Topic: Government and Politics

TPC “Experts” Don’t Know Who Gets What Share of Trump Tax Cuts

According to Wall Street Journal writer Laura Saunders, future Treasury Secretary Mnuchin must be wrong because Tax Policy Center experts say so. Actually, Mr. Mnuchin may be partly right, but the experts are almost entirely wrong.

“Steven Mnuchin, the likely next Treasury secretary, this week said rich U.S. taxpayers won’t get “an absolute tax cut” under President-elect Donald Trump,” writes Ms. Saunders; “But that is not what Mr. Trump says in his taxation plan. In fact, under his approach the wealthy would receive an average tax cut of about $215,000 per household, experts say.” 

“What Mr. Trump says” is not at all the same as what some “experts say.” Expert or not, Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates of who pays what under different tax rates are distressingly capricious.

Mr. Mnuchin appeared to be talking only about individual income taxes. That is why he suggested that lower marginal tax rates for high earners “will be offset by less deductions.” So long as we focus only on non-business taxes (including high salaries and dividends), Mr. Mnuchin was probably right. Indeed, according to Ms. Saunders’ experts, the lost revenue from lower tax rates over 10 years totals $1.49 trillion plus $145 billion from eliminating the 3.8% Obamacare surtax.  Yet those individual tax cuts are more than offset by $2.6 trillion in added revenue from Trump’s cap on itemized deductions and the loss of personal exemptions. More than doubling the standard deduction loses considerable revenue, but not from high-income taxpayers.

Ms. Saunders mentions only the loss of itemized deductions—not exemptions—and concludes “these limits don’t fully offset the effects of income- and estate-tax cuts for high earners proposed by Mr. Trump, according to experts.” 

Repealing the estate tax loses very little revenue, but it is arbitrary for the TPC to assign that lost revenue to people with high incomes because the estate tax is borne by heirs and charities—not dead people.

With estate tax repeal included, only 22% of the Trump tax cut goes to households (including investors) according to the TPC, with 44% of Trump tax cuts going to corporate earnings (and the rest to unincorporated business). 

Problems with Paid Family Leave Redux

Last week I wrote about the unintended consequences of the proposed DC family leave benefit, which is to be financed by a payroll tax on all employers in the District. 

My objections were that the tax increases the cost of operating in the District and that this will likely push some businesses contemplating opening in DC to Maryland or Virginia instead. The other objection I had was that it specified a benefit to be provided that not all companies may want to provide. In an ideal world companies would pay wages to workers and then allow workers to get their own insurance, pensions, transportation, food, and the like on their own and not have these things provided by their workplace. Today, the tax breaks afforded most fringe benefits behoove companies to give many of these things to their workers in lieu of wages, and that’s not efficient. 

I received a surprising amount of feedback from my article, most of which was positive—a first for me—and some readers suggested that I missed a couple issues relevant to the benefit. The first is that while tying the tax to payroll may make sense as far as this benefit is concerned, it also tends to make it more difficult for people to understand the true cost involved. 

A tax that’s .62% of payroll may not seem like a lot, but for a restaurant that has $1 million of revenue that translates to a tax of $2,100 a year, assuming that payroll is one-third of total revenue. For businesses other than restaurants, where payroll typically equals two-thirds of revenue, double that number. That amounts to 2.2% instead of 4.4% of profits, on top of the 8.95% DC corporate profits tax on revenue over $1 million. If they expand the tax to cover medical leave as well—which is on the table—that would add another thousand dollars or so to a restaurant’s cost of doing business. In fact, a better way to see this is as a 50% increase on the tax on business profits, except that this doesn’t vary much with the business cycle.

The other point a restaurant owner suggested to me is that their workers are typically young and part-time, and often have another job. In short, they see this as a benefit few of their twenty-something employees would claim, yet they still would be paying for it. Fortune 500 companies may find the tax easy to swallow, but not so for businesses like my local kebab house that are on the verge of hanging on. This tax, combined with a sharply higher minimum wage and other government mandates—such as the city’s inexplicable refusal to charge for-profit food trucks to use city-owned property for their business, increasing restaurants’ competition further—are hurting their bottom lines, and life is getting more precarious for businesses on the margins. 

Tax Policy Center’s Flawed $6.2 Trillion Revenue Loss from Trump Tax Plan

A crucial graph in the Wall Street Journal article, “Trump Fiscal Plain Roils the GOP,” relies on estimates from the Tax Policy Center. Unfortunately, the TPC provides only static estimates of revenue effects of House Republican or Trump tax plans.  That is, they assume lower marginal tax rates on families and firms have literally no effect at all on tax avoidance or long-term economic growth. 

The Wall Street Journal graph purports to project budget deficits over the next 10 years under Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, the House Republican tax plan and the Trump tax plan.  This is quite misleading, because all three scenarios treat future federal spending as given, unchangeable.  Federal spending rose from 17.6% of GDP in 2001 to 19.1% by 2007, and is now 20.7% in 2015. The 2017 Budget projects spending to reach to 22.4% by 2021 and keep rising. 

The CBO August baseline projects federal spending to total $50.2 trillion from 2017 to 2026, so a mere 5% reduction in that growth would exceed $2.5 trillion.

Under President-elect Trump’s revised tax proposal, claims the Tax Policy Center, “revenues would fall by $6.2 billion over the first decade before accounting for interest costs and macroeconomic effects. Including those factors, the federal debt would rise by at least $7 trillion over the first decade.” 

Do not confuse these alleged “macroeconomic effects” with dynamic analysis used in Tax Foundation models and academic studies. The Tax Foundation estimates, for example, that the House Republican tax plan “would reduce federal revenue by $2.4 trillion over the first decades on a static basis,” but that figure shrinks to $191 billion once they properly account for improved investment incentives,  greater labor and entrepreneurial effort and therefore faster economic growth. 

By contrast, the Tax Policy Center presents only “macro feedback” estimates for the Trump plan. The TPC Keynesian model and Penn-Wharton models assume that revenue losses are 2.6% of GDP, the same as static estimates.  But interest rates are higher, adding to deficits and debt.

Revenues from Trump Plan Unfairly Compared to Fanciful CBO Projections

Tax Policy Center estimate of a 10-year $6.2 trillion revenue loss is used to predict higher interest rates, and those higher interest rates prevent the economy from growing faster, which in turn vindicates the static assumption of a $6.2 trillion revenue loss.  

The circularity of this tangled fable is remarkably illogical.  How could interest rates remain higher if private investment is crowded out leaving GDP growth unchanged?

The TPC tells a similar story about the House Republican tax plan.  “Although the House GOP tax plan would improve incentives to save and invest, it would also substantially increase budget deficits unless offset by spending cuts, resulting in higher interest rates that would crowd out investment [emphasis added].”  This too is an unsupported assertion. The TPC analysis predicts more private savings and therefore cannot simply assume deficits “would crowd out investment.”

78% of Trump Tax Cuts Are for Businesses - not Individuals

The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center produced some estimates of the tax revenues supposedly lost by the most recent (September) Trump tax plan, which raised the top tax rate from 25% to 33%.  

These estimates are being widely misunderstood by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and others, so it may help to actually see the TPC 10-year totals organized by tax changes proposed for individuals, corporations and pass-through businesses. 

The estimates themselves are questionable as are related estimates of the distribution of tax cuts by income groups.  I will deal with those issues in separate posts.  

What most needs emphasizing at this point is that although reporters are writing as though the Trump package is about personal income tax cuts, that only accounts for 22% of the estimated revenue loss (relative to bloated CBO estimates).  Moreover, the 10-year $1.5 trillion loss of revenue from modestly lower individual income tax rates is much smaller than estimated revenue increases from repealing personal exemptions ($2 trillion) and capping itemized deductions ($559 billion).  

The only significant net reduction in taxes on non-business income is from (1) repeal of the alternative minimum tax ($413 billion), and (2) more than doubling the standard deduction ($1.7 trillion) – neither change being of any help to top-income taxpayers. 

Trump and the Emoluments Clause: What Congress Needs to Do

This morning President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter that “I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!”

With that announcement, Trump takes one important step toward addressing both the wider problem of conflicts of interest, and within it the narrower problem—of distinct constitutional dimensions—of the Trump Organization’s complex ongoing dealings with foreign governments. On those latter entanglements, I argue in a new Philadelphia Inquirer piece that under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Congress will affirmatively need to “decide what it is willing to live with in the way of Trump conflicts”—and it should draw those lines before the fact, not after. Excerpt:

…That clause reads in relevant part: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] , shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”…

The wording of the clause itself points one way to resolution: Congress can give consent, as it did in the early years of the Republic to presents received by Ben Franklin and John Jay. …

…it can’t be good for America to generate a series of possible impeachable offenses from a running stream of controversies about whether arm’s-length prices were charged in transactions petty or grand. …

There is no doubt that doing the right thing poses genuine difficulties for Trump not faced by other recent presidents. If he signals that he understands the nature of the problem, it would not be unreasonable to ask for extra time to solve it.

For reasons that Randall Eliason outlines in this helpful explainer, Emoluments Clause issues do not map well onto the concept of “bribery.” (Payments can violate the Emoluments Clause even if made with honest intent on both sides; bribery, for its part, is subject to a separate ban.) Removing himself from day-to-day management should help Trump avoid some violations of the Clause (for example, it will become less likely that a foreign state firm will wind up compensating him for his time). Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA has suggested that if the President-elect refuses to divest ownership of his business he at a minimum “needs to create an insulation wall separating his political activities from those of the organization. Such walls were formerly known in colloquial legal speech as ‘Chinese walls.’”

Even if Trump does that, serious Emolument Clause issues will remain, especially those surrounding favorable treatment that a presidentially owned business may not have sought out but which may nonetheless constitute “presents.” Congress should expect to ramp up the expertise it can apply to these problems, and (absent divestiture) assign ongoing committee responsibility to tracking them. And it should issue clear guidelines as to what it is willing and not willing to approve. Such a policy will not only signal that lawmakers are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously, but could also benefit the Trump Organization itself by clarifying how it needs to respond if and when foreign officials begin acting with otherwise inexplicable solicitude toward its interests.

Expanded and adapted from Overlawyered.

OECD Economic Research Finds That Government Spending Harms Growth

At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Perhaps reflecting the mindset of the European governments that dominate its membership, the Paris-based international bureaucracy has morphed into a cheerleader for statist policies.

All of which was just fine from the perspective of the Obama Administration, which doubtlessly appreciated the OECD’s partisan work to promote class warfare and pimp for wasteful Keynesian spending.

What is particularly irksome to me is the way the OECD often uses dishonest methodology to advance the cause of big government:

But my disdain for the leftist political appointees who run the OECD doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging that the professional economists who work for the institution occasionally generate good statistics and analysis.

For instance, I’ve cited two examples (here and here) of OECD research showing that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule. And I praised another OECD study that admitted the beneficial impact of tax competition. I even listed several good examples of OECD research on tax policy as part of a column that ripped the bureaucracy for some very shoddy work in favor of Obama’s redistribution agenda.

And now we have some more good research to add to that limited list. A new working paper by two economists at the OECD contains some remarkable findings about the negative impact of government spending on economic performance. If you’re pressed for time, here’s the key takeaway from their research:

Governments in the OECD spend on average about 40% of GDP on the provision of public goods, services and transfers. The sheer size of the public sector has prompted a large amount of research on the link between the size of government and economic growth. …This paper investigates empirically the effect of the size and the composition of public spending on long-term growth… The main findings that emerge from the analysis are… Larger governments are associated with lower long-term growth. Larger governments also slowdown the catch-up to the productivity frontier.

For those who want more information, the working paper is filled with useful information and analysis.