Common Weaknesses in the Republicans’ Tax Proposals
Though for understandable reasons the leading Republican presidential candidates continually emphasize the things that divide them, we would do well to concentrate rather on the things that do not.
The televised-debate format accentuates differences. It did so on tax policy, for example, when last the candidates met – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio clashing sharply on the strengths and weaknesses of value-added taxes. But what that televised debate did not throw into such sharp relief was the extent to which Rubio and Cruz remain in agreement with each other, and with all the candidates on the main stage that night, on at least three major tax commitments – each one of which, if implemented, would set America off on an entirely different path to that pursued by the Obama Administration.
One general area of agreement between the candidates was a shared determination to significantly reduce the level of personal taxation, particularly on the rich.
A second was a shared commitment to lower the rate of corporation tax, as a trigger to economic growth.
A third was a general insistence that it was both possible and necessary to reduce each form of taxation while simultaneously reducing the level of public debt.
Whether those three tax goals are either desirable or achievable should be the matter of prime concern in debates to come. But it won’t be, of course. Horse races are always about the horses, not the course. For those of us concerned about the quality of public policy after the race is over, however, this surely is the appropriate time to subject each of those key Republican tax proposals to serious scrutiny and evaluation.1
REDUCING PERSONAL INCOME TAX
For all the detailed differences between the tax plans emerging from each of the Republican candidates as the campaign progresses, they all do subscribe to various versions of the Kasich thesis that renewed economic growth “requires tax cuts, because,” as he put it in the debate, “if you cut taxes for corporations, and you cut taxes for individuals, you’re going to make things move.”2 All the candidates are in favor of movement, of course – who could not be – though not everyone currently seeking the Republican presidential nomination wants to do away with the IRS in its entirety. Ted Cruz is out on a limb on that one at least: but all of them definitely want fewer and less onerous income tax brackets. Instead of the present 7 tax brackets with the highest at 39.6%, Chris Christie would reduce the number of tax brackets to three, with the highest at 28%; Marco Rubio would have three, the highest at 35%; Donald Trump would have three, the highest at 25%; and so on – while Ted Cruz would replace the lot with a single flat tax of 10% on incomes over $36,000 for a family of four.
In every case, one major effect of the tax-bracket changes proposed would be an easing of the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans – an easing greater than that on the rest of us. Each scheme benefits the rich more than either the poor or the American middle class: an 11.6% income boost for the top 1% in the Bush plan, for example, as against a 2.9% boost for middle-class Americans.3 Marco Rubio likes to deny that his plan disproportionately favors the rich by insisting that “the biggest percentage gains…will accrue to the lowest income groups”;4 but that is just playing with numbers. The Rubio plan gives an annual income gain of over $8,000 to the top 20% of income earners, and just under $3,500 to those in the bottom 20%. Even Donald Trump, whose critique of hedge-fund managers reportedly still worries Wall Street,5 is proposing tax changes on top earners that drown entirely any tax penalty on people (and a role) he once described as “getting away with murder.”6
All the main Republican candidates are going into the Iowa caucus, that is, peddling the same basic tax argument: namely that economic recovery in the United States requires a redistribution of wealth and income up the income ladder, to put even more money than they currently enjoy into the hands of the leaders of corporate America, on the premise that only in that way can wealth and income then trickle back down to the rest of us in the form of enhanced investment and employment.
There is only one problem with this particular Republican tax argument. It is that “trickle-down economics” has been tried before – and found wanting. Political memories on the Right tend to be both short and selective: rarely stretching back past 2008, and when they do, prone to leap over both the Bush presidencies to land in a fantasy version of the Reagan one. But we must not. For in spite of current Republican claims to be bringing something new to the table, there is nothing novel in this feature of the tax plans on offer. We heard very similar arguments in 2012;7 and we experienced an extended experiment in “trickle-down economics” under the presidency of George W. Bush.
His administration cut top rates of income tax twice – in 2001 and 2003 – claiming on each occasion that the cuts would trigger strong economic growth and enhanced job creation. However, the cuts did not produce either. Instead, they left George W. Bush presiding over the slowest rate of job creation since the presidency of his father, and obliged eventually to reverse course by introducing a substantial tax break for low-income Americans in 2007 in a last minute bid to avoid the economic turbulence then building up in his deregulated financial sector. The data on this is plentiful and clear.8 Giving more money to the rich – when they already have so much, and when income inequality and poverty are both so entrenched – slows down the rate of economic recovery. It does not speed it up. It slowed it down in the last Bush presidency, and it will do so again in Republican presidencies to come.
Why? Because the main immediate blockage on renewed rates of investment in the United States is not lack of available funds, triggered by lack of income at the top of the US class ladder. It is lack of demand for the products of that investment in US consumer markets, triggered by lack of income lower down the US class ladder. This missing consumer demand will not be stimulated, therefore, by giving yet more income to people who already have more than they can spend. In such circumstances, consumer demand will only be stimulated by redistributing income downwards: either by shifting the tax burden up the income ladder, freeing low income earners by concentrating the tax-take on those Americans best able to pay it; or by letting wages – both the minimum wage and those collectively bargained – rise.
No mainstream Republican presidential candidate is proposing to do either of those things. Instead and remarkably, each is offering an intensification of even greater class inequality as a platform for popular support. The nonsense of trickle-down economics has allowed them to get away with that sleight-of-hand for far too long already in this electoral cycle. It is time now for that nonsense to stop.
REDUCING CORPORATE TAX RATES
If there is a new and intriguing theme in the Republican candidates’ emerging tax plans in this election cycle, it lies elsewhere. It lies in their sudden concern with corporate tax rates, and in their willingness to blame those rates for both the current spate of corporate inversions and for the holding off-shore by US-based corporations of trillions of dollars of accumulated corporate profits.
Donald Trump, for one, was certain – during the most recent candidate debate – that “they’re leaving because of taxes, but they’re also leaving because they can’t get their money back.” Chris Christie was equally certain that what’s “led to over $2 trillion of American companies’ money that are being kept offshore” was that companies “don’t want to pay the second tax. And who can blame them? They pay tax once overseas. They don’t want to pay 35% tax on the way back.” Indeed, when pressed by the debate moderators on how he would finance necessary infrastructure projects, this was his answer: “Bring the money – the $2 trillion – back to the United States. We’ll tax it, that one time, at 8.75 percent, because 35 percent of zero is zero, but 8.75 percent of $2 trillion is a lot of money. And I would dedicate that money to rebuilding infrastructure here in this country. It would not necessitate us raising any taxes.”9
There is only one problem with this Republican assault on corporate taxation, and with the Chris Christie pitch in particular. It is that the assertions on which the policy proposals are based just aren’t true. Leading American corporations are not paying a 35% rate of taxation to the federal government. In fact some of them are not paying any tax at all. On this, the data is again quite clear. As the latest information from Americans for Tax Fairness demonstrates: the corporate share of federal tax revenue has dropped by two-thirds in sixty years (from 32% in 1952 to just 10% in 2013); General Electric and 25 other profitable Fortune 500 companies paid no federal income taxes from 2008-2012; and profitable corporations paid US income taxes amounting to just 12.6% of their worldwide income in 2010.
Talking about the statutory top rate of corporate tax might help Republican candidates on the stump, but what they should be talking about is the effective tax rate. That is a rate which is both lower than the statutory one, and very much in line with effective rates in other leading OECD economies.10
Because that is so, certain other things then follow. One is that US corporations are not holding money overseas because US tax rates are too high in comparative terms. They are holding money overseas because they have found tax havens where they are free to pay no/little tax at all. A second is that such companies will not, therefore, be persuaded to repatriate their overseas holdings by any general reduction in levels of corporate taxation here – not even a reduction to the 15-25 percent level favored by many of the Republican presidential candidates. Such companies will not be induced to repatriate their overseas holdings through any general cuts in corporate tax levels unless those levels are brought down to those prevalent in the best tax havens the companies have found; and no Republican candidate thus far has said that the United States should so surrender its economic sovereignty as to allow its tax policy to be fixed by entities such as the Cayman Islands. But that is in effect – on their present proposals – what each is now poised to do.
Far from lowering rates of corporate taxation as they propose, any Republican candidate wanting to create a powerful incentive for US-based companies to repatriate their overseas holdings should instead propose an increase in the general rate of corporate taxation on companies whose practices are so unpatriotic, with the assurance of an immediate reduction in such rates only after the repatriation of funds has occurred. Republicans like to create incentives on the American poor to take low-paying employment, by cutting their welfare support – claiming that this is in the long-term interests of everybody. They should now do the same to the corporate sector, by cutting – rather than increasing – corporate welfare in the name of the same common good!
REDUCING TAX-TAKES AND PUBLIC DEBT AT ONE AND THE SAME TIME
There is something deeply offensive about the one-sided nature of the Republican conversation about the virtues of cutting taxes. In the hands of a Chris Christie, the conversation slides towards pure nonsense. Public infrastructure can be adequately funded by taxing repatriated profits, we are told, and yet somehow that extra tax-take is still presented as a reduction in the tax burden on the corporate sector. How can that be: either the tax-take is up or it is down? It cannot be both things simultaneously; and claiming/implying otherwise is like Donald Trump telling us that the Mexican Government will pay for his impenetrable border fence. It makes no sense. It is not the border fence that here is impenetrable. What is impenetrable is actually the logic that lies behind the claim itself.
Other candidates are less disingenuous in the defense of their tax policies, but ultimately equally specious. Jeb Bush tells us that cutting taxes and reducing poverty go together; and yet the only way in which large tax cuts can be combined with a lowering of public borrowing/debt is through major reductions in federal programs. Since no Republican candidate other than Rand Paul is even considering the possibility of a cut in military spending, and Chris Christie is largely on his own in contemplating major cuts in entitlement programs like Social Security, where are those cuts going to fall? They are going to fall heavily on the less protected parts of the federal budget. As the House 2016 budget plan currently advocated by Paul Ryan demonstrates so clearly,11 they are going to fall disproportionately on welfare programs designed to ease the daily condition of the American poor.12
Put any of these Republicans in the White House, and watch the shrinkage in access to health care by low-income Americans and by welfare recipients. Watch the shrinkage in food stamps. Watch the Earned Income Tax Credit wither and die. Put even a Jeb Bush in the White House, and watch federal welfare programs be replaced by a single block grant to individual states.13 We all know how resistant Republican governors have been to the use of a similar grant to extend Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Why should the fate of a general welfare block grant be any different? Likely, it will not.
And we should remember that the “cost” of the tax cuts proposed by each leading Republican presidential candidate – where cost is measured by tax revenues foregone – is actually enormous: possibly $8.1 trillion dollars over a decade in the case of the Bush plan,14 perhaps as much as 40 percent more with Donald Trump’s plan.15 Of course, each candidate claims that this “static cost” will be more than offset by revenues generated by enhanced economic growth – Donald Trump, for one, claims that with only “moderate growth” his proposals are actually revenue-neutral – but the gap between claim and reality is likely to be enormous here.16 After all, US policy on personal and corporate taxation is not the main driver of economic growth in either the global or the domestic economy. It hasn’t been in the past, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that it will be in the future.
All that matters: for taxation is ultimately less a motor of economic growth than a key element in an on-going social contract between those who can afford to pay taxes and those who need the services that taxation sustains. When the Republican candidates propose, as they now do, to reset that contract, it is important that we recognize the craziness and the inconsistencies underpinning so many of the claims they are currently making.
It is crazy, for example, to attempt to justify cutting taxes more for the rich than for the poor by simply noting that the wealthy currently pay more tax. Of course, they do – they’re wealthier! Jeb Bush has made that argument recently,17 ignoring as he did so the fact that the wealthy pay more tax because they have more wealth on which to be taxed, and downplaying the difference in impact of a marginal increase in taxation on those who are rich and those who are not.
And it is simply inconsistent to reconfigure the welfare-net to reduce handouts to the poor, on the argument that too generous a set of welfare payments is a disincentive to work, while simultaneously increasing tax handouts on the rich on the argument that such handouts incentivize them to work harder. Yet Republican law-makers make both those moves simultaneously at every opportunity.
Republicans may fantasize about regenerating a viable trickle-down economics, and they may use verbal sleights-of-hand to avoid talking about the welfare cuts that will follow their tax reforms as certainly as night follows day; but we will have to live in a different kind of America if their proposals ever become public policy. The America that will follow in the wake of a Republican-led pruning of tax-takes and welfare-services will be a poorer, a more divided, and a less civilized America. That is what is at stake in November. No wonder the leading Republican presidential candidates are avoiding too intense an examination of their tax plans. There aren’t too many votes to be won on a platform that says “vote for me, and watch America divide.”
1 For an earlier evaluation, see http://www.davidcoates.net/2015/10/04/challenging-republican-premises-on-the-cutting-of-taxes/
4 Louis Jacobson, “Marco Rubio says bigger percentage gains from his tax plan will accrue to lowest-income groups,” posted on Politifact, January 21, 2016: available at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/04/marco-rubio/marco-rubio-says-biggest-percentage-gains-his-tax-/
5 See Barney Jopson, “Trump and Clinton tax plans scare Wall Street,” The Financial Times, January 14, 2016: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/1d8d4fec-bae0-11e5-b151-8e15c9a029fb.html#axzz3y0xhAskk
8 See chapter 3, “The wonders of trickle-down economics,” in David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010: available at http://www.amazon.com/Answering-Back-Responses-Conservative-Arguments/dp/1441126937
10 Americans for Tax Fairness, Fact Sheet: Corporate Tax Rates, 2013: available at http://www.americansfortaxfairness.org/tax-fairness-briefing-booklet/fact-sheet-corporate-tax-rates/
11 Eduardo Porter, “Republican Candidates Grapple With a Touchy Topic: Poverty,” The New York Times, January 12, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/business/economy/republican-candidates-turn-to-a-touchy-topic-poverty.html
12 For an earlier evaluation, see http://www.davidcoates.net/2015/02/27/hammocks-and-ladders-the-poverty-of-republican-thinking-on-the-poor/
13 Catherine Rampell, “Jeb Bush’s welfare reform plan would only make life worse for America’s poor,” The Washington Post, January 11, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jeb-bush-passes-the-buck-on-the-poor/2016/01/11/aeb6f77a-b897-11e5-99f3-184bc379b12d_story.html
14 Patricia Cohen, “Jeb Bush’s Tax Plan Would Cause $8.1 Trillion Budget Hole, Analysis Finds,” The New York Times, January 21, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/12/08/jeb-bushs-tax-plan-would-cause-8-1-trillion-budget-hole-analysis-finds/
15 The Economist, “Indecent Exposure,” January 2, 2016: available at http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21684808-republican-candidates-tax-proposals-are-exorbitant-indecent-disclosure?zid=309&ah=80dcf288b8561b012f603b9fd9577f0e
16 “….unless it is accompanied by very large spending cuts, it could increase the national debt by nearly 80 percent of gross domestic product by 2036.” Jim Nunns et al, An Analysis of Donald Trump’s Tax Plan, Tax Policy Center, December 22, 2015: available at http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/publications/url.cfm?ID=2000560
17 Kyle Cheney, “Jeb Bush defends tax breaks for wealthy,” Politico, January 21, 2016: available at http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/jeb-bush-tax-rich-breaks-wealthy-214113
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.