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## Purple America – The Best Election Maps

For all the talk of red states and blue states, much of America is really purple.

That simple observation has inspired some great alternatives to the standard red and blue maps depicting electoral outcomes.

Princeton’s Robert Vanderbei, for example, has created an animation that makes three improvements on the standard red/blue map: he maps counties not just states; he uses shades of purple to reflect the mix of Democratic and Republican votes; and he uses green for third parties.

Here’s his animation for the 1960 to 2008 elections; keep an eye out for Ross Perot. (Vanderbei also has a static version of the 2012 results.)

Michigan’s Mark Newman also adopts the purple view, with another wrinkle. Traditional maps emphasize geographic area, not the location of electoral votes (or population). Using some fancy math, he resizes and reshapes states to reflect their relative electoral import. The result resembles a smooshed butterfly, with blue areas (mostly cities) amid a red web:

## Can a Candidate Win Any Number of Electoral Votes from 0 to 538?

Let’s take a break from the presidential campaign to consider a recreational math question posed by New York Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum. On Twitter, he wondered:

Is there any number of electoral votes between 0 and 538 that is impossible to amass, assuming electors are faithful?

Put another way, could a presidential candidate win any number of electoral votes from 0 to 538?

The answer is intuitive if you know a key piece of electoral college trivia. But there’s still a fun question of how best to actually prove that intuition.

My best attempt below. Stop reading now if you want to figure it on your own.

## The Partisan and Ideological Makeup of Congress

A lovely infographic from xkcd tracing the party and ideology of members of Congress (click on graphic for full size).

## How Much Money Can You Raise by Capping Deductions?

Governor Romney has proposed roughly \$5 trillion in tax cuts, but he doesn’t want to reduce overall tax revenues. He hopes to generate some revenue by boosting the economy, but even if that works, he will need trillions of dollars of “base broadeners” — i.e., offsetting tax increases. Like most politicians, he’s been vague about what those base broadeners might be. But in the past few weeks, he has discussed the idea of capping the amount of itemized deductions taxpayers can take, perhaps to \$17,000, \$25,000, or \$50,000.

How much revenue could you raise by doing this? My colleagues at the Tax Policy Center just released some estimates of this. As noted by Bob Williams:

Eliminating all itemized deductions would yield about \$2 trillion of additional revenue over ten years if we cut all rates by 20 percent and eliminate the AMT [DM: two key aspects of Romney's tax proposal]. Capping deductions would generate less additional revenue, and the higher the cap, the smaller the gain. Limiting deductions to \$17,000 would increase revenues by nearly \$1.7 trillion over ten years. A \$25,000 cap would yield roughly \$1.3 trillion and a \$50,000 cap would raise only about \$760 billion.

Capping itemized deductions at \$25,000 would thus produce about one-quarter of the revenue needed to offset Governor Romney’s tax cuts, and completely eliminating them (which he has not suggested) would cover about 40% of the revenue needed.

As you might expect, high caps are quite progressive, i.e., they:

[I]mpose proportionally more of the tax increase on higher-income households, as new TPC estimates show. With tax rates 20 percent below today’s rates, about 83 percent of the revenue gain in 2015 from a \$17,000 cap would fall on the top quintile and about 40 percent on the top 1 percent. Raising the cap to \$25,000 would boost those shares to nearly 90 percent on the top quintile and fully half on the top 1 percent. A \$50,000 cap would virtually exempt the bottom four quintiles from higher taxes: less than 4 percent of the tax increase would fall on them, while nearly 80 percent would hit the top 1 percent. (Phasing down the caps at high-income levels [DM: which Romney has mentioned as a possibility] would, of course, concentrate the revenue gains even more at the high end, but how much would depend on the details.)

More here.

## Five Things You Should Know about Mitt Romney’s “\$5 Trillion Tax Cut”

You’ve probably heard claims that Mitt Romney wants to cut taxes by \$5 trillion. Here are five things you should know about that figure:

1. \$5 trillion is the gross amount of tax cuts he has proposed, not the net impact of all his intended tax reforms.

Governor Romney has been very specific about the taxes he would cut. Most notably, he would reduce today’s individual income tax rates by one-fifth (so the 10 percent bracket would fall to 8 percent, the 35 percent to 28 percent, etc.) and reduce the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. In addition, he would eliminate the alternative minimum tax (AMT), the estate tax, the taxes created in 2010’s health reform act, and taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest for incomes up to \$200,000 (\$100,000 for singles). The \$5 trillion figure reflects the revenue impact of all those cuts.

But Romney has also said that he intends his reforms to be revenue-neutral, with the specified revenue losses being offset by a combination of economic growth and unspecified cuts in deductions and other tax preferences. The net impact of his reforms would undoubtedly be less than \$5 trillion, perhaps much less if he’s aggressive in going after tax breaks or willing to compromise on some of his other tax reform goals (e.g., not raising taxes on investment income). Without any details about what he would do, however, we can’t measure the net revenue impact of his ideas.

2. \$5 trillion is a 10-year extrapolation from a TPC estimate for 2015.

TPC has estimated that the gross tax cuts proposed by Romney would amount to \$456 billion in 2015. Budget debates in Washington often focus on ten-year periods, so commentators have coalesced around a natural, if imprecise, extrapolation: multiply by 10 and round up because of a growing economy. Result: \$5 trillion over ten years.

3. \$5 trillion does not include the impact of permanently extending many expiring tax cuts, including those from 2001 and 2003.

In budget parlance, the \$5 trillion is measured against a current policy baseline, not a current law one. TPC’s current policy baseline assumes that many expiring tax cuts, including the 2001 and 2003 cuts, the AMT patch, the current version of the estate tax, and the tax credits enacted or expanded in 2009 will all be extended permanently. Romney proposes to extend all of these except the 2009 credits. Because it is measured against current policy, the \$5 trillion figure does not include the revenue impact of any of those extensions (but does include a small revenue increase from expiration of the credits).

The current law baseline assumes all tax cuts expire as scheduled yielding almost \$5 trillion more revenue than does current policy. Relative to current law, Romney’s tax proposal would thus be roughly a \$10 trillion gross tax cut. (The same issue arises with President Obama’s tax proposals, which we estimate amount to a \$2.1 trillion net tax increase relative to current policy, but a \$2.8 trillion net tax cut relative to current law.)

4. \$5 trillion includes more than \$1 trillion in gross tax cuts for families earning \$200,000 or less.

Governor Romney’s specified tax cuts would go primarily to high-income taxpayers for a simple reason: they pay a large share of taxes and thus get a large benefit from a proportional reduction in tax rates. But that doesn’t mean that all the tax cuts go to top earners. Middle- and upper-middle income taxpayers would also get a gross tax reduction because of the reduction in tax rates, the elimination of taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest for low and middle incomes, and, for some, the elimination of the AMT. Those gross tax cuts amount to more than \$1 trillion over ten years.

5. \$5 trillion includes around \$1 trillion in gross tax cuts for corporations.

Cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent would lower corporate tax revenues by roughly \$1 trillion over the next decade. Little-discussed in the current debate is whether and how Governor Romney would offset this revenue loss.

As he has rightly noted, corporate taxes are ultimately borne by people, including workers and shareholders. Most of the corporate rate reductions would ultimately benefit high-income taxpayers since they own more investment assets and earn higher labor income. But about two-fifths of the benefit would go to low-, middle-, and upper-middle income workers and investors.

Bottom line: Governor Romney has proposed about \$5 trillion in specific, gross tax cuts over the next decade relative to current policy, most but not all of which would go to high-income taxpayers. He has also promised to offset a substantial portion of those cuts—presumably in the trillions of dollars—by reducing deductions and other tax breaks, primarily for high-income households. Lacking any specifics, however, we can’t know what net tax cut, if any, he proposes.

## Five Myths about the 47 Percent

Each Sunday, the Washington Post runs an opinion piece debunking five myths about a topic in the news. Bill Gale and I penned today’s, addressing five myths about the 47 percent of households who pay no federal income tax in any given year. Here is the Cliff Notes version:

Myth #1: Forty-seven percent of Americans don’t pay taxes. “This oft-heard claim ignores the many other taxes Americans encounter in their daily lives.”

Myth #2: Members of the 47 percent will never pay federal income taxes. In fact, households often move in and out of the 47 percent, primarily because of changes in their income.

Myth #3: Many high-income people game the system to pay no income tax. Gaming certainly happens, but “it has essentially nothing to do with who does and doesn’t pay income taxes … the vast majority of people who pay no federal income tax have low earnings, are elderly or have children at home.” They aren’t scheming millionaires.

Myth #4: The 47 percent vote Democratic. Many low-income folks don’t vote at all; many seniors vote Republican.

Myth #5: Tax increases are the only way to bring more of these households onto the [income] tax rolls. Rolling back tax breaks like the child credit would, of course, be one way to reduce the ranks of the 47 percent, if one were so inclined. But don’t forget economic growth. Faster job creation and growing incomes would help move some households up the income scale and out of the 47 percent.

The full version is here.

## About the Famous 47% Figure (and Its 46% Cousin)

My most popular blog post, by a long shot, was this one in July 2011 explaining why almost half of Americans paid no federal income tax. If you are interested in some context behind Governor Romney’s now famous remarks about the 47 percent (TPC calculated it as 46 percent for 2011), please check it out.

One item I didn’t mention in that post is that the number of taxpayers not paying federal income tax should decline over time. As the economy recovers, higher incomes will boost the fraction of households that pay federal income tax.

## Understanding TPC’s Analysis of Governor Romney’s Tax Plan

The Tax Policy Center’s latest research report went viral last week, drawing attention in the presidential campaign and sparking a constructive discussion of the practical challenges of tax reform. Unfortunately, the response has also included some unwarranted inferences from one side and unwarranted vitriol from the other, distracting from the fundamental message of the study: tax reform is hard.

The paper, authored by Sam Brown, Bill Gale, and Adam Looney, examines the challenges policymakers face in designing a revenue-neutral income tax reform. The paper illustrates the importance of the tradeoffs among revenue, tax rates, and progressivity for the tax policies put forward by presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It found, subject to certain assumptions I discuss below, that any revenue-neutral plan along the lines Governor Romney has outlined would reduce taxes for high-income households, requiring higher taxes on middle- or low-income households. I doubt that’s his intent, but it is an implication of what we can tell about his plan so far. (We look forward to updating our analysis, of course, if and when Governor Romney provides more details.)

The paper is the latest in a series of TPC studies that have documented both the promise and the difficulty of base-broadening, rate-lowering tax reform. Last month, for example, Hang Nguyen, Jim Nunns, Eric Toder, and Roberton Williams documented just how hard it can be to cut tax preferences to pay for lower tax rates. An earlier paper by Dan Baneman and Eric Toder documented the distributional impacts of individual income tax preferences.

The new study applies those insights to Governor Romney’s tax proposal. To do so, the authors had to confront a fundamental challenge: Governor Romney has not offered a fully-specified plan. He has been explicit about the tax cuts he has in mind, including a one-fifth reduction in marginal tax rates from today’s level, which would drop the top rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and a cut in capital gains and dividend taxes for families with incomes below \$200,000. He and his team have also said that reform should be revenue-neutral and not increase taxes on capital gains and dividends. But they have not provided any detail about what tax preferences they would cut to make up lost revenue.

As a political matter, such reticence is understandable. To sell yourself and your policy, it’s natural to emphasize the things that people like, such as tax cuts, while downplaying the specifics of who will bear the accompanying costs. Last February, President Obama did the same thing when he rolled out his business tax proposal. The president was very clear about lowering the corporate rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, but he provided few examples of the tax breaks he would cut to pay for it. Such is politics.

For those of us in the business of policy analysis, however, this poses a challenge. TPC’s goal is to inform the tax policy debate as best we can. While we strongly prefer to analyze complete plans, that sometimes isn’t possible. So we provide what information we can with the resources available. Earlier this year, for example, we analyzed the specified parts of Governor Romney’s proposal and documented how much revenue he would have to make up by unspecified base broadening (or, possibly, macroeconomic growth) and how the rate cuts would affect households at different income levels.

The latest study asked a different question: Could Romney’s plan maintain current progressivity given revenue neutrality and reasonable assumptions about what types of base broadening he’d propose? There are roughly \$1.3 trillion in tax expenditures out there, but not all will be on Governor Romney’s list. He has said, for example, that raising capital gains and dividend taxes isn’t an option and has generally spoken about lowering taxes on saving and investment. Based on those statements, the authors considered what would happen if Romney kept all the tax breaks associated with saving and investment, including not only the lower rates on capital gains and dividends, but also the special treatment for municipal bonds, IRA and 401ks, and certain life-insurance plans, as well as the ability to avoid capital gains taxes at death (known as step-up basis). The authors also recognized that touching some tax breaks is beyond the realm of political possibility, such as taxing the implicit rent people get from owning their own home.

Given those factors, the study then examined the most progressive way of reducing the other tax breaks that remain on the table—i.e. it rolls them back first for high-income people. But there aren’t enough of those preferences to offset the benefits that high-income households get from the rate reductions. As a result, a revenue-neutral reform within these constraints would cut taxes at the high-end while raising them in the middle and perhaps bottom.

What should we infer from this result? Like Howard Gleckman, I don’t interpret this as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives. One can charitably view his plan as a combination of political signaling and the opening offer in what would, if he gets elected, become a negotiation.

To get a sense of where such negotiation might lead, keep in mind that Romney’s plan is not the first to propose a 28 percent top rate. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 did, as did the Bowles-Simpson proposal and the similar Domenici-Rivlin effort (on which I served). Unlike Governor Romney’s proposal, all three of those tax reforms reflect political compromise. And in all three cases, part of that compromise was eliminating some tax preferences for saving and investment, which tend to be especially important for high-income taxpayers. In particular, all three reforms resulted in capital gains and dividends being taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

TPC’s latest study highlights the realities that lead to such compromises.

## Has the Government Been Growing or Shrinking? Employment Edition

My recent post on government size prompted several readers to ask a natural follow-up question: how has the government’s role as employer changed over time?

To answer, the following chart shows federal, state, and local employment as a share of overall U.S. payrolls:

In July, governments accounted for 16.5 percent of U.S. employment. That’s down from the 17.7 percent peak in early 2010, when the weak economy, stimulus efforts, and the decennial census all boosted government’s share of employment. And it’s down from the levels of much of the past forty years.

On the other hand, it’s also up from the sub-16 percent level reached back in the go-go days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Employment thus tells a similar story to government spending on goods and services: if we set the late 1990s to one side, federal, state, and local governments aren’t large by historical standards; indeed, they are somewhat smaller than over most of the past few decades. And they’ve clearly shrunk, in relative terms, over the past couple of years. (But, as noted in my earlier post, overall government spending has grown because of the increase in transfer programs.)

P.S. Like my previous chart on government spending, this one focuses on the size of government relative to the rest of the economy (here measured by nonfarm payroll employment). Over at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney find a more severe drop in government employment than does my chart. The reason is that they focus on government employment as a share of the population, while my chart compares it to overall employment. That’s an important distinction given the dramatic decline in employment, relative to the population, in recent years.

P.P.S. As Ernie Tedeschi notes, this measure doesn’t capture government contractors. So any change in the mix of private contractors vs. direct employees will affect the ratio. This is another reason why focusing on spending metrics may be better than employment figures.

## Has Government Gotten Bigger or Smaller? Yes.

Politicians and pundits constantly debate the size of government. Is it big or small? Growing or shrinking?

You might hope these simple questions have simple answers. But they don’t. Measuring government size is not as easy as it sounds. For example, official statistics track two different measures of government spending. And those measures tell different stories:

The blue line shows how much federal, state, and local governments directly contribute to economic activity, measured as a share of overall gross domestic product (GDP). If you’ve ever taken an intro economics class, you know that contribution as G, shorthand for government spending. G represents all the goods and services that governments provide, valued at the cost of producing them. G thus includes everything from buying aircraft carriers to paying teachers to housing our ambassador in Zambia.

At 19.5 percent of GDP, G is down from the 21.5 percent it hit in the worst days of the Great Recession. As Catherine Rampell of the New York Times pointed out last week, it’s also below the 20.3 percent average of the available data back to 1947. For most of the past 65 years, federal, state, and local governments had a larger direct economic role producing goods and services than they do today.

There’s one notable exception: today’s government consumption and investment spending is notably larger than it was during the economic boom and fiscal restraint of the late 1990s and early 2000s. From mid-1996 to mid-2001, government accounted for less than 18 percent of GDP. Relative to that benchmark, government is now noticeably larger.

The orange line shows a broader measure that captures all the spending in government budgets—all of G plus much more. Governments pay interest on their debts. More important, they make transfer payments through programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and housing vouchers. Transfer spending does not directly contribute to GDP and thus is not part of G. Instead, it provides economic resources to people (and some businesses) that then show up in other GDP components such as consumer spending and private investment.

This broader measure of government spending is much larger than G alone. In 2011, for example, government spending totaled \$5.6 trillion, about 37 percent of GDP. But only \$3.1 trillion (20 percent of GDP) went for goods and services. The other \$2.5 trillion (17 percent) covered transfers and interest.

Like G, this broader measure of government has declined since the (official) end of the Great Recession. Since peaking at 39 percent in the second quarter of 2009, it has fallen to 36 percent in the second quarter of 2012.

Also like G, this measure has grown since the boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the middle of 2000, government spending totaled just 30 percent of GDP, a full 6 percentage points less than today.

The two measures thus agree on recent history: government has shrunk over the past three years as the economy has slowly recovered from the Great Recession and government policy responses have faded. But government spending is still notably larger than at the turn of the century.

The story changes, however, if we look further back in time. Although governments spent more on goods and services in the past, total spending was almost always lower. Since 1960, when data on the broader measure begin, total government spending has averaged about 32 percent. It never reached today’s 36 percent until 2008, when the financial crisis began in earnest.

Much of the recent increase in overall spending is due to the severity of the downturn. But that’s not the only factor. Government’s economic role has changed. As recently as the early 1960s, federal, state, and local governments devoted most of their efforts to providing public goods and services. Now they devote large portions of their budgets to helping people through cash and in-kind transfers—programs like Medicare and Medicaid that were created in 1965 and account for much of the growth in the gap between the orange and blue lines.

Government thus has gotten bigger. But it’s also gotten smaller. It all depends on the time period you consider and the measure you use.

P.S. Keep in mind that this discussion focuses on a relative measure of government size—the ratio of government spending to the overall economy—not an absolute one. Government thus expands if government spending grows faster than the economy and contracts if the reverse is true.

P.P.S. Measuring government size poses other challenges. Eric Toder and I discuss several in our paper “How Big is the Federal Government?” Perhaps most important is that governments now do a great deal of spending through the tax code. Traditional spending numbers thus don’t fully reflect the size or trend in government spending. For more, see this earlier post.