Should We Extend the Payroll Tax Cut?

Jared Bernstein says we should renew the payroll tax cut:

When You’re Trying to Decide if We Need to Renew the Payroll Tax Break, Picture This. by Jared Bernstein: It’s just a slide…in both senses of the word…of the real earnings—pretax, which is important—of middle-wage workers: blue collar workers in manufacturing and non-managers in services, adjusted for inflation. And it’s not inflation holding back these wage rates—it’s the weak economy. This series starts in 1964, and in nominal terms, it’s never grown more slowly than it has this year.

Source: BLS

So it is to his great credit that the President proposed another round of the payroll tax break, or something like it, as part of his opening bid for the cliff negotiations… With unemployment still way too high, we need to continue to support workers’ paychecks and temporarily offset some of the fiscal contraction from the tax increases and spending cuts that are likely to come out of the cliff negotiations.

I know that adding a spending program to a deficit reduction package may sound counterintuitive, but it’s really countercyclical. And by dint of being temporary—we could even write in the legislation that it expires when unemployment goes (and stays) below 7%–it won’t affect the medium-term deficit. …

I think the payroll tax should be extended, but as I noted when this first came up, I’d prefer the “optics” to be different:

I see the payroll tax reduction as potentially troublesome… Though the revenue the Social Security system loses due to the tax cut will be backfilled from general revenues, the worry is that the tax cut will not expire as scheduled — temporary tax cuts have a way of turning permanent. That’s especially true in this case since labor markets are very unlikely to recover within the next year and it will be easy to argue against the scheduled “tax increase” for workers. In fact, it will never be a good time to increase taxes on workers and if the tax cut is extended once, as it’s likely to be, it will be hard to ever increase it back to where it was. That endangers Social Security funding — relying on general revenue transfers sets the system up for cuts down the road — and for that reason I would have preferred that this be enacted in a way that produces the same outcome, but has different political optics. That is, leave the payroll tax at 6% on the books and keep sending the money to Social Security, and fund a 2% tax “rebate” out of general revenues. The rebate would come, technically, as a payment from general revenues rather than through a cut in the payroll tax, but in the end the effect would be identical. But the technicality is important since it preserves the existing funding mechanism for Social Security even if the taxes are permanently extended.

[On the connection between the payroll tax and support for Social Security, see here. As Bruce Bartlett notes while expressing similar worries, “Arch Social Security hater Peter Ferrara once told me that funding it with general revenues was part of his plan to destroy it by converting Social Security into a welfare program, rather than an earned benefit. He was right.”]

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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