On Social Security, McCain Redefines "Middle Class"


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In an entertaining interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week, presidential candidate John McCain makes it clear that he won't fix Social Security through payroll tax hikes. In particular, McCain argues that it's a lousy idea to increase the cap (currently $102,000) on the amount of any individual's wages that can be subject to payroll taxes in a given year:
Trib: Do you favor raising the cap?
McCain: Pardon me?
Trib: Do you favor raising the cap?
McCain: No, and I think by doing so, as Sen. Obama wants to do, you are obviously putting a very, very big increased tax on ... middle income Americans who filing jointly and in other ways will be paying a very big increase.
McCain's response here is wrong in two important ways. First, as a CTJ analysis showed a couple of years back, only about 6.5% of Americans would be affected by a proposal that simply eliminates the cap on the federal payroll tax.

But more importantly, McCain's characterization of Obama's position on Social Security is flat-out wrong. What Obama has said is that he'd allow the payroll tax to apply to an individual's wages above $250,000, which is a very different thing from simply removing the cap and taxing wages above $102,000. Here's the Washington Post's nice explanation of Obama's position:
Under current law, income up to $102,000 a year is taxed for Social Security. Obama would create a "doughnut hole" by not imposing new Social Security taxes on income between $102,000 and $250,000. His aides said income exceeding $250,000 would be taxed at a rate of 2 percent to 4 percent, rather than the 6 percent tax that people pay toward Social Security on income below the $102,000 cutoff, which is matched by their employer's paying a 6 percent tax.
And as a recent CTJ analysis points out, the Obama proposal would only affect 1 percent of Americans-- none of whom could be described as "middle class." As for the alleged "very, very big" tax increase on these middle-class Americans... well, suppose you have a "middle class" friend whose salary was $275,000 (remember, income from sources other than wages don't count toward the payroll tax, so what matters is each individual's salary). That means that under Obama's plan, he would face a tax on his wages exceeding $250,000. His income exceeds $250K by $25,000, so his tax hike would be 2% of $25,000. That would be a $500 tax hike. If this sounds like somebody you know-- and if you consider this person "middle class"-- then McCain's characterization seems apt. Otherwise, his description of the Obama plan is screamingly, almost libelously wrong.

The $500 tax hike described above certainly would count as a "very, very big" tax hike for an average middle-income family-- but, unfortunately for McCain's truthiness, there's simply no way the Obama plan would ever apply to anyone who could reasonably be considered middle-class. Period.

To be perfectly clear about the way the Obama plan would work, a two-earner married couple would not pay more tax just because their combined income exceeded $250,000. Each spouse's salary must exceed $250K to get hit by the Obama plan. And capital gains, dividends, etc., don't count toward the $250K: what matters is your salary.

One could charitably attribute McCain's false statement to fuzziness in his understanding of exactly how the Obama plan would work. One could also say charitably that perhaps "middle class" has a very different meaning in Arizona than in the rest of the nation. But a more realistic interpretation would be that candidate McCain is willfully misrepresenting the truth in the hope that scare tactics are still a good substitute for honest policy debates.

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