back into his party's good graces by coming out in support of running massive budget deficits to extend the Bush tax breaks and give new tax breaks to business.
It's difficult to remember now, but Senator McCain had said back in 2000, "There's one big difference between me and the others -- I won't take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy." He also said of the tax plan George W. Bush proposed while running for president in 2000, "Sixty percent of the benefits from his tax cuts go to the wealthiest 10% of Americans -- and that's not the kind of tax relief that Americans need."
The New John McCain
Let's compare this to the new John McCain, who fleshed out his latest ideas a bit more during a tax day speech in Pittsburgh.
McCain said he would extend the Bush tax cuts, even though over half of the benefits would go to the richest one percent and the cost would be $5 trillion over a decade. He would cut the corporate tax rate down from 35 percent to 25 percent, even though measured as a percentage of GDP, U.S. corporate taxes are among the lowest of any developed country. He would double the personal income tax exemption for dependents to $7,000, which would do the most for those families in higher income tax rates and nothing for low-income people who pay payroll taxes but who do not have taxable income (meaning a family of four with income of less than $25,000). He would abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax, even though about 9 tenths of it is paid by people with incomes over $100,000.
He would enact first-year deduction or "expensing" of "equipment and technology investments, which, along with a lower corporate tax rate, will create new opportunities for tax sheltering by the wealthy. He would ban internet and cell phone taxes permanently because he seems to believe that new technologies need to be granted a waiver from taxes that lasts forever. (If only Thomas Edison had thought to lobby for laws shielding his inventions from taxes.) He would make permanent the research and development credit because he believes innovation comes from the private sector, except not really, because apparently he also believes that no one will invent anything unless we give them a subsidy through the tax code.
And, most tantalizingly, he would offer a simplified alternative income tax that people can choose, at their option, to file. It's optional, presumably because everyone claims they want a simpler tax form but no one can agree on actually giving up the various deductions and credits that make filing ones' taxes complicated. Rather than simplifying tax filing, this will probably lead some people to calculate their tax liability under two different systems to determine which will result in lower taxes.
Massive Cuts in Public Services Would Be Necessary to Pay for McCain's Tax Plan
The Tax Policy Center has calculated that McCain's plans would cost $553 billion in 2012 alone. That's not even including the interest payments on the additional debt that will result, but let's put that aside for a second. McCain claims he can avoid increasing the national debt, at least to a degree, by cutting spending. But the cost of his plan in 2012 is about 17 percent of all projected federal spending that year according to estimates from the OMB (on page 134 for anyone interested). That's a whole lot of spending to cut. Looked at another way, it's more than all the non-defense discretionary spending that year and about equal to discretionary spending on defense.
During his Pittsburgh speech, McCain said he could get $100 billion in "savings from earmark, program review, and other budget reforms" but was not any more specific. The Senator's oft-mentioned earmarks are said to account for only around $18 billion at the most.
McCain has also said that he will obtain $30 billion in revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes. But his corporate tax cut alone is estimated to cost $143 in 2012.
Actually, You Should Just Bill My Grandkids
Then finally, on Sunday, McCain said on ABC's "This Week" that his tax cuts would take priority over balancing the budget.
To get a sense of what a huge shift this is for McCain, remember that during presidential debates he tried to explain away his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 by claiming that he thought cuts in federal spending should have accompanied those tax cuts to ensure that the nation's fiscal health would not deteriorate.
Of course, what he said back in 2000 also touched on the fact that the benefits of the Bush tax cuts would go mostly to the rich, but the new McCain is apparently unwilling to remind anyone about this.
On "This Week," George Stephanopoulos asked McCain, "If Congress does not give you the spending cuts you say you can get, will you hold off on signing the tax cuts?"
McCain replied, "Uh, no, of course not, because we don't want to increase people's taxes during a recession..."
It's worth pointing out that none of the candidates are actually talking about raising taxes (with the possible exception of the capital gains tax). Allowing parts of the tax cuts to expire exactly as the Republican House, Republican Senate and Republican White House wrote them to expire can hardly be called a tax increase. Further, it would be interesting to know how McCain might explain the prosperity that followed Clinton's tax increase or the economic doldrums that have followed George W. Bush's tax cuts.