I'm an auditorium in the University of Minnesota about to hear economic gurus for Barack Obama and John McCain: Austen Goolsbee, Doug Holtz-Eakin, and some unaffiliateds. It's a half-full room and I'm a few rows in front of David Broder, who is answering phone calls in the loudest indoor voice I've ever heard: "THIS IS DAVID BRODER, RETURNING YOUR CALL. I'M TALKING QUIETLY BECAUSE A SPEECH IS STARTING."
McCain's team goes first, with John Taylor subbing in for Holtz-Eakin, with a disclaimer: "These are tough times." Solution:
– Remove the penalty that firms face when they create jobs in the U.S. – "the second highest tax rate in the world."
– Prevent personal tax increases. "He does not want to raise taxes on anybody. The idea of preventing taxes increasing on personal incomes is a great way of preventing tax increases on small businesses."
– Double exemption on dependents.
– The health care tax credit.
– Don't increase marginal tax rates: Cut, if possible. "My guess is Obama would take it up to 65 percent, maybe as high as 70 percent."
– McCain's team projects that revenues will grow 5 percent a year, so they'll balance the budget by "getting off the binge we've been on recently" by keeping that growth at 2.5 percent.
Next up: Goolsbee.
"I disagree vehemently" with Taylor's characterization of Obama's plans.
Bush was a disaster: "He pulled the oldest page out of the playbook: We need to grow jobs and the way to do that is cut taxes and it will trickle down and create growth. And it didn't work."
The same people criticizing Obama attacked Clinton's tax hikes. "They were wrong." And "trickle down failed." Bush's other mistakes were "unfunded tax cuts" and "riddling the thing [the tax code] with gimmicks."
Solutions: the health care tax credit. "It is a net tax cut and it is a substantial tax cut for 95 percent of America." The only people who'd hurt would see their taxes rises to Clinton-era levels: Not a problem.
– Obama's tax policy would reduce the deficit: "McCain's policy, which Prof. Holz-Eakin witnessed from the stump, would explode the deficit."
– McCain's dependent exemption does not apply to 101 million households. "It is absolutely following the Bush playbook, pretending that the 2000s didn't happen."
Goolsbee mocks McCain's promise to balance the budget, as he "isn't even pretending" that he's scored spending in order to do that."Which $800 billion a year would he cut from spending?"
Joel Slemrod gets up to critique both plans. "They can't both be right," he says. "There is no sign of fundamental tax reform from either candidate. There is no sign that either policy will address the long-term fiscal imbalance between the promises in Social Security and especially Medicare."
Slemrod attacks both candidates, McCain a little more than Obama, for not paying for everything. He really hates supply-side:"The 'starve the beast' philosophy has been decisively shown in the last administration to not be true."
The Tax Policy Center's Leonard Burman attacks both candidates for failing to simplify the code. "The tax system has become kind of a Christmas tree where most new spending is run through taxes," he says. On the health care credit: "Why is it run through the tax system? It's a voucher!"
"Ultimately, this complexity undermines support for the progressive income tax."
The panelists have all come to the same table now. Taylor dismisses Goolsbee's comparisons fo the situation in 2009 and 1993. "Bush 41 left a booming economy to Bill Clinton." Goolsbee rolls his eyes. "We have a net tax cut." "It's a NOT tax cut!" says Taylor.
Goolsbee says "the McCain tax cuts are twice as large and twice as regressive" as Bush's. Again, he says this failed: Famiy income has gone down.
Taylor pushes McCain's idea of offering people a simplified tax code as an opt-out of the current one–something we haven't heard much of. "These details need to be worked out but that is a good political way to proceed."
Goolsbee keeps needling Taylor on how McCain will pay for everything: Taylor names "victory in Iraq," stopping farm subsidies, and "the terrible problem of earmarks."
First question: Why does the McCain campaign praise Sarah Palin's Alaska oil windfall profits tax but attack Obama's. Taylor… "can't speak to it at all" Goolsbee: "I think that fairly speaks for itself."
Second question: The tax gap. Taylor agrees that it's a problem McCain will deal with. Goolsbee finds a villain: "the Republicans in Congress have blocked every attempt to close the tax gap."