The House Republicans' Head Scratching Economics

Across-the-board tax cuts for the rich will produce larger budget deficits, more inequality, and no net new jobs

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Chad Stone is chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Whether you worry about the sluggish recovery, budget deficits, or widening inequality, you should be scratching your head at what the House of Representatives is up to this week. 

On the one hand, the House will likely pass the small business tax cut sponsored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, which adds $46 billion to the deficit, largely benefits very high-income taxpayers, and has little potential for creating jobs. On the other hand, the House Agriculture Committee has approved a proposal, as part of its deficit reduction mandate, to cut $36 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly food stamps—a program that goes mainly to low-income households and is one of the best policies we have for creating jobs in a weak economy.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

In Tuesday's post on the New York Times Economix blog, Bruce Bartlett, who held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Reps. Jack Kemp and Ron Paul, asks the question, "Do small businesses create jobs?" He appropriately cites the research showing that politicians' worship of small businesses as jobs creators is misguided, and that it is start-up firms, not small firms per se, that are the job creators. Moreover, many of those who would benefit from the tax cut are affluent doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers—hardly the local mom and pop store that most people imagine when they hear the phrase "small business."

Bartlett is scathing on the Cantor bill:

There may be policies that would increase the number of business start-ups and aid employment this way. But an across-the-board tax cut for every small business, defined only in terms of employment, is nothing but …[a] giveaway unlikely to create any jobs whatsoever.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share in Taxes?]

Bartlett's indictment is backed up by standard "multiplier" or "bang-for-the-buck" analyses from the Congressional Budget Office and private analysts like Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. In contrast to an increase in SNAP benefits, which they find to be among the most cost-effective measures for stimulating economic growth and job creation in a weak economy, both the Congressional Budget Office and Zandi find business tax cuts similar to the Cantor bill to be among the least effective. The economic growth and job creation impact per dollar of nutritional assistance spending is six to eight times larger than that of an across-the-board tax cut. 

Here is what the House is doing with these two measures: It is adding $46 billion of tax cuts, nearly half of which will go to those making more than $1 million, to the budget deficit. According to the official Joint Committee on Taxation estimate, about $45 billion of it will be received in 2012-13, when the economy could in fact use a boost to jobs. At the same time, any stimulus from the tax cut will be wiped out by the $8 billion of the $36 billion SNAP cut that also would occur in 2012-13.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The bottom line on these actions is that they produce larger budget deficits, more inequality, and no net new jobs. So when I see the House moving in exactly the opposite direction of what is fair and makes economic sense, I'm inclined to ask: "Is it really more politically appealing to cut taxes for millionaires and increase the budget deficit than to maintain food benefits for the poor that also give an extra boost to the economic recovery?"