Does Mitt Romney A Clear Position on Tax Policy?

Stephen Dubner says Mr. Romney does and points to a NYTimes oped written by Greg Mankiw as that position paper:

But perhaps the very most interesting thing about the Mankiw piece is the lead: “Do the rich pay their fair share in taxes? This is likely to become a defining question during the presidential campaign.” This is a classic in winking understatement, for Mankiw was not only an advisor to Bush, but is also (as duly noted in the bio on his piece) an advisor to Mitt Romney on Romney’s current campaign. I applaud Mankiw, the Times, and Romney for having the courage to produce what is essentially a position paper on taxation in the pages of the Times. As long as everyone’s cards are on the table, which they are here, I see no harm. But I sure would have liked to see the e-mails back and forth between the Mankiw and the Romney camp as the Times piece was being edited; and it sure will be interesting to see how this trenchant piece of tax commentary plays out in Romney’s campaign. I can just imagine one of his opponents whipping out the Mankiw article a few weeks or months from now and waving it in his face – “So the rich pay too much tax, huh?”

Doesn’t the suggestion that the rich pay too much in taxes imply that the middle class and the working poor pay too little? It does unless one thinks we ought to slash the budgets of things like the Defense Department – which is not going to happen if Mitt Romney has his way. The claim that Mr. Romney was courageous in producing a position paper on taxation is absurd on so many levels. Greg noted one:

No emails. No phone calls. No smoke signals. I am not an employee of the campaign. I am a Harvard professor, expressing my own views, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately to a candidate for President. After listening to a variety of advisers with various perspectives, Romney decides on his own what positions to take.

The other levels on which this statement about Romney’s courage is absurd goes to a couple of critiques of Greg’s “super-compelling” oped both noted by Brad DeLong. While I think Mark Thoma had a more compelling discussion of the fairness issue, my contribution, which Brad was so kind to highlight, goes to the simple arithmetic of the long-run budget constraint that Mr. Romney has yet to address:

And by looking at 2004, he is forgetting that the budget is not exactly in balance. Yes, the General Fund deficit was rather large so current tax obligations do not capture the cost of government as in all those deferred tax bills thanks to the Bush tax “cuts”. But one might try Greg did that the unified deficit is not that large … Greg leaves out the fact that we have a large Social Security surplus, which is the reason why he can argue that the “deficit” is not that large. Implicit in the use of this figure is the proposition that those payroll “contributions” we are making are NOT to become our retirement benefits down the road. As long as we are posing questions for political candidates, let’s pose this one for Mitt Romney (as Greg is one of his advisors): do you intend to slash Social Security benefits in the future as you continue to impose these employment taxes? After all, you want to maintain the Bush tax “cuts” and still have a large defense department.

In case Mr. Romney hasn’t seen my question – let me restate it. How will you address the long-run fiscal problem, that is, will you raise income taxes or will you impose that backdoor employment tax increase known as “entitlement reform”, which really means cutting Social Security benefits? Until Mr. Romney answer this question clearly – let’s not pretend he has a serious position paper on taxes.

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