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The GOP's final tax bill has four fatal flaws

The tax bill before Congress is more than a missed opportunity. It is a major mistake on four fronts.

First, the bill replies to decades of worsening income inequality with arguably the most regressive tax policy change of our lifetimes. Second, the bill responds to large government debt with more than $1 trillion of deficits.

Third, the bill responds to the staggering complexity of our tax code with a Pandora’s box of new tax planning gimmicks. Lastly, the bill answers our huge problem of multinational company profit shifting by increasing the incentive to offshore. This tax bill adds to our problems instead of solving them.

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The first big mistake is exacerbating our serious problem of income inequality. Since 2015, the economy has done well, finally spreading economic gains to the middle class. But the 35 years from 1980 to 2014 were a time of middle-class economic stagnation and increasing economic inequality.

 

The vast majority of income gains during this time accrued to those in the top few percent of the income distribution, while the bottom 50 percent saw minimal gains, fueling economic insecurity. The labor share of income fell steadily.

The GOP tax bill makes these problems worse. The top of the income distribution receives the vast majority of the tax cuts, especially benefiting corporate shareholders and business owners. Many further down will receive few if any tax benefits.

By the time the bill’s provisions are fully phased in, the average taxpayer in the bottom 80 percent of the population faces a small tax increase due to the expiration of earlier tax cuts and the stealth tax increases from changing the tax code’s measure of inflation, which pushes people slowly upward in the tax bracket structure.

While lawmakers assert that those provisions will not be allowed to expire, that claim is baldly inconsistent with the revenue costs of the bill. If future tax cuts are planned, that will raise deficits in parallel. You can’t have it both ways.

The bill also reduces economic security. The repeal of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act is estimated to reduce health insurance coverage by 13 million people, saving $314 billion. Health insurance premiums will rise for others, and the child tax credit will be more difficult to claim for vulnerable populations. 

Yet somehow, the bill still manages to afford over $80 billion in tax cuts for the richest one-fifth of 1 percent of heirs, and a key change that emerged from conference was a new cut in the top individual income tax rate. These tax cuts pale in comparison to the large gains in top incomes from the big corporate and pass-through business tax cuts. 

The second big step in the wrong direction is increasing deficits by more than $1 trillion. Deficits are already forecast to increase by 2 percentage points of GDP over the next decade due to spending on Social Security and health care for our aging population. This increases debt-to-GDP ratios from 78 percent to about 90 percent. 

Additional deficits are unwise. Larger deficits reduce flexibility in responding to the next recession, likely coming sooner rather than later, given the length of the present expansion. Increasing debt levels also makes it difficult for the government to fund urgent middle-class priorities, such as infrastructure, education and health care.

In its third folly, the tax bill will make the already complicated American tax code even more complex. This hasty and ill-considered legislation generates many new opportunities for tax gimmicks and shenanigans. These new tax-planning opportunities will enrich lawyers and accountants, while entailing large revenue losses for the Treasury Department. 

For example, individuals will have incentives to earn more of their income in business form. There are also many circumstances where actions that are not worthwhile on a pre-tax basis become worthwhile on a post-tax basis. An industry of tax shelters will arise, and the government will lose far more revenue than originally anticipated. These problems will be very difficult — and complicated — to fix.

The fourth mistake is a failure to combat the corporate offshoring of profits. Most observers agree that a sensible corporate tax could be revenue neutral, since reductions in the corporate statutory rate could be paired with provisions expanding the tax base.

Our largest base-narrowing provision is deferral of tax on foreign income, which encourages the shifting of income and activity toward tax havens. Profit shifting from the U.S. tax base to low-tax countries costs the U.S. government more than $100 billion each year. That is a lot of revenue to offset tax rate reductions. 

But, rather that clamp down on profit shifting, the international provisions of the legislation actually lose money, putting aside the one-time gain from the tax break on prior offshore earnings. There are some half-hearted attempts to protect the tax base, but the design of the minimum tax actually encourages offshoring of plant and equipment.

Beyond that, the new system provides an explicit, permanent preference for earning income in low-tax countries rather than the United States. The bill also gives a large windfall to companies that shifted profits offshore in the past, relative to current law.

In the end, this bill is unlikely to usher in a new era of economic growth and prosperity, despite the fervent claims of its backers. In a University of Chicago survey, 37 of 38 top economic experts did not agree that the bill would generate substantially higher GDP growth over the next decade; by the same margin, experts thought the bill would increase debt. 

Deficits are a drag on future U.S. standards of living. Deficits either raise interest rates and crowd out investment (due to the greater demand for loanable funds), or they increase foreign borrowing, such that more of our future output is used to make repayments to foreigners.

In the end, this tax bill will weaken the U.S. economy. It will make it harder to respond to the next recession, it will take funds away from urgent priorities like infrastructure, health care and education, and it will exacerbate our very serious problems of income inequality and economic insecurity.

Congress should reject the bill. If they fail to do so, they should brace themselves for both large deficits and the myriad glitches, gimmicks and mistakes that come from a hasty and reckless tax policy process.

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