Briefing Book

How Would a Populist Tax?

Spoiler alert: not like Trump.

By Max B. Sawicky

Tagged InequalityPopulismRepublicansTaxesTrump Administration

In possibly the least surprising news of the year, President Donald Trump would like to cut taxes for the rich. The Administration has yet to unveil anything that could legitimately be called a “tax reform plan”; what we got instead was a one-pager filled with bullet points, to which one Twitter wag reacted with, “I’ve worked harder on e-vites than this.” That being said, the President’s tax cheat sheet, such as it is, does reveal the Administration’s innermost desires for tax reform.

Some have said that a measure that cuts taxes cannot truthfully be called reform. This is wrong, even if you don’t think taxes should go down. How much revenue to collect and how to collect it are separate questions. Let’s start with how to collect, then move on to how much.

To address the first question, we would do well to harken back to Senator John Edwards’ distinction between taxing wealth and taxing work. Taxing wealth means taxing capital, a goal shared by socialists and populists. Capital in this context means ownership rights to financial assets: stock and bonds and the like. Capital income takes the form of dividends, interest, rent, capital gains, royalties, inheritances, and (very large) gifts. Taxing work or labor means taxing wages, salaries, fringe benefits, as well as the income of the self-employed and lower-income proprietors. (When proprietors have high incomes, it’s because they have capital.)

Trump would limit the tax rate on “business” (actually, capital) to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the rates on individuals would be set at 15, 25, and 35 percent. As New York University tax law professor Dan Shaviro has pointed out, this amounts to a surtax on labor. Not very populist! Shocking, right?

It is true that many small fry proprietors and the self-employed could escape the surtax by incorporating, albeit at some cost. But broadly speaking the preferential 15 percent rate on “business” constitutes a huge bias against labor.

When you discriminate against a particular type of income—in this case, wages and salaries—you create an incentive for tax avoidance.  The Trump Tax would make a Disneyland for tax avoidance. Those with means could pay lawyers and accountants to devise ways of running income through personal corporations. Owners of corporate stock would reduce their taxes because the firms in which they have an ownership interest could retain profits and let them grow tax-free inside the firm. If they paid them out as dividends, they would be taxed immediately at both the firm and individual level. Taxes would be more complicated, but complexity of this type is like the briar patch to Br’er Rabbit. (Google it, kids.)

No self-respecting populist would tax labor at a higher rate than capital, quite the contrary. Currently, different types of capital income enjoy a variety of preferential treatments in the tax code. Anyone honestly seeking to simplify taxes would sweep away these loopholes.

The corporate income tax has been under fire for a while now, including from the unpopulist Obama Administration. Contrary to uninformed commentary, the corporate rate of 35 percent is not “the highest in the world” when one compares actual taxes paid to corporate income (what’s called the “average effective rate”).

In popular discussions, attention tends to gloss over what is or isn’t in the tax base and focus on tax rates. Of course, if something isn’t in the tax base, the tax rate applying to it is zero. Naturally a populist would favor graduated marginal rates. Recent research by Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva indicates that the top marginal rate on most income could be higher than 80 percent without harming the economy. The current rate under the individual income tax is 39.6, more if one includes the Obamacare tax and the payroll tax. In the 1950s, the period of greatest economic growth in U.S. history, the top income tax rate was 91 percent.

A much higher rate on capital gains is more problematic. Capital gains depend largely on stock market transactions, which can be volatile and are sensitive to tax rates. Previous rates of tax on capital gains in the high 20s and low 30s did not appear to do any damage to the U.S. economy.

Since there is no good rationale for dynastic accumulation of wealth, a populist would also tax inheritances and gifts as income. This would moderate the ability of the rich to reward their feckless offspring for winning the genetic Olympics.

Finally, the enlightened populist would acknowledge the historic success and political strength of social insurance, especially Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance. To uphold the contributory feature at the root of their success, the payroll tax would be left untouched. It would still be possible to alleviate the payroll tax burden on low-wage workers through the expansion of refundable credits in the individual income tax.

The upshot is that a great deal of new revenue could be available to the government by relieving the rich of at least some of the extraordinary increases in their share of the national income.

According to the Republican story being told these days, tax simplification is achieved by the elimination of some deductions. In their benevolence, the R’s have zeroed in on deductions that tend to mostly benefit residents of blue states, namely states with income and property taxes. For these Democratic states, slightly simpler taxes will mean higher taxes. It’s hard to see how any Republican member of Congress from states with income and property taxes could survive after supporting such a change.

Although deductions tend to benefit those with higher incomes, the impact of a tax change on equality depends on how the whole package differs from the existing system. It’s always, “Compared to what?” There aren’t enough details on Trump’s cheat sheet to gauge the fairness of eliminating any particular deduction.

The Administration is promising to retain deductions for charity and mortgage interest. It should be noted that the elimination of some deductions, combined with a higher standard deduction, diminishes or destroys the value of all the others. For many, it will no longer pay to itemize deductions. However, this will not necessarily simplify taxes, since, in order to know whether it pays to itemize, the taxpayer has to keep the same records and do the same calculations. Charitable organizations and other non-profits that live on tax-deductible donations will have some cause for concern here as well, since fewer opportunities to itemize means donations will become more expensive for many donors.

To summarize, a populist tax program would seek to include all capital income in the tax base and tax it no less than labor, if not more. In that context, it would be worth considering how to scale back deductions.

And I haven’t covered everything. The options of a financial transactions tax and a carbon merit discussion too.

Now, to the question of how much. How much revenue should the government collect? Since populists want to maximize employment, they should want higher deficits at present. A revenue cut is not the only or best way to generate a higher deficit. More spending will do that too. From a populist standpoint, more spending is also the most effective way to raise employment and wages, and to provide valuable public services in the process. Spending has a higher “multiplier effect” on total GDP, and improved public services and facilities are urgently needed. There is a dual benefit here. Needless to say, the Trump budget is moving in the opposite direction, to the extent what he’s presented could be called a budget.

So how high should the rates be? Well, actually that’s the wrong question here. The right starting point is how high spending should be, and then, depending on the state of national employment, how much of that spending should be offset by tax revenue. Given those parameters, as discussed above, the base should be broad and the rates should be graduated (rising with income).

When the real tax debate gets going, an exaggerated focus on the deficit, irrespective of the state of the economy, is predictable. Democrats have been running on Republicans’ same notion of fiscal irresponsibility since the mid-80s, a losing idea. As noted above, there is still room for employment growth, so deficit reduction should not be seized upon as an economic priority, let alone a political one.

Trump’s advocates are denying the deficit impact of the Trump tax cut, on the grounds of ye olde supply-side elixir: The tax cut will “pay for itself.” Republican tax experts such as Greg Mankiw and Douglas Holtz-Eakin have already shot that down. Research showing that almost any tax cut would recoup more than, at the very most, a third of its revenue loss runs from scant to nonexistent. Most estimates are well south of a 33 percent revenue rebound.

Contrary to what some commentators have claimed, so-called “dynamic scoring”—factoring in the economic effects of a tax cut on revenue growth—is not going to save Trump’s tax cuts from criticism. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) are responsible for estimating the revenue impacts of tax changes. The CBO has not been very indulgent of Paul Ryan’s health-care legislation. It is not likely to roll over for tax cuts. They will do their own dynamic scoring voodoo, and it could end up making such a tax cut look worse, not better.

The other big laugh in this comes from Rep. Paul Ryan’s attempts to claim the Trump tax sheet has some relationship to Ryan’s so-called “border adjustment tax” that’s been flopping in the House of Representatives. There is zero overlap between those proposals.

Popular debates on taxes tend to focus on rates and related taxable income levels. Just as important, I’ve tried to show, is what goes into the tax base—how taxable income is defined. The malign trend in taxation is narrowing the tax base to wages, limiting tax breaks to those with relatively high salaries, and letting recipients of capital income escape tax. In other words, to paraphrase one of Trump’s colleagues in the New York real estate business from way back, the infamous Leona Helmsley, “Only the little people will pay taxes.” The newest iteration of the Trump Administration’s tax plan would make this statement truer than ever.

Read more about InequalityPopulismRepublicansTaxesTrump Administration

Max B. Sawicky is a writer and economist in Virginia. He co-edits ThePopulist.Buzz with Bob Dreyfuss.

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