Trump’s tax cut is turning 1, and it’s not a happy birthday
A bit less than a year ago, Congress began consideration of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That legislation passed in December, and the new tax law came into force in 2018.
Unlike the bipartisan Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA86), which cleared the Senate with 97 votes, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was passed without a single Democrat’s support.
Also unlike TRA86, which was designed to keep revenues and relative tax burdens constant, the TCJA substantially increased deficits and provided tax cut benefits that were dramatically tilted toward the top.
As we approach the end of our first year under the new law, the early data indicate that the fears of critics were well founded. The law was undoubtedly oversold.
First, proponents of the law believed that it would unleash economic growth sufficient to reduce or even eliminate any increase in deficits. The early data tell a different story.
Treasury data just released show that the deficit has increased by about 17 percent relative to the prior fiscal year, and budget deficits are higher than in any year since 2012, when we were still recovering from the Great Recession.
Tax revenues have dropped from 17.2 percent of GDP last fiscal year to 16.5 percent of GDP now. A big part of this decline has been a steep fall in corporate tax payments due to large corporate tax cuts.
Even prior to the new tax law, the U.S. government raised less from the corporate tax than typical peer countries, due to our porous corporate tax base.
While one should not fixate on budget deficits, particularly in downturns, running such a large budget deficit in good economic times is dangerous. Due to our high debt levels, a high baseline deficit will make it difficult to respond to the next recession.
Deficits also make it more difficult to afford our prior commitments to Social Security and Medicare, to say nothing of desperately needed new investments in infrastructure and education. Importantly, deficits must eventually be paid for. Absent spending cuts, these tax cuts will be paid for by taxes on future workers.
Second, while proponents of the law put forth the idea that corporate tax cuts would ultimately benefit workers, again the early data point to a different story.
The windfall tax savings have not been shared with workers. While stock buybacks are on track to reach record levels, real wage growth has been essentially flat, and lower than wage growth of the prior five years.
So far, there is little sign of an investment boom. While investment is somewhat higher than in 2016, it is on par with investment levels in 2014 and 2015, and far short of the sort of investment boom that would (eventually) be expected to increase worker productivity substantially.
While only time will tell the full effects of tax law changes, evidence from other countries that have cut corporate taxes shows that workers should not expect the rosy scenarios of Trump administration officials to come true.
Individual tax cuts under the legislation are paltry for most workers, and few have noticed them, perhaps due to the fact that health insurance premiums have been rising faster than in prior years.
The repeal of the individual mandate in the TCJA will continue to cause health insurance premium increases, further reducing any middle-class benefits from the TCJA.
By 2027, the average person in the bottom 80 percent of the population will see a small tax increase due to the TCJA, while those in the top 1 percent will continue to receive tens of thousands of dollars in tax cuts.
Third, the tax law does little to stem the large corporate tax avoidance problems of prior law, which cost the U.S. government over $100 billion per year; early data indicate that profit shifting to havens is continuing unabated.
While some provisions of the law make the problem a little better, and some a little worse, overall, the international provisions of the law are expected to lose revenue relative to prior law, setting aside the one-time repatriation tax revenue on prior foreign earnings (a tax cut relative to prior law).
In fact, the global minimum tax of the law makes the United States the least desirable place to book income for multinational companies. Tax haven income is taxed at half the U.S. rate, and income earned in high-tax foreign countries can offset minimum tax due, lowering its effective tax rate below the rate paid in the United States.
Also, several provisions of the law actually incentivize offshoring, including the exemption of the first 10 percent of return on foreign assets from the minimum tax as well as the structure of the foreign-derived intangible income deduction, which is less generous the more U.S. assets you have.
In the end, there are far better ways to help workers through the tax system. Expanding the earned income tax credit to be more generous to workers without children, and to phase out more slowly, would directly raise worker incomes, helping those in society that have too often faced stagnant wages.
That would be a genuine way to help workers through the tax system. The TCJA, in contrast, is a bad deal for workers. To pay for tax cuts favoring those at the top, workers are faced with increasing deficits, health insurance insecurity, and paltry tax cuts that expire over time.
After 35 years of increasing income inequality, the TCJA was a big step in the wrong direction.
Kimberly Clausing is the Thormund A. Miller and Walter Mintz Professor of Economics at Reed College.
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