Deficits and the Dividend Tax Cut: Tax Policy as the Handmaiden of Budget Policy
75 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2006
The 2003 dividend tax cut is scheduled to expire in 2010, but President Bush continues to urge Congress to make it permanent. President Bush argues that the dividend tax cut promotes long-term economic growth, stimulates the economy, makes the tax system fairer, provides a steady source of income for needy senior citizens, and pays for itself.
This Article evaluates the various rationales President Bush offered to justify the dividend tax cut, with an emphasis on the long-term growth rationale. The economic effects of the dividend tax cut, determined without regard to the fact that it was deficit financed, are controversial and the subject of continuing debate among economists. Early evidence suggests that the tax cut increased the size of dividend payouts and the initiation of dividend payouts. Other evidence suggests, however, that the dividend increases may not be as large as some studies indicated, may not be attributable to the dividend tax cut, and may be temporary. Taking into account the deficit financing of the dividend tax cut, the economic effects of the dividend tax cut are clearer. The deficit financing of the dividend tax cut creates negative growth consequences that offset any positive growth consequences of dividend tax relief. The dividend tax cut also is inequitable. It disproportionately benefits high-income Americans but disproportionately burdens low-income and middle-income Americans, due to the effects of cuts in discretionary spending, such as the 2004 and 2005 federal budget cuts that stalled necessary maintenance work on the New Orleans levee system just before Hurricane Katrina.
Congress should not make the dividend tax cut permanent and should repeal the dividend tax cut immediately. Cutting the shareholder-level tax on dividends could have been a viable way of reforming the corporate tax if the dividend tax cut had been structured to ensure that corporate income is taxed at least once and Congress had made up the lost revenue in an equitable and efficient manner or had enacted offsetting spending cuts in an equitable and efficient manner. As enacted, the dividend tax cut does not ensure that corporate income will be taxed at least once and was deficit financed without regard for the harmful future economic and distributional consequences of that deficit financing.
This Article also considers the tax policy implications of the long term fiscal gap and critiques the "five easy pieces" and "starve the beast" approaches to tax and budget policy.
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