Will’s approach to the fiscal cliff

George Will‘s latest column explains how the federal debate over the “fiscal cliff” fits with the president’s long-term goals.

With a chip on his shoulder larger than his margin of victory, Barack Obama is approaching his second term by replicating the mistake of his first. Then his overreaching involved health care — expanding the entitlement state at the expense of economic growth. Now he seeks another surge of statism, enlarging the portion of gross domestic product grasped by government and dispensed by politics. The occasion is the misnamed “fiscal cliff,” the proper name for which is: the Democratic Party’s agenda.

For 40 years the party’s principal sources of energy and money — liberal activists, government employees unions — have advocated expanding government’s domestic reach by raising taxes and contracting its foreign reach by cutting defense. Obama’s four years as one of the most liberal senators and his four presidential years indicate he agrees. Like other occasionally numerate but prudently reticent liberals, he surely understands that the entitlement state he favors requires raising taxes on the cohort that has most of the nation’s money — the middle class.

Mitt Romney as candidate and others before and since have suggested increasing revenues by capping income tax deductions. This would increase that tax’s progressivity, without raising rates that would dampen incentives. Obama’s compromise may be: Let’s do both. Remember the story of when the British Admiralty sought six new battleships, the Treasury proposed four, so they compromised on eight.

Those proposing higher taxes on the wealthy note that when the income tax began in 1913, the top rate was 7 percent. But in 1917, war brought a 67 percent rate. Between 1925 and 1931, the rate was 24 percent or 25 percent, but in only five of the subsequent 80 years — 1988-92 — was the top rate lower than it is today.

Republicans, however, respond that because lower rates reduce incentives to distort economic decisions, they promote growth by enhancing efficiency. Hence restoration of the higher rates would be a giant step away from, and might effectively doom, pro-growth tax reform. Furthermore, restoration of the Clinton-era top rate of 39.6 percent would occur in the very different Obama era of regulatory excesses and Obamacare taxes. Hence Republicans rightly resist higher rates.

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