Now that Donald Trump has failed in his campaign promise to promptly repeal and replace Obamacare with something better, it’s time to turn to his next promise: tax reform.
Don’t be fooled. Trump has already severely reduced his big tax cut promise to the vast majority.
As for the federal tax system overall, Trump’s own words show he has no plan to address the deep structural problems in the federal tax system, created by the political donor class trading campaign contributions for tax favors.
Trump would do nothing to change rules that convert the burden of federal taxes into a profit center for multinational companies and some wealthy individuals, including himself. What Trump’s words show is that he wants massive new tax breaks for those at the very top, especially himself, with only a dollop of tax savings for the vast majority.
Taxes for Most Americans
Let’s start with how the vast majority would fare.
Congress currently exempts an individual’s first $10,400 per year from federal income tax ($20,800 for married couples).
Trump promised to more than double those figures. “If you are single and earn less than $25,000, or married and jointly earn less than $50,000, you will not owe any income tax,” Trump told voters in writing.
Trump reneged last September, however, telling the New York Economic Club he would exempt only $15,000 for singles ($30,000 for married couples). That’s a 40% reduction in his promise. For more, see How Income Taxes Could Change Under President Trump.
Mink vs. Sable at the Top Tier
Now let’s look at the high end. Trump’s 2005 tax return, which I got in the mail two weeks ago, showed $152.7 million of income. That was enough to put him high up among the 400 largest incomes reported that year.
Trump now says Congress should lower the top individual income tax rate from 39.6% percent to 25% percent. But that break isn't generous enough for him: Under his plan, those in Trump's personal sub-class of ultra-rich business owners would get an even more lavish break– a tax rate of just 15%. That would mean for each dollar of income tax top-ranked business owners now pay they would turn over less than 38 cents.
People who work for someone else, however, would not be eligible for these incredible tax savings. Executives, top sales agents and other highly paid employees would be taxed at 25% percent, a big discount from today, but two-thirds higher than owners would pay. The top execs get mink, but the owners get sable.
Compare the tax bill for two people, each of whom makes $100 million in a year: an owner like Trump who gets to take his money as business profits and a CEO who is an employee. Trump would pay $15 million. The CEO would pay $25 million.
Overall Trump’s tax plan would add $7.2 trillion to the federal debt in the first decade, the Tax Policy Center estimated, using its computer model, which has proved reliable in past projections.
Under Trump’s plan a married couple who work all year to gross $500,000 in salaries would pay the same marginal tax rate as an employee who earns $100 million—and a much higher rate than Trump himself.
Should this go through, it will be interesting to see if tax warfare erupts at the top—or whether the elite will just invent a new way of paying top employees to re-classify them as quasi-owners.
Big Cuts Didn't Work Before
Trump says his 15% rate for business owners will spur economic growth. There is little to no empirical support for that claim. The last tax cuts aimed this way didn’t achieve that goal.
Consider what happened from 2001 through 2012, the 12 years when the George W. Bush tax cuts for those at the top and for investors were in full effect. Adjusted for population and inflation, Americans reported $6.6 trillion less income in those years than if the country had stayed at the level of 2000, the year candidate Bush chose as his base to measure the promised success of his tax cut plans.
That never-earned income of $6.6 trillion is about $48,000 per household. Looked at another way: Had that income been earned and taxed at the average federal income tax rate—and had all of it been subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes as well—America would be economically very healthy today.
That $6.6 trillion in after-tax money would have been enough to pay off every car loan, every credit card debt, every student loan in the U.S. And after all those taxes and debts were paid off, there would have been a pile of cash left – an average of $17,800 for every taxpayer.
So, what’s different this time? Would Trump’s tax cut plans double economic growth from around 2% annually to 4%, as he claims? Trump’s promises are built "on very rosy economic assumptions that I don't think are going to come to fruition," Marc Goldwein of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said after the New York Economic Club address. Many other economists and tax wonks concur.
The Taxes that Got Away
While planning huge cuts at the top, Trump’s plan does nothing to defray these tax revenue losses by tapping other sources of possible revenue.
Living on Borrowed Money. Currently, many billionaires are enjoying multiple mansions, private jets and yachts, but paying little or no income tax. Here's how that can happen:
If you had a billion you could borrow against it, maybe at 2% interest, which is far below the 15% tax rate Trump proposes for business owners. Let's say you have $1 billion in non-dividend paying stocks growing at 5% annually and you want to spend $20 million on your lifestyle. You borrow the $20 million at 2% interest (a bank's best customers get much lower rates than the rest of us). At year end you owe $20.4 million. But your wealth has grown by $50 million, so you are richer than before, ahead by almost $30 million. And—since you didn't sell any of those stocks—you don't owe even a dollar to Uncle Sam. Each year you will get richer and richer with no taxes.
Trump proposes to do exactly nothing about this.
What should happen: Congress should impose rules that make such borrowing taxable income, just as it imposes limits on how much mortgage interest is deductible and how much can go into pension plans and retirement savings.
Deferred Income. Likewise, Trump proposes to do exactly nothing about tax deferrals, a huge source of tax favoritism to the super rich, many of whom can earn now and pay their tax decades later. Deferral is a key to turning taxes from a burden into a source of profit.
Here's how the system that burdens most of us actually converts federal individual and the corporate income tax into a profit center for the politically favored.
If you are a multinational corporation, a manager of a hedge or private equity fund, a corporate executive, a movie star or a top athlete you can earn now and pay by-and-by. Congress lets these privileged citizens borrow their taxes from the government at zero interest for as long as they choose—as long as they follow the rules about deferred income. Those rules exclude Joan and Joe Sixpack, who legally cannot get their pay or pension money until taxes are first deducted and given to Uncle Sam.
This rich people’s entitlement—unlimited interest-free loans from Uncle Sam—gets no attention in the Trump tax plan.
What should happen: Congress should restore the liquid-assets limits that have applied to domestic corporations since 1909. Then it should declare that profits sent offshore will be subject to a stiff penalty tax unless they are repatriated (and made subject to the regular 35% corporate tax rate) within one year.
Corporate Tax Escapes. Then there’s the disparate way Congress taxes foreign and domestic companies, an area where Trump promises more favors for the multinationals. Think of that as his anti-reform plan.
When federal and corporate income taxes are combined, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said this month, the formal federal corporate income tax rate is 39.1%. But the actual rate paid is less than half as much at 18.6%, according to the CBO.
That’s because the multinationals, which tend to be the biggest firms, are legally allowed to siphon taxable profits out of the United States and put the money into tax havens where little or no tax is due. Some big multinationals report their tax liability as a negative number year after year, meaning those companies profit from the tax system, a truth obscured by accounting conventions that need updating. What If You Were Taxed Like a Multinational? explains some of the details.
Congress treats industries and their financial structures so differently that for a decade it levied General Electric profits at 11.8% while the parent of The New York Times paid a 71% rate on its vastly smaller profits. (Full disclosure: I am a former New York Times reporter.)
What should happen: This is a complex area, but basically our system overtaxes manufacturers and undertaxes financial, digital and multinational corporations. I’ll explain how to deal with this in a future column.
For more on his plans, see Opinion: Will Donald Trump's Tax Reforms Reform Anything?
Don’t Be Fooled
Trump wants tax savings for himself and the swamp people he promised to drain right out of the nation’s capital. Now that he is in office, Trump is trying to turn Washington into a tax paradise for himself and other very rich people, a paradise the rest of us will be taxed to pay for unless we demand better.