What you'll pay in taxes

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By Pat Regnier, Money Magazine assistant managing editor

Who says George W. Bush has a legacy problem? If either McCain or Obama gets his way, most people will get to keep the big tax cuts Bush won in 2001 and 2003.

The peculiar feature of the Bush tax cuts, which lowered the government's take on income, estates, capital gains and dividends, is that they were temporary, at least on paper. After 2010, both income tax rates and the rates on capital gains and dividends will automatically shoot back up.

McCain proposes to call all of this off and also wants to lock in a permanent estate-tax cut. Obama just calls off most of the hikes.

The top two marginal income tax rates would rise under the Democrats' plan, bringing the 33% bracket up to 36% and today's 35% bracket up to 39.6%. The top rates on capital gains and dividends will go up from 15% to 20% for people earning over $250,000.

Obama would tax estates much more than McCain but still less than at the rate they'd be taxed after 2010 if the law didn't change. Both Obama and McCain say they'll extend the current "patch" that keeps more taxpayers from falling under the alternative minimum tax.

But Obama and McCain also have some new tax goodies to hand out. They go in distinctly different directions: McCain would reduce the top rate on corporate income tax from 35% to 25%, a move that he says will make American businesses more competitive.

The Republican's main tax cut for the middle class comes in the form of a higher exemption for dependents: You'd be able to write off $7,000 per child by 2016.

Obama, meanwhile, is all about middle-class tax credits. There are new breaks for having a job, for going to college and for paying mortgage interest (if you don't earn enough to benefit from the current deduction).

Many of Obama's credits are refundable, which means the government will in essence write a check to make sure that you get the full value of the credit even if it's more than you owe in taxes.

Under the Obama plan, some of the poor would in fact pay a negative tax - that is, they'd get money back from the government - even after including payroll taxes.

"It's social spending through the tax code," says economist Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center (TPC) in Washington, D.C. (McCain also uses refundable credits but only in his health plan.)

Overall, McCain would cut taxes by about $1,600 per household in 2009, while Obama would cut them by about $330, according to an analysis by the TPC. By 2012, Obama would raise total taxes, while McCain would still cut. (That's not counting the tax effects of their health plans.)

But those rough averages don't even begin to tell you what you'd actually pay. For most people, perhaps surprisingly, Obama is the bigger tax cutter in any year. Check out the table at the bottom of the page.

McCain's tax cuts skew heavily to households at the top end of the income ladder, with the top 20% enjoying an average $6,500 cut. Obama, thanks in part to those credits, gets more cuts to lower- and middle-income people, to the tune of about $1,000 for most households in 2009.

Even people in the upper-middle-income level get a somewhat larger average cut from Obama than from McCain. On average, the top 5% of earners would be hit with a tax hike under Obama next year, or the top 10% by 2012.

What would they do to your tax bill?
John McCain would lower everyone's taxes but give the wealthy the largest cuts. Barack Obama would hike taxes on the most affluent.
  The Obama Plan The McCain Plan
Less than $18,981 20% -$567 -0.7% -$21 4.4%
$18,982 to $37,595 20% -$892 3.5% -$118 10.2%
$37,596 to $66,354 20% -$1,118 14.7% -$325 16.2%
$66,355 to $111,645 20% -$1,264 18.4% -$994 18.7%
$111,645 to $160,972 10% -$2,135 21.1% -$2,584 20.8%
$160,973 to $226,918 5% -$2,796 23.0% -$4,437 22.1%
$226,919 to $603,402 4% +$121 26.6% -$8,159 24.0%
$603,403 and up 1% +$93,709 34.4% -$48,862 27.0%
NOTES: Does note include health-care provisions. Tax rate includes corporate and payroll taxes. SOURCE: Tax Policy Center

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