Finance

Details show tax bill isn't really about competitiveness or workers

The rhetoric coming out of the White House and the Congress touts corporate tax cuts as essential to make the economy competitive and help American workers. Yet, the House Tax Cuts and Jobs Act makes it abundantly clear that the true priorities of the legislation have little to do with competitiveness or workers and far more to do with rewarding business owners. 

First, the tax legislation loses revenue over 10 years and even more in future decades. Deficits weaken the competitiveness of our economy in one of two ways. Government borrowing increases demand for loanable funds, raising interest rates and lowering investment.

Or, if foreign capital inflows to the United States offset that effect, such inflows are associated with a stronger dollar and a larger trade deficit, increasing protectionist pressures, already precariously high in the Trump administration (and tariffs are regressive taxes.) Borrowing from abroad must eventually be repaid, lowering future living standards. 

 

Second, deficit spending harms our ability to fund infrastructure and respond to recessions, two crucial ingredients in competitiveness. The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is already forecast to increase by over 10 percentage points this decade (due to demographic changes that increase spending on Social Security and Medicare).

Making deficits even larger will reduce our ability to respond to the next recession, harming American workers. Deficits also reduce our ability to spend on sorely needed infrastructure projects. Good public infrastructure is important for making U.S. workers productive.

Well-functioning roads, bridges, ports, airports, computing and internet access help ensure the smooth transport of goods, services and ideas. Public investments pay large dividends, especially given our recent under-investment. 

Third, our higher education system is a key source of economic growth and opportunity, yet the bill contains misguided attacks on higher education.

Under the provisions of the bill, student loan interest is no longer deductible, tuition waivers for graduate students would be taxable, employer-provided tuition assistance would be taxed and college endowments are taxed.

These short-sighted provisions weaken a source of substantial U.S. economic strength. We have the strongest higher education system in the world, and this sector is a source of innovation, business collaboration and highly productive workers.

Attacking higher education will result in fewer Ph.D. scientists, more burdensome student loans and faltering innovation. Tax increases on higher education total $69 billion over 10 years; in comparison, the one-fifth of 1 percent of estates that benefit from estate tax cuts gain $172 billion in benefits.

Fourth, provisions that are most likely to spur new investment, such as expensing, sunset after five years, whereas provisions that would provide tax windfalls for investments made a long time ago are excessively generous.

The bill provides a temporary incentive for new investments, which would allow companies to write off the cost of new investments for five years. However, this provision expires after five years. In comparison, the corporate rate cut to 20 percent is excessively generous relative to what we can afford, and its short-run effect is to provide a windfall to the owners of corporations.

Even more egregious is the repatriation rate. Companies receive a special rate of 5 percent or 12 percent on profits they have shifted abroad to tax havens in the past. There is simply no economic justification for such a huge giveaway. Prior similar policy experiments have conclusively shown no positive effects on investments or jobs.

Fifth, key provisions of the bill shift the playing field toward foreign income and away from U.S. activity. A territorial system entirely exempts foreign income from taxation. This makes foreign income and economic activity even more tax advantaged than under the current system, since there will no longer be eventual U.S. taxation of foreign income.

While there is a minimum tax of 10 percent on some excess foreign income, 10 percent is also less than 20 percent (and there is an incentive to have more tangible assets offshore to reduce the bite of the minimum tax.) In the end, the new system contains a clear tax preference for foreign income over domestic income.

Sixth, the bill puts business owners ahead of their workers. The business tax cuts in the bill total $1 trillion over 10 years, whereas individual tax cuts total $230 billion and estate tax cuts total $170 billion. Important individual cuts, like the family credit, are sunset, while business tax cuts are made permanent. 

Republicans argue that cutting business tax rates will unleash a new era of investment and economic growth, ultimately benefitting workers, perhaps by more than $4,000 each year. Yet these views have been discredited as far too optimistic by observers throughout the political spectrum.

As I've argued elsewhere, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the claim that business tax cuts redound to workers by increasing investment and worker productivity. First, U.S. companies enjoy historically high after-tax profits, low effective tax rates and globally strong competitive positions.

Second, debt-financed investments receive a subsidy under the present tax system and interest rates have been quite low for some time. Of late, secular stagnation and the weak economic position of the middle class are the more likely deterrents to investment. Finally, there is scant evidence that corporate tax cuts lead to investment and wage increases.

A tax bill focused on workers would focus any tax cuts on taxes that workers pay directly. The Earned Income Tax Credit could be expanded to help low-income workers, encouraging work incentives and labor force participation.

Tax cuts could be directed at families, instead of raising taxes on millions. At the same time, business tax reform should be revenue neutral, lowering rates and expanding the base in an offsetting manner.

Instead, this bill reveals its true priorities: tax cuts for business owners and estates, done in a way that is more likely to reduce than increase the nation's competitiveness. We can do a lot better.

Kimberly Clausing is the Thormund A. Miller and Walter Mintz Professor of Economics at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Her research studies the taxation of multinational firms, examining how government decisions and firm behavior interplay in an increasingly global world economy.

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