Estimates provided by the White House show that the payroll tax cuts proposed last night by President Obama would cost $240 billion next year, just shy of the $245 billion cost of the Bush income tax cuts during the same year as estimated by Citizens for Tax Justice.

Republican lawmakers were the original proponents of a payroll tax holiday. But lately many of them have spoken out against it or are reluctant to endorse it because the President supports it. Apparently cost is not the reason for their objection, given their support of the Bush tax cuts.

The payroll tax cuts, which would go into effect in 2012 and which are the largest parts of the jobs plan announced by the President last night, have several components. The payroll tax cuts for workers would cost $175 billion, while the payroll tax cuts for employers would cost $65 billion, for a total of $240 billion.

Economists generally find that the most effective measures to mitigate a recession include programs that directly create jobs (such as Obama’s proposals to hire or retain school teachers and fix schools). Also at the top of the list are direct spending programs by the government on things like unemployment benefits (also included in Obama’s plan), since they go to the very people who are most likely to immediately spend any money or benefits they receive.

But some lawmakers oppose any and all new government spending, creating an obvious political constraint that the President has tried to navigate by proposing payroll tax cuts and other tax breaks that make up over half of the $447 billion cost of his jobs plan.

Payroll Tax Cuts for Workers: $175 Billion

As part of the tax compromise enacted at the end of last year, a one-year payroll tax cut is in effect for 2011, reducing the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax paid directly by workers to 4.2 percent. President Obama proposes to extend this break into 2012 and expand it by further reducing the tax paid by workers to 3.1 percent.

As we have explained before, cutting payroll taxes for workers is neither the best nor the worst possible tax measure. A tax credit that is more targeted to low- and middle-income people, like the Making Work Pay Credit, would be more effective because it would target money more towards people who are likely to spend it immediately and thereby give an immediate boost to the economy.

On the other hand, a payroll tax cut for workers is dramatically more targeted to low- and middle-income people than the other types of tax cuts that are usually debated (like the Bush tax cuts).

Payroll Tax Cuts for Employers: $65 Billion

The President’s plan would also reduce the Social Security payroll tax paid by employers to 3.1 percent for the first $5 million in wages paid in 2012. This break would go to all employers. The plan would also eliminate the entire 6.2 percent payroll tax paid by employers for any increase in a firm’s payroll up to $50 million.

Giving all companies a break for the first $5 million in wages is not likely to be effective because it gives employers a tax break regardless of whether or not they increase hiring. Economists have pointed out that many companies are stockpiling cash that they already could use to hire more workers, and a recent survey of business owners reveals that labor costs are nowhere near their main concern. In other words, only increased demand for goods and services can really prompt businesses to hire more workers. 

Some economists do believe that the payroll tax cut for businesses that expand their payroll will be more effective. But there are several reasons to be skeptical about the number of jobs that will be created as a result of this measure. First, most of this tax break will go to companies that would have expanded their payrolls anyway. Second, the payroll expansion in many cases will not mean new hires but could simply take the form of pay raises for existing employees. (This problem would be limited to a degree because the Social Security payroll tax does not apply to wages in excess of $106,800).

What businesses really need are customers. A payroll tax cut or a more targeted tax credit could help somewhat to produce more customers by putting cash in the hands of people who will spend it. But the other parts of the President’s plan, like transportation projects, extending unemployment insurance, modernizing schools, and rehiring teachers will almost certainly provide far more bang for the buck.

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