There’s been a good bit written about the Trump tax cut framework released just over a week ago. Most of it points out, as I have here and here, the absurdity of the claims by Trump and GOP spokespeople that this isn’t a tax cut aimed at benefiting the ultra wealthy. After all, even with few details and no attempt to deal with the really tough issues that would face real tax reform considerations, it is awfully clear that almost everything in the package is designed to make the wealthy even wealthier.
Just a quick review of the way the proposed tax cuts exclusively or primarily benefit the ultra wealthy:
- elimination of the estate tax, which taxes fewer than 2% of the estates, those that have in excess of $11 million (the couples’ exempt amount) and haven’t used the various trusts and family partnerships to let even more estate value escape tax through valuation gimmicks
- Not waiting on the tax cut proposal, Trump’s Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin announced in “Second Report to the President on Identifying and Reducing Tax Regulatory Burdens” (Oct. 2, 2017) a current step to let wealthy people continue to use valuation gimmicks to avoid a fair estate tax, through withdrawal of the Obama Administration’s proposed regulation under section 2704 that would disregard the purported restrictions on certain family-controlled entities in setting estate valuations–a regulation clearly merited because of the ridiculous scams of putting assets in family partnerships in order to claim that they are worth 1/3 of their actual value, even though the partnership can be dissolved afterwards with the full value magically returning. (I’ll deal with the regulatory changes in my next post.)
- elimination of the AMT, which imposes tax when the taxpayer would otherwise benefit from a surfeit of regular income tax subsidies (loopholes, tax expenditures, deductions, credits). For a thorough analysis of the AMT, see A Taxing Matter series of 6 posts, beginning here.
- reduction of the statutory corporate tax rate for the largest corporations from 35% to 20%, which benefits primarily the highly compensated managers (who receive substantial amounts of stock options as part of their compensation) and big shareholders (who tend to be mainly the ultra wealthy who own most of the financial assets) and does little or nothing to help small businesses, that already pay tax rates of 25% or less
- creation of a single 25% rate for recipients of all business pass-through income (i.e., from partnerships), which benefits almost exclusively the ultra rich, since small business income is already taxed at 25% or less, while wealthy partners in real estate firms would be taxed at the highest individual rate under current law on their pass-through income, and
- creation of full, upfront expensing, resulting in a non-economic windfall to businesses that will, again, mainly just increase profits passed on to their wealthy owners. (Although this is purportedly a five-year provision, everybody knows that is just a gimmick to pretend that its impact on the deficit is less than would be admitted if it were permanent. Everybody also knows that the intent is to make it permanent.)
But there are always journalists who try a little too hard to give obviously bad tax ideas a surface claim to reasonableness. Apparently, even James Stewart, who writes “common sense” entries for the business section of the New York Times, suffers this vulnerability. See, for example, his “Tax Cuts are Easy, but a Tax Overhaul? Three Proposals to Make the Math Work,” New York Times (Oct. 6, 2017), at B1 (digitally titled “Tax Reform that doesn’t bust the budget? I’ve got a Few Ideas, Oct 5, 2017).
I like the print title better, since the Trump Plan has clearly already ditched any real idea of “tax reform” for a wholesale attempt at trillions of dollars of tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich. There are other things that aren’t so good about the article.
1) Stewart calls the Trump giveaway to the rich “the most ambitious attempt at tax reform in over 40 years.” That’s simply not correct, because it isn’t an attempt at tax reform and it isn’t really ambitious.
- Ambitious? How can Stewart call a grab-bag of all the old GOP cuts-for-the-rich gimmicks “ambitious.” Unless he thinks that conning typical Americans who don’t understand much about taxes into thinking that this is a populist tax reform intended to help the middle and lower income classes and not drop more riches on the already rich makes it ‘ambitious’…..
- Tax reform? This isn’t tax reform; it’s just a series of tax cuts. The framework leaves any thinking about tax reform for somebody else to do–which means it really isn’t intended to happen at all. Later in the article Stewart quotes Holtz-Eakin (right-wing tax cut advocate) and Kevin Brady (same) about the “ambitious” framework. They’re gung ho. Brady says it’s ambitious because they are trying to do what the 1986 reform effort did in several years in only a few months. Nope–they are not trying to do what the 1986 reform did. The 1986 reform was a fully bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate, with Packwood in the Senate and Rostenkowski in the House leading lengthy hearings and in-depth study of issues, along with a responsible and active Treasury and CBO providing in-depth analysis of impacts. Trump and the GOP now intend to pass a tax cut for the rich with only GOP support (unless Trump can bully some election-vulnerable Democrats into going along with the travesty). And they don’t intend the kind of exhaustive study and consideration that would provide real information on who would benefit and who would be hurt. We’ve already heard that some GOP want to pay an outside (GOP-friendly) consultant to do the “dynamic scoring” and not the CBO, because they want to be sure that it predicts plenty of growth (a number that is easily manipulable, which is why ‘single score dynamic scoring’ is utterly absurd).
- Tax reform would look at the wasteful expenditures we make through the tax system to support old technologies that are clearly part of human-caused climate change, such as our continuing century-long subsidy of fossil fuel extraction, coal-based mountainside destruction, and environmental wildlands-destroying oil, gas, mineral and cattle leases.
- Tax reform would consider who has benefited most from the many loopholes and tax expenditures that we’ve riddled the original 1986 tax reform act with in the years of money-smoothed lobbying since–such as the reinstatement of the preferential capital gains rate within 2 years of the 1986 tax reform’s well-considered removal of the preference, or the reinstatement of the absurd R&D credit when thorough study and consideration showed that it did not result in more research but merely more money (fungibly located, to the advantage of IP-intensive industries like pharmaceuticals and digital software firms).
- Tax reform would have a target amount of revenue to raise with taxes, based on social, infrastructure, and other important spending and the debt service needs of the already incurred federal debt, rather than a mere pie-in-the-sky idea of a “dynamic scoring” that would “show” that trillions of dollars of tax cuts over ten years would magically pay for themselves through turbo-charged economic growth that none of the top economists think possible.
2) Stewart acknowledges that the framework appears to be a tax cut for the rich and that it appears to recklessly drive up the deficit and that it leaves the hard part for Congress to figure out (which loopholes to close and how to do it) while claiming huge benefits from corporate and business tax cuts that add to the huge corporate and business tax cuts enacted under Bush 2, many of which were made permanent under Obama. But he excuses all that with the cop-out phrase “this plan is just the opening salvo.”
- Opening salvo? Something that comes after years of GOP planning and saying they wanted to cut taxes on corporations, eliminate the estate tax, eliminate the AMT, cut taxes on high earners, move to a rate structure with fewer and lower rates, and move to much lower tax revenues by eliminating world wide taxation and adopting a territorial system –i.e., do all the things that this ‘framework’ does? That’s just an “opening salvo”? I think that term casts what is going on here in much too friendly a light.
- Opening salvo? when these planners have already said that they are convinced that dynamic scoring (i.e., counting your chickens (economic growth) before they hatch, even before there are any eggs to count) will solve all their problems because they ALWAYS assume that tax cuts to wealthy people will trickle down to everybody else and make the economy grow, even when every bit of evidence from history suggests that simply isn’t the case, including the recent Kansas disaster?
3) Stewart claims that “substantial aspects” of the framework already have bipartisan support, by which he means the idea that “global competition” demands that we cut corporate tax rates and everybody agrees that companies should not be able to stash earnings overseas tax-free.
- Bipartisan support? Of course, while there are various ‘free-market’ economists who make the argument that we need to cut corporate rates for competitive reasons, it can be argued that when 75% of corporations pay no federal income taxes whatsoever and when highly profitable companies have been able to increase their profits and when U.S. corporations pay a smaller amount of taxes as a portion of GDP than corporations in other advanced countries, global competition does not seem to be a problem. The problem is the loopholes in our system that allow multinational firms–especially those that depend on intangible intellectual property rights–to pretend to move those rights around and thereby claim that the profits from that intellectual property created here are earned abroad and not subject to U.S. taxation. We could deal with that, but the GOP in House and Senate aren’t interested in asking those questions in ways that lead to effective answers. Democrats tend to be more interested in considering what the root problems are. So “bipartisan support” that appears on the surface is likely only skin deep.
- Global competition? Right now, we already allow U.S. companies to move active businesses abroad tax free. We facilitate their ability to take advantage of low-tax jurisdictions to compete with U.S.-based companies! We give financial institutions a pass on the ‘subpart F’ provisions of the Code through the “active financing” exception. And the Mnuchin report on regulatory “burdens” indicated that the Trump administration will pull back on the anti-inversion regulations. We know things we can do to stop the way quasi-sovereign U.S. multinationals play various tax jurisdictions against each other. We could deal with that with a renewed emphasis on something other than the old ‘transfer pricing’ methodologies and with full taxation on taking business assets out of the country. We could clamp down on transfer of technology to China in exchange for China letting our multinationals into the markets there. So it is not really “global competition” but failure of this administration or this congress to focus on addressing remedies to problems.
4) Stewart claims that the framework’s “doubling” of the standard deduction will allow “many more individual taxpayers … to file a simple short-form return.”
- Doubling of the standard deduction? Looked at alone, it sounds good. But doubling the deduction while eliminating the personal exemption actually puts a cap on the amount of income exempt for low-income families, rather than increasing it. A family of 5 might well end up paying more in taxes out of an income already inadequate to provide a decent standard of living, especially when coupled with the 20% increase in the lowest rate, from 10% to 12%. Why does Stewart just repeat the (not necessarily correct) selling points for the framework without taking these issues into account?
- Simple short-form return? having 4 rates instead of 7 and doubling the deduction while eliminating the personal exemptions is simplification on an inconsequential scale. The real complications are character of income (that nasty preferential capital gains rate, again), and whether something counts as income or not. The people on the low-income of the scale don’t have simple returns because they have an Earned Income Tax Credit to calculate. People in the middle may have pensions, capital gains, income from investments of varying types, rental income, mortgage interest deductions, and various other items that requires a little more work. Many provisions have exceptions designed to aid certain kinds of businesses or small businesses, all of which add to complications while filling an important function. But let’s also remember that tax preparation software has already made even complicated tax returns fairly “simple” to figure out–just enter the right numbers into the right places in the software. We don’t need tax cuts for the rich to have a fairly simple tax return process for the majority of the people of this country. Most already claim no itemized deductions (nearly 70%, a fairly consistent number). Most can easily do their tax returns with cheap software. Most don’t need tax cuts for the rich to facilitate their tax returns.
5) Stewart claims that “a lower rate for small businesses and pass-through entities, while more controversial, should promote economic growth.” And he thinks that is the most important thing this framework does.
- Lower rate for small businesses? Who is kidding who. Most small businesses are just that–they are SMALL in assets and in revenues, and they are NOT taxed at the 35% statutory rate that applies to corporations that have more than $18 million in taxable income (note–taxable income of 18 million means gross revenues of many more millions). Most small businesses are taxed at 25% or less already!
- Lower rate for pass-through entities? The main pass-through entity is a partnership, and there is no current rate for partnerships to pay tax, because their income, gain, loss, deduction and credit items pass-through to the partners, who take them into account on their tax returns and pay at whatever rate the partners pay based on their total taxable income ‘picture’. Creating a flat rate of 25% for pass-through income won’t benefit small business proprietors, who already pay a lower rate in most cases. But it will hugely benefit wealthy partners in real estate development partnerships and similar companies that would have otherwise been paying tax at the 39.6% rate and under this would pay tax at only 25%.
- Promote economic growth? What about this is in any way empirically supported as promoting economic growth–especially the broad-based, raising- all-boats type of economic growth that actually goes to the middle and lower classes and has a multiplying effect on growth because of the increased demand that creates more business that creates more jobs, etc.? There’s really no support for these long-term GOP tax cut proposals to actually do anything about creating jobs and creating sustained economic growth that will actually help the middle and lower income groups. Cutting corporate taxes mainly puts more money into the pockets of corporate managers already paid in 12-15 million a year and more. Cutting the tax on recipients of partnership pass-through income mainly puts more money into the pockets of the real estate developers and hedge fund managers and joint venture capitalists who already earn tens or hundreds of millions annually. None of those profits will necessarily remain in this country (they are likely to be used to expand in China). And again, Kansas. The Kansas “experiment” in drastic cutting of business taxes was supposed to prove, once and for all, that the GOP ideology of tax cuts that pay for themselves was not an Arthurian legend based on Arthur Laffer’s absurd napkin theory but a real, empirically provable, workable way to jumpstart huge economic growth. After finding the state swamped in deficits and facing reduced growth from the predictable decline in state services, even the GOP members of the Kansas legislature recognized that taxes had to be raised. And they did it over Gov. Brownback’s veto…..That says a whole lot about cutting taxes that the Trump framework people will, of course, call ‘fake news’ (their favorite term for dissing any facts they find inconvenient).
OKAY, I know. I’ve already got 5 items picked for discussion and I’ve not even gotten to Stewart’s three ideas for making the absurd Trump tax framework “add up mathematically.” That’s because he assumes away many of the problems with the framework, making it easier to claim he’s found a solution to the deficit issues.
6) Stewart takes the framework at its word but disregards the state and local tax deduction (likely to be heavily lobbied against) and the expensing (costs $220 billion for just 5 years and would be much more costly than that when made permanent). He’s willing to buy the idea of a budget resolution that says it is okay if the tax cuts result in a $1.5 trillion revenue shortfall over ten years (i.e.,, okay if tax cuts for the rich create an additional $1.5 trillion deficit), on the assumption that drastically faster economic growth will make up much of the difference. As he puts it, “that’s a debatable proposition, but for purposes of this discussion, let’s accept it.”
- A budget resolution for a $1.5 trillion cost over ten years to tax cuts that likely will cost $3 trillion to $7 trillion? How is just “accepting” that reasonable, or common sense? Sounds nutty to me. Especially in light of the arguments that the GOP has made in the past (and can be expected to make again in the near future, in part justified by the deficits created by their tax cuts for the rich) for decreasing funding for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and any other programs for the vulnerable based on their “worry” about deficits and debt.
- Accepting an assumption of economic growth at sustained high rates that are much higher than experienced even during periods of economic stimulus from federal spending? Not just “debatable” but outright “unreasonable.”
7) Finally, Stewart gets to his “three ideas”. Based on his conclusions in item 6, he assumes that he needs to find just $1.1 trillion over 10 years to make the framework workable. (You already know that I think that it is ridiculous to assume away huge portions of the problems with the framework, so I won’t reiterate more than in this sentence.) How does he propose bridging the gap and raising the $1.1 trillion? With some ideas that progressives have been proposing for the last 40 years.
- A tax bracket of 44% on the top 0.1% of taxpayers who have more than $2.1 million of adjusted gross income would raise about $300 billion over 10 years.
- This wouldn’t be near enough to compensate for the huge tax breaks that go mostly to these same taxpayers, but it is something that should be added to at least clawback some of the largess to the rich. The rich received tax cuts from Reagan and Bush 2 that have drastically lowered their share of taxes paid. They would receive another wallopingly huge gift of tax reduction from the Trump framework. Probably the rate ought to be higher (a number of rates at 40%, 44%, 48% and 55% rate, for example, for various levels of income).
- Stewart says raising rates would “raise issues of fairness” by penalizing earned income (i.e., for those CEOs and hedge fund managers who make $300 million or $700 million annually in compensation) while leaving passive investment income that is subject to a capital gains preferential rate untouched. Yeah, that’s a problem, but it is easily solved. Eliminate the preferential capital gains rate, which just favors the very rich anyway, isn’t justifiable under any of the reasons put forward for it, and was eliminated in the well-considered 1986 reforms (before the lobbyists got to Congress and got them to un-eliminate it). Even Holtz-Eakin acknowledges that raising capital gains rates to the same as ordinary income rates would be reasonable.
- Tax capital gains at death, he says, because they are taxed preferentially (if at all) during the owner’s life and there is no justification for allowing them to pass from generation to generation without ever being taxed.
- Hard to disagree with this idea. There is no justification for allowing appreciation to pass untaxed to heirs, with or without an estate tax. This is something that should be enacted (without the elimination of the estate tax) because most estates haven’t been taxed at all, and most estates of the ultra wealthy have huge appreciation that horribly exacerbates inequality when it passes to heirs (who did nothing to earn it, in many if not most cases) with bump up in basis and no taxation of the gains. Combine that with the way such assets permit borrowing during life, to be paid off by sale of a few assets at death at no taxable gain, and you have the ability of the ultra-wealthy to live off their assets with almost no taxation during their lives or in their estates (especially if the estate tax is eliminated) or in the hands of their heirs. As Steve Rosenthal puts it in commentary to Stewart in the article, “to take away the backstop of the estate tax without a tax on capital gains at death is crazy.” Couldn’t say it better myself.
- Stewart says Congress could exempt “family owned farms and small businesses.” Yeah, it could. But it shouldn’t. Those family-owned farms may be huge corporate entities, not ‘small’ in any sense of the word. They can afford to pay tax on gains that haven’t been taxed in a lifetime. Any exemption should be minimal (maybe exempting gains on assets of $1 million or less, like the pre-Bush estate tax exemption amount).
- Curb the deduction for corporate interest expense. This is another workable idea, since debt remains one of the ways that corporations finagle where income goes and where deductions are generated, in spite of the various existing provisions for limiting deductibility of corporate interest payments.
- Most GOP proposals, as Stewart notes, couple reductions in interest deductions with elimination of taxes on interest income. That is not necessarily a sound approach, and you can bet that the real estate industry (among others) would huff and puff and blow the straw house of limitations away in no time. Just look at the “at risk” rules under section 465, which were intended to prevent taxpayers from using nonrecourse debt to create basis to allow utilization of phantom losses, as originally enacted in 1976. It just took another session of Congress to get a loophole that essentially swallowed the rule, allowing “at risk” treatment of “qualified nonrecourse financing” for real estate projects. So any reductions to the deficit here would likely be temporary at best. And there are other real estate tax expenditures that should be attacked, too, like the section 1031 like-kind exchange rules that favor in particular real estate developers by allowing deferral of gain when trading properties (even when it is actually getting cash that a middleman holds, and then buying another–a far cry from the original intent of the section).
Stewart, at the end, takes a victory lap, because these three provisions, if enacted, could conceivably raise enough revenues to close the (assumed) $1.1 trillion gap. The problem –this is very misleading for typical readers. It looks like he is presenting the “tax cuts for the rich” framework as a workable plan that can be easily paid for and that is promising in terms of economic growth potential. As you can see from my analysis, I think the framework itself is not a workable plan, it cannot be easily paid for, and it does not hold out a real promise of economic growth.