Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why don't people know about the Obama tax cuts?

The New York Times looks into this question:

What if a president cut Americans’ income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?

It is not a rhetorical question. At Pig Pickin’ and Politickin’, a barbecue-fed rally organized here [in Huntersville, North Carolina] last week by a Republican women’s club, a half-dozen guests were asked by a reporter what had happened to their taxes since President Obama took office.

“Federal and state have both gone up,” said Bob Paratore, 59, from nearby Charlotte, echoing the comments of others.

After further prodding — including a reminder that a provision of the stimulus bill had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families by changing withholding rates — Mr. Paratore’s memory was jogged.

“You’re right, you’re right,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you: it was so subtle that personally, I didn’t notice it.”

Few people apparently did.

In a troubling sign for Democrats as they head into the midterm elections, their signature tax cut of the past two years, which decreased income taxes by up to $400 a year for individuals and $800 for married couples, has gone largely unnoticed.

In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.
The North Carolinians' feeling that their taxes had been raised did have some basis in reality:
[T]axpayers in more than 30 states saw their state taxes rise, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That is what happened here in North Carolina. The Treasury Department estimated that the federal tax cut would put $1.7 billion back in the hands of North Carolina taxpayers this year. Last year, though, North Carolina, facing a large budget shortfall, raised a variety of state taxes by roughly a billion dollars.

“It was a wash,” said Mr. Tillis.
Who's Mr. Tillis? That would be Thom Tillis, someone of no significance to the New York Times' readers except that he allows the reporter to voice his opinion through someone else. (Michael Kinsley explained this phenomenon in his excellent piece on why newspaper articles are so long.)

Back to the tax cuts: Obama makes it sound like he planned for people not to notice them:
President Obama said that structuring the tax cuts so that a little more money showed up regularly in people’s paychecks “was the right thing to do economically, but politically it meant that nobody knew that they were getting a tax cut.”

“And in fact what ended up happening was six months into it, or nine months into it,” the president said, “people had thought we had raised their taxes instead of cutting their taxes.”
I find it hard to believe that the economics and the politics were so out of sync with each other. If the specific way the tax cuts were implemented caused people to feel like they hadn't gotten any relief, wouldn't that have undermined the goal of stimulating the economy?


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