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A % here and a % there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money

It goes without saying that Paul Ryan and the Republicans are lying when they claim their tax bill is designed to benefit the middle class. Okay, some of them may not be lying. Some of them may be so stupid that they believe the bullshit Ryan is peddling but, same difference. If you’re a Member of Congress you can be presumed to be smart enough to educate yourself beyond getting a daily dosage of Fox and Friends.

Anyway, this is a gimmick that I hadn’t heard anything about, so I’ll pass it on. I have been familiar with the Republican attempt to use a “chained” CPI to determine Social Security benefit increases, but hadn’t thought about the possibility that it could be used to screw people in other contexts.

By way of background, the “chained” CPI assumes that when tuna gets too expensive, people will switch to cat food, and so it’s only right that the inflation index track the cost of cat food and forget about tuna altogether. It’s been floated previously as a way of reducing Social Security benefit increases, but, as Dean Baker explains, it’s also a backdoor way to raise taxes on the middle class, one that the Republicans have included in their tax plan:

Reductions in Social Security benefits are extremely unpopular across the political spectrum. The program enjoys enormous support among both Democrats and Republicans and people are far more likely to say that benefits should be raised than cut. For this reason, the public should be paying attention to a little noticed provision in the tax bill passed by the House today and which also appears in the bills under consideration in the Senate.

In both cases, the basis for indexing tax brackets would be shifted from Consumer Price Index (CPI) to the Chained Consumer Price Index (CCPI). The difference is that the CCPI takes account of when people change their consumption patterns in response to changes in relative prices.

The classic example is that beef rises in price and chicken falls, we would expect people to consume less beef and more chicken. The CPI assumes that people don’t change their consumption patterns while the CCPI adjusts its basket to assign less importance to beef and greater importance to chicken.

For this reason, the CCPI shows a somewhat lower rate of inflation than the CPI. Typically the gap is 0.2–0.3 percentage points. This matters in the tax bill because the cutoff for the tax brackets is adjusted each year by the CPI. If the CCPI is used rather than CPI, then the cutoffs would rise less rapidly.

For example, if the cutoff for the 25 percent bracket is $40,000 for a single individual and the CPI showed 2.0 percent inflation, then it would rise to $40,800 for the next year. This means a single person would face a tax rate of 25 percent on income above $40,800. If the CCPI showed an inflation rate of 1.7 percent, then the cutoff would rise to $40,680. This means a single person would face a tax rate of 25 percent on income above $40,680.

In a single year, this difference will not mean much, but after 10 years, the difference in the indexes would be between 2.0–3.0 percent and it would grow more through time. This will add a fair bit to many people’s tax bills.

Baker goes on to point out that the change in the tax bill will make it easier to apply a chained CPI to Social Security, even though there is less justification to apply it to the elderly than to the population as a whole, as Baker explains in his post. But for the moment, it’s a gimmick that amounts to a backdoor way of raising taxes over and above what they would otherwise be on a substantial number of people; with those bearing the brunt definitely not in the .01%.

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