GOOD-BYE, BOCA: Nocera’s dream!


Pundit spots point of agreement: Friend, are you tired of theater criticism? Is it good solid policy analysis you're seeking?

If so, ignore Frank Bruni’s column and turn to Joe Nocera’s piece, right there on the same page in today’s New York Times.

How emptied-out is the New York Times? Nocera believes he has spotted agreement between the two hopefuls concerning tax reform.

Only in the New York Times can you hope to read work like this:
NOCERA (10/23/12): Where the Candidates Agree

Judging by the first two presidential debates—I’m writing this on the eve of the third—there is one area where Mitt Romney and President Obama are in at least quasi agreement: the need for serious tax reform.

“I want to bring the rates down; I want to simplify the tax code; and I want to get middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes,” said the Republican challenger during the second debate. He added that he would limit “deductions and exemptions and credits, particularly for people at the high end”—while getting us “on track for a balanced budget.”

In response, President Obama said that he, too, wanted to bring rates down for the middle class. But, he said, “in addition to some tough spending cuts, we’ve also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more.”

As my old friend Jeffrey Birnbaum pointed out recently, the two men really aren’t all that far apart. Romney and the president both want to lower the corporate tax rate and get rid of numerous loopholes. (Romney, of course, has yet to say which loopholes he favors eliminating.) Romney would cap deductions and credits—which would have the effect of raising taxes on the wealthy, which the Democrats want. “The plans differ in detail,” Birnbaum wrote in a note to his clients, “but they aren’t unbridgeable.”
The analysts ran around the room, driven mad by Nocera’s thesis, which receives no amplification in the rest of the column.

Is it true? Are Obama and Romney “really not all that far apart” on the issue of “tax reform?”

In several ways, it’s hard to tell. For one thing, Romney’s central proposal, hatched in February, is a fairly obvious work of deception—the most ridiculous such “proposal” in modern American history. Failing to explain this rather key point, Nocera says the differences in the hopefuls’ plans “aren’t unbridgeable.”

Strictly speaking, differences about dollars and cents are never “unbridgeable.” But for what it’s worth, Obama didn’t say, in that second debate, “that he, too, want[s] to bring rates down for the middle class.”

He said he wants to leave those rates where they are. He wants to leave them unchanged:
OBAMA (10/16/12): Four years ago I stood on a stage just like this one. Actually it was a town hall, and I said I would cut taxes for middle-class families, and that's what I've done, by $3600. I said I would cut taxes for small businesses, who are the drivers and engines of growth. And we've cut them 18 times. And I want to continue those tax cuts for middle-class families, and for small business.

But what I've also said is, if we're serious about reducing the deficit, if this is genuinely a moral obligation to the next generation, then in addition to some tough spending cuts, we've also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more.

So what I've said is, your first $250,000 worth of income, no change. And that means 98 percent of American families, 97 percent of small businesses, they will not see a tax increase. I'm ready to sign that bill right now. The only reason it's not happening is because Governor Romney's allies in Congress have held the 98 percent hostage because they want tax breaks for the top 2 percent.

But what I've also says is, for income above $250,000, we can go back to the tax rates we had when Bill Clinton was president.
“No change” in tax rates is different from “down.” “They will not see a tax increase” doesn’t mean that their rates will be cut.

Obama didn’t propose a rate cut on the middle class. But relatively speaking, this is a minor point out in the actual world.

Although Romney’s proposal makes no earthly sense, he does say he wants the top tax rate to be 28 percent. Obama wants 39.6 percent; powerful interests will fight to the death about that degree of difference. And Romney wants to eliminate the estate tax altogether! That's where the big rollers play!

Late in his column, Nocera gives a tiny hint of the real state of play here, after we’ve stripped away Candidate Romney’s complex gorilla dust:
NOCERA: Today, of course, compromise has become a dirty word. That’s partly because Republicans and Democrats have differing goals: one side wants to use tax reform to shrink the government; the other wants to use it to raise revenue. But it is also because Congress has simply become a nastier, more partisan place than it was in the 1980s. Last year, the lack of trust and communication between the two parties led to debt-ceiling crisis and the collapse of the so-called Grand Bargain. Why should anybody think it will be any different next year?
You can see how close the two sides are! One side wants to lower revenues. The other side wants to raise them! And compromise is a dirty word!

Other than that, they agree.

Among this year’s non-discussions, the non-discussion of taxes has come first among many. Candidate Romney has made a proposal which is a baldly ridiculous fraud. Within its news division, the New York Times has worked very hard to avoid explaining this fact.

But so what! Even now, Nocera acts as if Romney’s proposal makes sense—and as if it’s agreeably close to Obama’s tax proposals.

Obama’s proposals are murky enough. Because it’s such an obvious fraud, Romney’s proposal doesn’t even exist.

But so what? Nocera has spotted near-agreement! As we look to this campaign’s last weeks, is it possibly better when New York Times columnists stick to the horsies and dogs?


  1. Actually Romney has said which loopholes he favors eliminating. Rather than eliminate specific loopholes, Romney proposed a dollar cap the total deductions. IMHO he hasn't done as much as he might to publicize this aspect of his plan. Still, even if the New York Times isn't aware of Romney's plan, the Dallas Morning News is:

    Mitt Romney is pitching wholesale tax reform if he wins the presidency. His principal aim is to reduce tax rates across the board. In order to make up for some of that lost revenue, Romney has said he would ask Congress to cap tax deductions. In his last debate with President Obama on Oct. 16, Romney said a cap could be set at $25,000.

    As the Tax Policy Center explains, a cap on tax deductions has the biggest impact on upper-income households, who are more likely to itemize on their tax returns.

    This is a polically brilliant proposal. By asking for a cap on all deductions, Romney avoids the difficulty of eliminating various specific deductions, each of which has political support.

    In the linked article, the Morning News not only describes Romney's plan, it provides an analysis of how it would impact people. They sure make the New York Times look bad.

    1. David, yet again? Romney has floated various figures for the deduction cap: $17,000, $25,000, $50,000, depending, apparently, on the weather or who he's talking to.

      Meanwhile, a non-partisan Congressional study found that eliminating ALL deductions would allow for only a 4% rate cut, if Romney cuts income taxes as he proposes, eliminates the estate tax and keeps his own tax rate obscenely low, by continuing the coupon clippers and carried interest loophole.

      Consider also that when Romney is reproached for the nature of his investment, he remarks that his assets are in a blind trust. In other words, he doesn't even manage his own money and does no work to create income, but still insists his marginal tax rate should be half that of a cop or a nurse, apparently to facilitate the jobs he doesn't know he's creating (blind trust, what?) on the Caymans or the Isle of White. Apart from tax lawyers, it would be interesting to know many job's Romney's $100 IRA has created.

      As for Nocera -- pretty much Exhibit A among the well-meaning, if thoroughly depraved, modern press corps. We're talking about persons who, nice though they may be, have absolutely no idea how the country is actually run and wouldn't think to tell the truth in public, even if they knew it. Such things are simply not done!

      The consequence? People like David in Cal have a free hand to spew long-discredited nonsense, and the ignorant believe it.

    2. And if Romney is going to simply cap the total of deductions, so much for "simplifying the tax code."

  2. Wait, I thought the Howler was maintaining the (impossible, but accurate) position that Romney was proposing a revenue-neutral tax plan-with the top tax payers continuing to pay the same share of the total tax revenues. Since Obama says sequestration isn't going to happen, then it seems like their plans are not so far apart.

    As long as the Howler maintains that Romney's plan is only "a fairly obvious work of deception," and not a knowing false lie, then you can't really advance a criticism of Nocera for saying that the plan is similar to Obama's--because some days Romney does try to make it seem so.

  3. Less than 2 weeks ago, the Howler made this claim:

    "In truth, Romney has been smoothing back away from his specific rate-cut proposal for quite a while now. Back in February, he pulled this proposal out of his keister when he had to sound like he had a crazy tax plan, like everyone else in the GOP field.

    Presumably, it was never a serious proposal—and Romney
    hasn’t been pushing it in the past month or so."

    Now, as David in Cal points out, Romney continues to promote the same plan with variations only on the loophole closure aspect. As the Tax Policy Center points out, the plan still does not approach being revenue-neutral and Romney still knows that and claims it is.

    1. It appears to me, pretty clearly, that the Republicans would like to cut everyone's taxes, by 20% or whatever percentage they can get by with; not cut, and even increase defense spending (and possibly a war with Iran); limit or take away some tax deductions, though it isn't clear which ones. This will lead to very large deficits, which will provide an excuse to slash domestic programs drastically, plus entitlements for the poor, elderly and disabled, by turning the responsibility to the States (some or most of which won't pick up the slack) and private charity.

      This isn't any big secret; it's the Grover Norquist and Club for Growth plan. The claim is that this will lead us to an era of great prosperity. D in C probably would agree, and applaud it. The idea is that we don't have any other good choices.

      This seems to me about the biggest issue in politics. The outcome will have tremendous consequences, great for some, terrible for a lot of others. The media seems to be oblivious.

      AC in MA

    2. I think you're right. The Howler says Romney's tax plan was only just created in February. Weird.