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Perry's tax cuts will be huge for the wealthy. How huge?

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(Read caption) Republican presidential hopeful Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Johnson County GOP Fall BBQ at Clear Creek-Amana High School, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, in Tiffin, Iowa.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry says he wants to cut taxes for everyone and balance the budget. It’s probably impossible to do both. Sadly, Perry’s new fiscal plan may fail at each. 

But just how far short he falls depends on what you’re measuring his plan against. I was a pretty decent basketball player before my knees gave out—relative to the other guys in the gym. But compared to Kobe Bryant, not so much.  

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The Tax Policy Center has concluded that Perry’s “Cut, Balance, and Grow” fiscal platform will lavish huge tax cuts on the wealthy. It will cut taxes for some of the working poor. And it will also add trillions to the deficit.

But how many trillions? And just how will middle-class families fare? It all depends on whether you assume the 2001/2003/2010 tax cuts expire as scheduled at the end of next year or whether you think they are going to continue.  

This is a particular problem with Perry’s plan since he wants to give taxpayers a choice between paying under his new rules or under today’s tax code. But does that mean the rules in effect right now or the law that is scheduled to be back on the books starting in 2013 (when Perry would be President). This sounds like a play by Samuel Beckett, only two guys sit on a park bench and argue endlessly about what the tax code will look like in two years.  

Keep in mind that this describes how Perry would change tax revenues relative to a baseline. No matter which reality you subscribe to, Perry would generate the same amount of  money in 2015. TPC estimates the Perry tax code would collect $2.7 trillion or 14.6 of Gross Domestic Product  assuming his plan is fully phased-in.  

But once you start to compare, matters get complicated fast. For instance, TPC estimates Perry would cut federal revenues by $1 trillion in 2015—if you assume the 2001/2003/2010 tax cuts expire as scheduled.

Under what the wonks like to call the current law baseline, that would reduce revenues by a mind-boggling 27 percent in that year alone. Btw, TPC’s estimate is “static” and does not assume any changes to the overall economy as a result of these tax cuts.

Curiously, allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire seems to be Perry’s preference since it would drive more people to his system. But this is anathema to most Republicans. To paraphrase, first Perry would raise taxes before he’d cut ‘em.    

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By contrast, he’d reduce taxes by about $600 billion if the Bush-era law is still on the books (current policy in budget-speak). But whichever baseline you prefer, Perry would require massive spending cuts if he is to balance the budget as promised while collecting only 14.6 percent of GDP in revenues.  

However, the choice of baselines does paint a very different picture when it comes to who would benefit from the Perry plan. Compared to what they’d pay if the law mostly reverted to what was in effect at the end of the Clinton Administration, those making $1 million or more would get a 2015 tax cut of about $640,000. By contrast, those making between $10,000 and $20,000 would get about $100. Those making $40,000 to $50,000 would get an average tax cut of about $800.

Compared what would happen if the Bush-era law were still on the books in 2015, Perry’s plan would look somewhat different. Those making more than $1 million would get an average tax cut of about $500,000, while those making between $10,000 and $20,000 would get about $200. A typical household making between $40,000 and $50,000 would get about $250.

But what’s especially striking is how many middle-income people would get a tax cut at all. If taxes go back up before Perry’s plan kicks in, the Texas governor would cut taxes for two-thirds of those in that $40,000-$50,000 group. But if the Bush-era law is still on the books, only one-third of these folks would do better.

Sorting this out is not easy. But before you get too lost in the baseline maze, keep your eye on the basic story: Perry would cut taxes for a lot of people, especially for those at the top of the income scale.  And he’d blow a giant hole in the budget.  The rest, as they say, is commentary.