|5 big problems the Senate Republican tax bill creates |
“I don’t understand why they didn’t just do a corporate tax cut plus a really attractive middle-class tax cut.”
Updated by Ezra Klein @ezraklein Nov 28, 2017, 8:00am EST
Over the past week, I’ve been speaking with conservative tax experts to try to better understand their case for the Senate’s tax bill, which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is rushing to pass this week. What I’ve found is jarring.
Plenty of right-leaning wonks will make the case for cutting corporate taxes and reforming how they’re collected. But it’s harder to find those who think the way this bill goes about it, or finances it, makes much sense.
“The best thing in the bill is lowering the corporate tax rate,” says Alan Viard, a tax expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The worst thing is the increase in the deficit. I would’ve preferred a revenue-neutral tax reform.”
What’s worse: There’s wide agreement that pretty much everything else in the bill — and there’s a lot of other stuff in the bill — is done badly, in ways that are going to create unnecessary problems down the road.
All legislation strikes a balance between the problems a bill solves and the problems it creates. There are the unintended consequences, of course — the ideas that go awry, the theories that fail in practice. But there are also the intended consequences, the challenges and trade-offs and loopholes and crises that the authors know, in advance, they will create.
The Senate GOP tax bill is remarkable in how many problems it creates, in how certain those problems are compared to the relatively uncertain benefits the bill intends to deliver, and — importantly — in how easy the whole thing would be to fix.
Start with how the bill is paid for. It isn’t. These are deficit-financed tax cuts. Republicans are leaving around $1.5 trillion on the national credit card over the first 10 years. Even so-called dynamic estimates — which take into account economic growth from the plan — show massive revenue losses from the plan.
Decades of tax research show that the gains of a tax bill depend on how it is paid for, with well-designed tax reforms financed by smart spending cuts or loophole closings showing a real growth effect, and deficit-financed tax cuts showing very little — or negative — long-term effects on growth.
“How tax cuts are paid for is very significant,” says Viard. “I co-authored a paper on tax policy lessons from the 2000s, and we looked at the long-run growth effects of deficit-financed tax cuts. In general, we found deficit-financed tax cuts were not a very good idea for growth. To be reliably pro-growth, the best thing you could do is make it revenue neutral.”
Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, agrees. “If there’s some plan to address deficits, it’s very different than if there’s not,” he says. Right now, there’s not.
In addition, the economy is growing and unemployment is low. This is the time to retire debt, so when the next recession comes, the US has the fiscal firepower to fight it. If, eight years from now, interest rates are higher and the global economy is in crisis, it will have been magnificently dumb to have added more than a trillion dollars in debt to pay for corporate tax cuts. If these cuts are a good idea, then they are a good idea worth paying for now.
(And in case this actually needs to be said: No, the tax cuts will not pay for themselves.)
The bill creates a health insurance crisis it has no idea how to solve. You might remember that at the end of the repeal-and-replace debate, Republicans came up with a last-ditch proposal that quickly got dubbed “skinny repeal.” Skinny repeal ended the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and replaced it with ... nothing. This was understood, at the time, as a very bad idea. It was such a bad idea that Senate Republicans would only vote for it on the promise that the House wouldn’t pass it into law.
Now it’s back. But this time, Republicans are thinking of actually making it law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing the individual mandate would save $330 billion — and Republicans want to pocket that $330 billion and use it to finance their tax cuts. But the way that money gets saved is that 13 million fewer people get health insurance. Meanwhile, the people driven out of insurance markets are younger and healthier, so the CBO expects insurance premiums to be 10 percent higher for those left behind.
Many Republicans believe that the CBO overestimates the individual mandate’s power and that its elimination would not be as catastrophic as the agency expects. But remember, if that’s true, then its elimination also won’t save as much money as the agency expects, which means the GOP tax bill will increase deficits by even more.
(Some Republicans have floated the idea of pairing the repeal of the individual mandate with passage of the bipartisan Alexander-Murray package meant to fortify Obamacare’s individual markets. As Dylan Scott explains here, that plan makes no sense — Alexander-Murray is designed to fix problems the law has now, not the new problems that repealing the mandate would create.)
The bill creates giant new loopholes for tax accountants to exploit. Tax expert Dan Shaviro has taken to calling the Republican legislation the “Tax Arbitrage Act of 2018,” and it’s easy to see why. The bill is thick with obvious loopholes that will do little for the economy but will act as a full-employment program for tax lawyers.
Among the largest is the tax cut for so-called “pass-through” entities — essentially, businesses that files taxes under the individual tax code. Under the legislation, these entities pay less than either corporate or individual taxpayers, creating a massive incentive for both individuals and corporations to try to structure themselves as pass-throughs. I have not found one tax expert, including among Republicans who support the bill, who thinks this is a good idea.
“I haven’t heard an argument for it,” says Cowen. “It doesn’t seem to make sense. Ideally we should have fewer companies using pass-through.”
It’s worth noting here that Republicans are currently tweaking the pass-through language — in ways that seem designed to personally benefit President Trump.
Other loopholes abound. There’s a giant shortcut for businesses that make less than $100 million and want to shelter their profits overseas. There’s a bizarre allowance for businesses to deduct both their expenses and the interest on the debt they take on, leading to potentially negative tax rates on new investments. A list like this could go on: This New York Times report identifies some other apparent loopholes, and remember that there are many we don’t know about yet because tax lawyers haven’t found them yet. But they will.
The irony is there are few government agencies Republicans trust less than the IRS, but for this legislation to work, the IRS would have to be inhumanly omnicompetent at detecting tax fraud.
The tax cliff means the bill either costs more than Republicans are admitting or does less than they are promising. Dozens of the tax bill’s most important provisions are set to expire a few years after passage. The individual tax rate cuts, for instance, expire in 2025. So too does the expanded child deduction and the doubling of the standard deduction. The corporate tax cuts, meanwhile, are permanent.
There’s no great mystery to why the bill is written this way. If the individual provisions didn’t expire in a couple of years, then the bill would cost much, much more than it does now, and it wouldn’t be eligible for the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. The bet Republicans are making is that these provisions will prove popular and so future Congresses will refuse to let them expire.
“It’s politically brilliant, and that’s infuriated the left,” the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore told the Washington Post. “How else are you going to fit a $3 trillion tax cut into a $1.5 trillion box?”
There’s a lot of cynicism packed into that comment — and a lot of policy problems. First, when future tax policy is unpredictable, then individuals and businesses can’t plan accordingly, and that’s a drag on growth. Second, if Republicans are right that these provisions will be extended, then the bill will increase debt by far more than anticipated, which will further hold back any growth effects it might have.
Either way, this bill sets up future fiscal crises for no other reason than that Republicans are too craven to pay for the tax cuts they want to pass at the time they want to pass them.
The bill supercharges inequality. According to the Tax Policy Center, by 2027 more than 75 percent of the tax cuts’ benefits will accrue to the top 5 percent of the income distribution, with more than 60 percent of the total gains going to the top 1 percent.
It almost couldn’t be otherwise given that the provisions that benefit the working class expire while the provisions that benefit the superrich don’t. And that’s before taking into account how any of this is paid for — if it’s paid for through the domestic spending cuts Republicans want, it will be yet more regressive in its effects.
As Derek Thompson notes at the Atlantic, all this “comes at a time when post-tax corporate profits as a share of GDP have hovered at a record-high level for the last seven years, and the top 1 percent's share of total income is higher than any time in the second half of the 20th century.” The distribution of economic growth is surely among the most pressing problems in our economy. But this bill makes that problem much, much worse, and for no good reason.
It also makes the bill a betrayal of the White House’s promises. President Trump, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and National Economic Council head Gary Cohn have all promised that this plan will not be a tax cut for a rich. This plan is a giant tax cut for the rich.
The tax plan wouldn’t be difficult to fix. Talking to conservative tax experts, I was struck by how central the corporate tax cuts were to their thinking, and how much everything else in the plan was seen as politics or window dressing.
“The corporate tax piece is really important,” says Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, who served as chief economist to President George W. Bush. “It’s important for real things like plant equipment and financial things like profits. Other countries have caught on to this.”
This is a basically sound theory — the Obama administration also wanted to lower the corporate tax rate, and for much the same reason — but the way the Senate’s tax bill is designed and (not) paid for throws those gains into doubt. The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business surveyed 42 top economists, including Nobel Prize winners and tax specialists, and found that only one agreed the GOP bill would substantially boost the economy — but all of the respondents believed it would balloon the debt.
It would be simple for Republicans to design a tax plan that accomplished their goals on the corporate side, did more for growth, didn’t add to the debt, and actually benefited the poor. That plan would probably cut the corporate rate to 25 percent, rather than the current plan’s proposed 20 percent (note that 25 percent is what Mitt Romney proposed in 2012, and what the Business Roundtable asked for). That would cost quite a bit less money while bringing America’s corporate tax code in line with the rest of the developed world.
From there, Republicans could take out the pass-through nonsense and the expiring individual tax cuts and the repeal of the individual mandate. Instead, they could make the child tax credit bigger and worth more to families that don’t pay income taxes, which Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have proposed, and boost the earned income tax credit, which Speaker Paul Ryan has previously supported, and cut the bottom few tax rates — all of which would ensure the plan truly helped the poor.
And finally, the GOP could pay for the proposal by cutting tax deductions used by the rich — some of the ideas in the legislation now, like capping the mortgage interest deduction, are worthwhile, and Republicans could add more of them if needed. A bill like this would bring more benefits, cause fewer problems, and might even get some Democratic votes.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t just do a corporate tax cut plus a really attractive middle-class tax cut,” says Jason Furman, who served as chief economist to President Barack Obama.