By
Published: May 8, 2011
 

The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europe’s single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong?

Well, what I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

Let me focus mainly on what happened in the United States, then say a few words about Europe.

These days Americans get constant lectures about the need to reduce the budget deficit. That focus in itself represents distorted priorities, since our immediate concern should be job creation. But suppose we restrict ourselves to talking about the deficit, and ask: What happened to the budget surplus the federal government had in 2000?

The answer is, three main things. First, there were the Bush tax cuts, which added roughly $2 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. Second, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which added an additional $1.1 trillion or so. And third was the Great Recession, which led both to a collapse in revenue and to a sharp rise in spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs.

So who was responsible for these budget busters? It wasn’t the man in the street.

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

Similarly, Mr. Bush chose to invade Iraq because that was something he and his advisers wanted to do, not because Americans were clamoring for war against a regime that had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it took a highly deceptive sales campaign to get Americans to support the invasion, and even so, voters were never as solidly behind the war as America’s political and pundit elite.

Finally, the Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who. Let me give a particular shout-out to Alan Greenspan, who played a crucial role both in financial deregulation and in the passage of the Bush tax cuts — and who is now, of course, among those hectoring us about the deficit.

So it was the bad judgment of the elite, not the greediness of the common man, that caused America’s deficit. And much the same is true of the European crisis.

Needless to say, that’s not what you hear from European policy makers. The official story in Europe these days is that governments of troubled nations catered too much to the masses, promising too much to voters while collecting too little in taxes. And that is, to be fair, a reasonably accurate story for Greece. But it’s not at all what happened in Ireland and Spain, both of which had low debt and budget surpluses on the eve of the crisis.

The real story of Europe’s crisis is that leaders created a single currency, the euro, without creating the institutions that were needed to cope with booms and busts within the euro zone. And the drive for a single European currency was the ultimate top-down project, an elite vision imposed on highly reluctant voters.

Does any of this matter? Why should we be concerned about the effort to shift the blame for bad policies onto the general public?

One answer is simple accountability. People who advocated budget-busting policies during the Bush years shouldn’t be allowed to pass themselves off as deficit hawks; people who praised Ireland as a role model shouldn’t be giving lectures on responsible government.

But the larger answer, I’d argue, is that by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us here there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

More Savings If You Have Young Children Or Attend College

STEPHEN OHLEMACHER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It’s the most significant new tax law in a decade, but what does it mean for you? Big savings for millions of taxpayers, more if you have young children or attend college, a lot more if you’re wealthy.

 The package, signed Friday by President Barack Obama, will save taxpayers, on average, about $3,000 next year.

 But many families will be able to save much more by taking advantage of tax breaks for being married, having children, paying for child care, going to college or investing in securities. There are even tax breaks for paying local sales taxes and using mass transit, and a new Social Security tax cut for nearly every worker who earns a wage.

Most of the tax cuts have been around since early in the decade. The new law will prevent them from expiring Jan. 1. Others are new, such as the decrease in the Social Security payroll tax. Altogether, they provide a thick menu of opportunities for families at every income level.

“The tax code wants to encourage people to invest in their homes, invest in their education, invest in their retirement, and you have to know about all of these in order to take advantage of it,” said Kathy Pickering, executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

The law extends most of the tax cuts for two years, including lower rates for the rich, the middle class and the working poor, a $1,000-per-child tax credit, tax breaks for college students and lower taxes on capital gains and dividends. A new one-year tax cut will reduce most workers’ Social Security payroll taxes by nearly a third next year, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent.

A mishmash of other tax cuts will be extended through next year. They include deductions for student loans and local sales taxes, and a tax break for using mass transit. The alternative minimum tax will be patched, sparing more than 20 million middle-income families from increases averaging $3,900 in 2010 and 2011.

The $858 billion package also includes $57 billion in renewed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“I am absolutely convinced that this tax cut plan, while not perfect, will help grow our economy and create jobs in the private sector,” Obama has said. “It will help lift up middle-class families, who will no longer need to worry about a New Year’s Day tax hike. … It includes tax cuts to make college more affordable, help parents provide for their children, and help businesses, large and small, expand and hire.”

At the request of The Associated Press, The Tax Institute at H&R Block developed detailed estimates for how the new law will affect families at various income levels next year:

-A single taxpayer making $50,000 a year who rents an apartment and pays $3,500 in college tuition and fees would save $2,280 in income taxes and $1,000 in Social Security taxes – a total of $3,280.

-A married couple with two young children, some modest investments and combined wages of $100,000, would save $6,256 in income taxes and $2,000 in Social Security taxes – a total of more than $8,200.

Income taxes would be lower because of the lower rates, a $1,000 per child tax credit and a $1,200 tax credit for child care expenses. The couple earns $2,000 in dividends but it would be tax-free at their income level. Wealthier investors would pay a top tax rate of 15 percent on dividends. The couple would also be spared from paying the alternative minimum tax, and would pay lower Social Security payroll taxes.

-A married couple with a child in high school and another in college, combined wages of $170,000 and larger investments would save nearly $7,800 in income taxes and $3,400 in Social Security taxes – a combined savings of nearly $11,200.

Income taxes would be lower because of the lower rates and more generous deductions for state and local income taxes, property taxes, mortgage interest and charitable donations.

Assuming the couple earned $4,000 in qualified dividends and $5,000 in capital gains, that income would be taxed at 15 percent, instead of the higher rates that would have taken effect without the new law.

At their income level, the couple wouldn’t qualify for the child tax credit and would get only $125 from the education tax credit. However, they would save more than $3,600 because they would be largely spared from the AMT.

“One thing generally about the higher income taxpayers is that even though they have a lot of opportunities, they also phase out of a lot of benefits that are designed for lower- to middle-income taxpayers,” said Gil Charney, principal tax analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block.WASHINGTON — It’s the most significant new tax law in a decade, but what does it mean for you? Big savings for millions of taxpayers, more if you have young children or attend college, a lot more if you’re wealthy.

The package, signed Friday by President Barack Obama, will save taxpayers, on average, about $3,000 next year.

But many families will be able to save much more by taking advantage of tax breaks for being married, having children, paying for child care, going to college or investing in securities. There are even tax breaks for paying local sales taxes and using mass transit, and a new Social Security tax cut for nearly every worker who earns a wage.

Most of the tax cuts have been around since early in the decade. The new law will prevent them from expiring Jan. 1. Others are new, such as the decrease in the Social Security payroll tax. Altogether, they provide a thick menu of opportunities for families at every income level.

“The tax code wants to encourage people to invest in their homes, invest in their education, invest in their retirement, and you have to know about all of these in order to take advantage of it,” said Kathy Pickering, executive director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

The law extends most of the tax cuts for two years, including lower rates for the rich, the middle class and the working poor, a $1,000-per-child tax credit, tax breaks for college students and lower taxes on capital gains and dividends. A new one-year tax cut will reduce most workers’ Social Security payroll taxes by nearly a third next year, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent.

A mishmash of other tax cuts will be extended through next year. They include deductions for student loans and local sales taxes, and a tax break for using mass transit. The alternative minimum tax will be patched, sparing more than 20 million middle-income families from increases averaging $3,900 in 2010 and 2011.

The $858 billion package also includes $57 billion in renewed jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“I am absolutely convinced that this tax cut plan, while not perfect, will help grow our economy and create jobs in the private sector,” Obama has said. “It will help lift up middle-class families, who will no longer need to worry about a New Year’s Day tax hike. … It includes tax cuts to make college more affordable, help parents provide for their children, and help businesses, large and small, expand and hire.”

At the request of The Associated Press, The Tax Institute at H&R Block developed detailed estimates for how the new law will affect families at various income levels next year:

-A single taxpayer making $50,000 a year who rents an apartment and pays $3,500 in college tuition and fees would save $2,280 in income taxes and $1,000 in Social Security taxes – a total of $3,280.

-A married couple with two young children, some modest investments and combined wages of $100,000, would save $6,256 in income taxes and $2,000 in Social Security taxes – a total of more than $8,200.

Income taxes would be lower because of the lower rates, a $1,000 per child tax credit and a $1,200 tax credit for child care expenses. The couple earns $2,000 in dividends but it would be tax-free at their income level. Wealthier investors would pay a top tax rate of 15 percent on dividends. The couple would also be spared from paying the alternative minimum tax, and would pay lower Social Security payroll taxes.

-A married couple with a child in high school and another in college, combined wages of $170,000 and larger investments would save nearly $7,800 in income taxes and $3,400 in Social Security taxes – a combined savings of nearly $11,200.

Income taxes would be lower because of the lower rates and more generous deductions for state and local income taxes, property taxes, mortgage interest and charitable donations.

Assuming the couple earned $4,000 in qualified dividends and $5,000 in capital gains, that income would be taxed at 15 percent, instead of the higher rates that would have taken effect without the new law.

At their income level, the couple wouldn’t qualify for the child tax credit and would get only $125 from the education tax credit. However, they would save more than $3,600 because they would be largely spared from the AMT.

“One thing generally about the higher income taxpayers is that even though they have a lot of opportunities, they also phase out of a lot of benefits that are designed for lower- to middle-income taxpayers,” said Gil Charney, principal tax analyst at The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

As reported in Huffington Post 12/17/10

The Associated Press | 12/17/10 04:03 AM | AP

//

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Highlights of the tax package passed by Congress late Thursday and sent to President Barack Obama. It would cost about $858 billion; most provisions, which were to expire Jan. 1, would be extended for two years, unless noted.

The package extends:

_Lower rates for taxpayers at every income level. The top rate, on taxable income above $379,150, would stay at 35 percent, instead of increasing to 39.6 percent. The bottom rate, on taxable income below $8,500 for individuals and $17,000 for married couples, would stay at 10 percent, instead of increasing to 15 percent. Cost: $186.8 billion.

_More generous itemized deductions for high-income households. Cost: $20.7 billion.

_A more generous $1,000 child tax credit. Cost: $71.7 billion.

_Marriage penalty relief, increasing the standard deduction for married couples. Cost: $18 billion.

_A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families. Cost: $15.7 billion.

_A series of tax breaks for students and their families, including interest deduction for student loans and an exemption for employer-provided educational assistance. Cost: $3.3 billion.

_A deduction for tuition and related expenses for higher education, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $1.2 billion.

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_A tax credit of up to $2,500 for students’ higher education expenses. Cost: $17.6 billion.

_The top capital gains tax rate of 15 percent. Cost: $25.9 billion.

_The top tax rate on dividends of 15 percent. Cost: $27.3 billion.

_Through 2011, enhanced jobless benefits for people who have been unemployed for long stretches. Cost: $56.5 billion.

_A series of incentives for selling, using and producing alternative fuels, including ethanol. Many of the provisions expired at the end of 2009. They would be extended through 2011. Cost: $11.3 billion.

_A $250 deduction for out-of-pocket classroom expenses by teachers, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $390 million.

_A federal income tax deduction for state and local sales taxes, taken mostly by people who live in the nine states without state income taxes, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $5.5 billion.

_The ability of older Americans to withdraw up to $100,000 a year from Individual Retirement Accounts, tax-free, to donate to certain public charities, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $979 million.

_A business tax credit for research and experimentation expenses, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $13.3 billion.

_Tax breaks for capital improvements to restaurants and other retail buildings, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $3.6 billion.

_A tax break for active investors in foreign-based banking, securities and insurance firms, for 2010 and 2011. Cost: $9.2 billion.

_Increased depreciation and expensing for capital investments by businesses. Cost: $21.8 billion.

The package also:

_Spares more than 20 million middle-income households from tax increases averaging $3,900 from the Alternative Minimum Tax in 2010 and 2011. Cost: $136.7 billion.

_Imposes a lower estate tax for the next two years, allowing couples to pass estates as large as $10 million to heirs tax-free. The balance would be taxed at 35 percent. Cost: $68.1 billion.

_Provides a one-year Social Security tax cut for all wage earners, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. Cost: $112 billion.

___

Source: Joint Committee on Taxation