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Tax Policy Nerds Try to Debunk Each Other’s Debunking Over “The Largest Tax Hike in History”

You may have seen some tax-hating, freedom-loving types waving flags, flying planes with banners and screaming from the rooftops that if the Bush tax cuts expire that it will be “the largest tax hike in history.”

The argument has been made and questioned ad nauseum but yesterday Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform (founded by Grover Norquist, so you get the context) felt the urge to prove the point once again that this will be the largest freedom-hijacking ever:

CBO projects that nominal GDP over the next decade will be $187.7 trillion over this decade. In order for the Obama tax hikes to be bigger than THE TAX HIKE WHICH PAID TO WIN WORLD WAR II, it would need to be at least 5.04 percent of this, or $9.46 trillion.

Gerald Prante over at the Tax Foundation’s Tax Policy Blog isn’t amused with this latest attempt:

Ellis is thereby admitting that it’s simply not the largest tax hike in American history. When you say “history,” that includes the 1940s. If you want to exclude WWII, say peacetime. Furthermore, the Treasury study that Ellis bases these claims off only goes back to the 1940s, which means that we don’t even know the relative size of tax hikes pre-1940, such as when the individual income tax was initiated and ramped up. So in summary, we can say that you have to knock off about 170 years of American history in order to make Ellis’s claim only possibly defensible.

Hmmm. We have to give that point to Prante there. You can’t just say “the biggest tax hike in history” and then say “except for that one time.”

And while we’re splitting hairs, we (i.e. the US of A) can’t really take credit for killing Hitler, can we? The Führer killed himself under duress from the Soviets. So there’s that.

Anyhoo, back to the subject – Ellis than tallies up all the tax “hikes”:

The 2011 income tax hikes. These are the rate hikes, the capital gains and dividend hikes, the return of the marriage penalty and the death tax, etc. CBO score: $2.567 trillion

Failing to index the alternative minimum tax (AMT) to inflation. CBO score: $558 billion

Failing to stop dozens of business tax hikes (“extenders”). CBO score: $1.969 trillion

Interactive effects of all these. CBO score: $606 billion

Obamacare tax hikes. CBO score: $525 billion

Add all of these up, and you get to $6.225 trillion over the next decade.

Prante fires back, noting that Ellis is making an auditor to tax accountant comparison:

Ellis classifies a compilation of “tax hikes” that are set to go into effect as one giant tax hike, including AMT expiration, the extenders bill, Making Work Pay, and even health care reform. There are two problems with this. First off, Ellis and ATR have a countdown clock on the ATR website (which is off by one hour by the way due to Daylight Savings Time) saying “countdown to the biggest tax increase in American history.” Well, virtually all of the health care tax hikes, which he counts in his tax hike amount, don’t kick in until 2013 (731 days from January 1, 2011). Therefore, this is inconsistent. Furthermore, summing up all the tax hikes and counting them as one big tax hike is inconsistent with the Treasury study cited earlier. If you want to count all the “tax hikes” occurring under Obama as one big tax hike, then shouldn’t you do the same for previous administrations?

Right! If you’re going to have a countdown clock, shouldn’t it be accurate?

Wrapping up, Ellis says:

Expressed as a percentage of the economy, this is 3.31 percent of GDP. That’s the largest tax hike in history, except for the one that was used to fight simultaneous wars in Europe, North Africa, and the Asian Pacific Rim.

You got us, guys. It’s a mere 3.31 percent of GDP.

Final retort from Prante:

The Treasury study referenced wouldn’t even consider letting the tax cuts to expire to be a tax hike because there was no act of Congress. Has Ellis done a review of history to make sure that no tax cut has expired elsewhere in history that was not counted in this Treasury study (given that Ellis considers an expiring tax cut to be a tax hike)?

This is a good question. Have you done your research into historically impotent and unwilling legislative bodies? Because if you haven’t, then you’d find that the group we’ve got up there now seems to have pretty awesome ability to do exactly nothing (read: estate tax).

Whether past flaccidity demonstrated by Congress has resulted in larger “tax hikes” remains unknown but something tells us that since none of this is getting resolved any time soon, we’ll get an answer.

Largest Tax Hike in History? Outside of Killing Hitler, Yes. []
Is Allowing Tax Cuts to Expire the Largest Tax Increase in American History? The Question Revisited [Tax Foundation]