The political impossibility of the Ryan-Romney budget

You are better off believing in the tooth fairy than the Republican pair's economic strategy.

Pain has no political constituency.

This fundamental rule of American politics (and democratic systems more generally) points up the difficulty of enacting or sustaining public policies that leave large numbers of citizens worse off. Politicians dread casting votes on legislation that will impose costs on any significant group of constituents, lest the opposition seize on the issue in the next election. Austerity policies typically spell defeat for the political party or coalition that imposes them (see Greece). Given the political consequences of inflicting pain, many of the key budget prescriptions embodied in the budget plan developed by Representative Paul Ryan and now effectively endorsed by Mitt Romney will never be realized in practice.

Political parties that run on a “cod liver oil” platform face a critical obstacle on the campaign trail. They can always be undersold in the competition for votes by other parties that offer voters instead the proverbial spoonful of sugar. The political challenge entailed by recommending policies that promise pain becomes more acute if the danger that the pain is designed to avert lies far off in the future.

In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale vividly demonstrated the lesson that pain is a losing political proposition. He believed that the American people would accept the hard truth that tax increases were the only solution to the large federal deficit generated by the tax cuts pushed through by the Reagan administration. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he delivered the bad news directly:

“Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up….Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s candor earned him no credit among the American people. With barely 40 per cent of the popular vote, he lost 49 states. (If Reagan had decided to campaign in Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, the Democrat might have lost all fifty.)

Another episode from the Reagan era demonstrates a more palatable approach to allocating pain. In 1981, recognizing that Social Security would soon face a short-term funding shortfall, Reagan appointed a bipartisan group, the National Commission on Social Security Reform (called the Greenspan Commission after its chair, Alan Greenspan) to review the program and its finances. The commission recommended a series of changes that included increased taxes and reduced benefits. Congress in 1983 approved recommendations that yielded $168bn to assure that the program would remain solvent. The solution set borrowed from both parties, including increasing in the retirement age and raising the payroll tax ceiling on higher income workers. Importantly, the commission gave both parties political cover, and the bipartisan support effectively removed the issue from the 1984 campaign.

But the conditions that made possible the 1983 compromise have proven harder to replicate over time. Barack Obama sought to lay the groundwork for a similar bipartisan approach when he appointed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (usually referred to after its co-chairs as Simpson-Bowles). Rather than embrace the report, however, lawmakers in both parties shunned it. Among the obstacles were a more sharply polarized political context and the lack of urgency inherent in the underlying problem. Any long-term debt crisis involves a distant threat, quite unlike the immediate problems facing Social Security in the early 1980s.

If we apply the lessons from these episodes to the Ryan budget, certain conclusions follow. First, so long as the Democrats control one of the main policy branches of the national government (the White House, the Senate, or the House), the plan will go nowhere. Indeed, that is the best of all worlds for the GOP, because then Republicans don’t have to answer for the consequences. Second, were the Republicans to sweep the 2012 elections, they might enact the features of the plan attractive to their core constituents — cutting discretionary expenditures for the poor and lowering taxes. The result would be a larger federal deficit and a worsening of the future debt problem. Third, Republican lawmakers would likely defer proposed changes in Medicare and changes in the tax code (such as eliminating popular deductions) intended to offset tax cuts. These unpopular moves would leave them politically vulnerable in 2014. To enact them could spell a quick farewell to majority status for the GOP.

Republicans know this. Many are already scared to run on the Ryan scheme to replace traditional Medicare for those under the age of 55 with vouchers that cannot possibly cover the same level of services. That Medicare poses a danger to the federal government’s solvency as baby boomers retire may be true, but proposing to slash Medicare spending still makes for bad politics. (And the Republican ticket appreciates the politics, too, witness the Romney-Ryan attack on Obamacare for allegedly cutting Medicare.) Nor will the Republicans’ Orwellian efforts to package the reform as a plan to protect and enhance Medicare work. In a contested information environment, efforts to reframe the terms of debate don’t work.

The same holds for the unspecified revenue increases that the Ryan plan expects to realize from reforming the tax code. At a time when the federal government already takes in much less than it spends, the GOP budget formula seeks lower tax rates and an end to taxes on capital gains. The plan in its pure form offers more than $4trn in tax cuts over the next decade. Finding the revenue to offset such a loss runs afoul of political reality at every turn. End the home mortgage interest deduction? The one for state and local taxes? How about putting a stop to charitable deductions? These moves amount to political suicide. Yet nothing less could close the gap between revenues and expenditures entailed by the Ryan budget (or the Romney tax plan proposed during the primaries).

In the end, then, the politics of pain mean that anything resembling the Ryan-Romney budget approach will become another exercise in supply-side economics — the discredited faith that cutting taxes sharply enough will generate so much economic growth that total revenues will increase. The Republicans can deliver the tax cuts and some spending reductions targeted at the most vulnerable, who are also the least organized and powerful in our politics. But for those who think the Ryan budget represents a serious approach to the long-term federal debt problem, believing in the tooth fairy is a better bet.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. This post originally appeared on the OUP blog here.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan arrive at a campaign rally in Powell, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.