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).