What Does Romney ‘Want’? Tax Wonks Don’t Know.

Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

So you know that Brookings/Tax Policy Center study about how Mitt Romney’s tax plan requires a middle-class tax hike, the one I keep writing about with a disturbing compulsion that suggests some kind of addictive behavior pattern? (Previous examples here, here, here, and here.) I’d say I have one more point but that’s probably a lie. Two other analysts associated with the TPC have published blog commentaries, and some conservatives are holding these up to show that they disprove the Obama campaign’s interpretation.

James Pethokoukis of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute quotes the two items under the headline: "Actually, ‘game changer’ tax report doesn’t say Romney wants to raise taxes on middle class."

This is actually a semiotic dispute posing as an econometric one. The key phrase here is “wants.” The report shows that Romney has defined a series of parameters to his plan that mathematically require a middle-class tax hike. Those parameters are a 20 percent rate cut, no increase in taxes on savings and investment, reducing tax deductions to pay for the lost revenue, and revenue neutrality. Here are the quotes that Pethokoukis cites from the TPC. He quotes this from  Howard Gleckman:

 … the real question is not whether Romney is proposing a huge middle-class tax increase (he isn’t). It is which of his ambitious campaign promises he will fail to keep. … Romney doesn’t have to raise taxes on the middle-class. He could fix this problem with less ambitious rate cuts on ordinary income, or by raising taxes on capital income. He could pay for his initiative outside of the individual income tax system by increasing corporate taxes — though he says he’d cut them. He could cut spending even more deeply than he’s already promised, though that would hurt low- and middle-income households too. Or he could just add to the deficit.

And this from Donald Marron:

I don’t interpret this as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives. One can charitably view his plan as a combination of political signaling and the opening offer in what would, if he gets elected, become a negotiation.

So Gleckman is saying that Romney is not proposing a middle-class tax increase. True! He’s proposing a set of conditions that would require it. And Marron notes that Romney may not want to hike middle-class taxes. Quite likely true as well! Both Gleckman and Marron explicitly say that Romney would not have to raise middle class taxes if he changes the parameters of his plan. And yes, he may not like what his plan requires, and if he changes his plan, then the plan won’t do what it currently does. But that’s utterly consistent with noting that his current plan is to raise taxes on the middle class.

Organizations like the TPC cherish their reputation for non-partisan accuracy, and the massive wave of accusations of partisan bias are obviously unpleasant. Gleckman and Marron are gingerly framing their commentary in the most friendly possible way. Imagine you have a teenager who says he plans to sleep until 11:30 the next day, go for a two-mile run, eat brunch, shower, and then drive to Chicago to meet his friends. You point out that even if he can run two miles as fast as the world record time, eats brunch at McDonald's, showers for two minutes, and drives 90 miles an hour on the freeway, he’ll be arriving after midnight. He may not have an explicit arrival time, and he may not want to arrive after midnight, but that is what his plan requires.

The TPC/Brookings study likewise finds that, even bending over backwards in all sorts of implausible ways, Romney’s proposals require raising taxes on the middle class. Marron and Gleckman are treating Romney’s campaign like a surly teenager who angrily accuses you of saying this because you hate them. I’m sure you don’t want to arrive after midnight, right?

Pethokoukis’s headline is correct in the narrow sense that the study doesn’t say anything about what Romney “wants.” It only calculates what his proposal requires. It’s quite likely he doesn’t want to raise taxes on the middle class. Maybe he doesn’t even want to be president. Who knows?