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The 'fiscal cliff' con game

Michael Hiltzik

January 2, 2013

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Whatever the ultimate shape of the "fiscal cliff" solution that has preoccupied all Washington, and a fair swath of the rest of country, in the final days of 2012 and into the new year, Americans of all walks of life should be asking themselves this question: How do we like being conned?

The deal, passed by the Senate on New Year's morning, was made final late Tuesday when the House of Representatives signed on. Its essential elements include expiration of the President George W. Bush-era income and capital gains tax cuts on couples' incomes over $450,000, and a modest increase in the estate tax.

Unemployment benefits and tax credits for lower-income families will be extended. The payroll tax holiday that replaced a low- and middle-income tax credit in 2009 will end, but the tax credit won't return. Many other items, including the fate of automatic spending cuts mandated by the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, are being put off for weeks or months. Another debt-ceiling fight looms on the near horizon.

Almost everything mentioned above involves a con game of one sort or another, because almost none of it is what it seems on the surface. Since such fakery is certain to continue well into the new year, here's a quick guide to its basic features.

The deficit con: The big daddy. Despite the lawmakers' claims that the debate has been about closing the federal deficit and reducing the federal debt, none of the negotiating over the past weeks has dealt with those issues. Indeed, the tax and spending package will widen the deficit by some $4 trillion over 10 years, compared with what would happen if the tax increases and spending cuts mandated by existing law were implemented.

The House Republican caucus has consistently looked for ways to protect high-income taxpayers from a tax increase, at the expense of beneficiaries of government programs such as enrollees in Social Security and Medicare. If there's a dominant preoccupation with cutting the deficit lurking somewhere in that mind-set, good luck finding it.

The shared sacrifice con: If the goal has been for an approach to deficit cutting balanced among economic strata — and Democrats and Republicans both pay lip service to this notion — then the final deal is a fraud. Every working person earning up to $113,700 in wages this year will shoulder an instant tax increase of 2%. That's because the payroll tax holiday enacted in 2010 is expiring.

The tax holiday, which cut the employee's share of the Social Security tax to 4.2% from 6.2% of income up to the annual wage cap, was always designed as a temporary stimulus measure. But few people expected that it would expire at a single stroke — and without a countervailing working-class tax credit to soften the blow.

Monkeying with the payroll tax was never a great idea, because it undermined Social Security's essential funding mechanism. But what's often forgotten is that the holiday was implemented to replace an existing tax break for the middle class — the Making Work Pay credit—opposed by the GOP. But the credit isn't coming back, so the end of the holiday means a pure tax increase on the 98% of working Americans earning $113,700 or less in wages. For a couple touching, say, $80,000, the increase will come to $1,600.

Quiz: How much do you know about the "fiscal cliff?"

Compare that with the break reaped by taxpayers declaring income in the $250,000 to $450,000 range. That's the difference between the threshold at which President Obama proposed restoring pre-Bush tax rates and the level enacted by Congress. Exempting that slice of income from higher taxes saves up to $9,200 in taxes for families earning $450,000 or more (depending on the cost of phaseouts of exemptions and deductions for those taxpayers).

The estate tax con: There's no purer giveaway to the wealthy than this. The final deal raises the tax to 40% from 35% on estates over $10 million. (That figure is for couples, whose estates are each entitled to a $5-million exemption upon their deaths.) The alternative was to return to 2009 law, which set the tax at 45% on couples' estates more than $7 million.

Who pays the estate tax? In 2011, about 1,800 taxpayers died leaving estates of more than $10 million. Their average estate was somewhere from $30 million to $40 million. Their heirs cashed in on some of the most nimble tax planning on Earth: Although the statutory top rate was 35%, the average rate on estates of even $20 million-plus (the average gross value of which was $65 million) came to only 16.2%.

Estate tax bonus babies long have been protected by the myth that the tax falls heavily, and unjustly, on small family farms and businesses. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center found, however, that fewer than 50 small farms and businesses paid any estate tax in 2011. Their liability came to less than one-tenth of 1% of the total collected. On the other hand, more than 50% of the estate tax was paid by people whose income placed them in the top tenth of 1% of all taxpayers. These are the people protected by estate tax opponents.

The debt ceiling con: The original of this con is what put us at the fiscal cliff in the first place, for the automated spending cuts being dealt with now were put in place as the GOP's price to raise the federal debt ceiling and stave off a government default in 2011. The debt ceiling was not designed as a constraint when it was created in 1917 — it was convenient blanket authority for the Treasury to issue debt so that Congress wouldn't have to vote permission each time a new bond had to be floated.

Approval was always routine — the limit was raised 91 times between 1960 and the showdown in 2011. Now it's a hostage-taking situation, destined to return in the next month or two when Republicans who didn't get what they wanted in this week's cliffhanger menace the creditworthiness of the U.S. again.

For a brief shining moment, President Obama dreamed of folding an end to the debt limit into a fiscal cliff deal, but that didn't happen. The idea that the debt limit discourages fiscal irresponsibility is a scream. It doesn't now, and never has, stopped Congress from enacting any spending plan or tax break it pleases, creating a budget demand that has to be paid for with, yes, debt. If Congress wants less debt, it can cut spending or raise taxes. The debt limit is a dangerous weapon in the hands of irresponsible legislators, and it's time to take it out of their hands.

The bond vigilante con: This is the bedrock con that fuels deficit hawkishness. The idea is that if America doesn't get its debt under control, it will be punished by unhappy bond investors worldwide. U.S. interest rates will soar and the standard of living will plunge.

This con depends on voters overlooking that it hasn't happened. U.S. government bonds remain the most sought-after in the world. Remember August 2011, when Standard & Poor's cut America's credit rating because of poor fiscal policy and dysfunctional government? Neither condition has improved, but the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond has fallen from 3.75% to 2.82%, and on the 10-year note from 2.14% to 1.68%.

The bogeymen of higher interest rates and inflation that are supposed to follow inevitably from our current level of deficit spending have simply not materialized, and aren't visible on the horizon. Moreover, history suggests that more typically they're responses to vigorous economic growth, not to policies aimed at reviving recovery.

That's a clue that the whole fiscal cliff affair is a major con. There is no reason for the country to suffer now the austerity embodied in the spending cuts and tax hikes that were to come due Jan. 1; what's needed is continued stimulus to complete the economic recovery. Indeed, the starkness of the Jan. 1 deadline is itself a con — nothing except its own inaction prevents Congress from temporarily moderating the effects of the cliff by voting to defer tax increases and spending cuts, as it did this week.

In the golden age of individualistic rural America so beloved of today's conservative dreamers, people who perpetrated cons such as these would be tarred, feathered and ridden into the sunset on a rail. Today we allow them to set the agenda in Washington. Is that supposed to be progress?

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.