The final Republican tax bill has now been passed by both the House and the Senate and awaits the President’s signature which is expected soon. It dramatically lowers the federal corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. This is highly beneficial as it will provide a big incentive for U.S. multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for spending and reinvestment.
The huge problem, of course, is that the tax rate cuts are not paid for by other offsets and will add $1 trillion over ten years to our already exploding national debt. In fact, we are likely to see trillion dollar deficits again as soon as FY 2019.
Here is a cogent analysis of the bill’s weaknesses by the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip:
Distortionary business tax breaks still remain such as for oil and gas drilling, electric cars and renewable energy. Also the “carried interest” loophole largely remains intact.
New breaks are created, most importantly a 20% deduction for businesses which pay taxes as individuals (pass throughs). This introduces “grave complexity” and creates huge incentives for tax avoidance.
The challenge of constraining entitlement growth has become much more difficult. The soaring cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is the main driver of our debt problem. The Democrats, having been excluded from developing the tax plan, will be far less likely to cooperate on entitlement reform.
Conclusion. Corporate tax rate reform, as desirable as it is, as been badly handled by the Republicans. The new tax law not only makes the debt much worse by itself but poisons the atmosphere for actually figuring out a way to effectively address entitlement reform, the key to getting debt under control.
It is a very good idea to cut the top corporate tax rate to 20% or so from its current 35% level. This will make the U.S. competitive with other developed countries and encourage our multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S. It will also encourage other foreign companies to set up shop in the U.S.
My last post, however, strongly criticizes the current GOP tax plan, now in Conference Committee, because it will add $1 trillion to our already huge debt:
Current national debt, at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) is the highest it has been since right after WWII, and is already predicted by CBO to keep getting worse, without major changes in current policy. When interest rates eventually return to more normal and higher levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket. And this will continue indefinitely, eventually leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
This means that the GOP tax plan, by adding an additional $1 trillion to our debt, is terrible fiscal policy. But the situation is even worse than this. It is also bad economic policy:
Economic growth is finally becoming robust. We now have had two quarters in a row of 3% growth. In 2015 median household income grew by 5.2% with another 3.2% added in 2016. Blue collar wages are beginning to take off (see chart). The overall unemployment rate has dropped to 4.1%. Even the unemployment rate for Americans age 25 and older, without a high school diploma, has dropped to 5.2% (see second chart).
Conclusion. The last thing our economy needs right now is the artificial stimulus caused by a deficit-financed tax cut. It is likely to overheat an already hot economy and thereby ignite inflation which will force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates much faster than would otherwise be necessary.
The House and Senate have now each passed their own versions of tax reform and a conference will come up with a single version acceptable to both legislative chambers. Each of the individual bills has been scored to add $1 trillion to the national debt over a ten year period and so the final bill will probably have the same feature. This is a badge of dishonor on the controlling Republican Congress for the following reasons:
Yes, economic growth at 2.1% of GDP since the end of the Great Recession is too slow and has caused stagnant wages for millions of middle- and lower-income workers. Even though the unemployment rate has now dropped to 4.1% and the economy has grown at a rate of 3% for the past two quarters, there is still much labor slack to make up for.
Yes, the corporate tax rate is too high and encourages multinational companies to invest overseas. Immediate expensing for new business investment would also speed up growth and thereby create new jobs and higher wages.
Revenue neutral tax reform is “easily” accomplished by “simply” offsetting all tax rate cuts by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions by an equal amount. Since two thirds of taxpayers do not itemize deductions, it is primarily the higher income taxpayers who benefit from tax deductions and they can afford to pay higher taxes.
Current national debt, at 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is the highest it has been since right after WWII, and is already predicted by the CBO to steadily keep getting worse. When interest rates eventually return to more normal and higher levels, interest payments on the debt will soar. And this will continue indefinitely, eventually leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The GOP tax plan should be killed. Although a revenue-neutral tax plan could be put together and would be beneficial, the current plan makes our debt much worse and should be killed. We simply must make shrinking the debt a very high priority and not be distracted from getting this done.
Responsible tax reform will be highly beneficial for the U.S. economy because:
Economic growth will be speeded up by lowering tax rates on businesses, thereby encouraging more investment.
National debt will shrink because faster growth will produce more tax revenue. But this only works if the revised tax plan is revenue neutral to begin with.
The Trump tax plan, described here and here, has the following features:
three tax brackets, reduced from seven. Simplification like this is a good idea.
double the standard deduction. This puts more money in the pockets of the average tax payer who does not itemize deductions and is therefore a good idea.
repeal of the alternative minimum tax. This only affects wealthy people and should be retained, if necessary, to make sure that overall reform does not increase the deficit.
lower capital gains tax. This will encourage more investment but should not be included unless the overall plan is revenue neutral.
repeal of inheritance tax. This tax feature should be retained until our annual budget deficits are eliminated, i.e. until we achieve balanced budgets on an annual basis.
preserving deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The mortgage interest deduction should be greatly reduced from its current level of $1 million per residence. Wealthy taxpayers don’t need that much help. Raising the standard deduction will already help middle income taxpayers.
cutting the corporate tax rate. This is an excellent idea as long as its revenue loss is made up elsewhere. It will encourage multinational corporations to bring their overseas profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S.
Conclusion. The Trump tax plan has some good features as well as some poor ones. Reducing tax rates is a good idea. But adding to annual deficits is a very bad idea. With some effort it is possible to reduce tax rates in a revenue neutral way.
Most informed observers of the U.S. economy agree that the Corporate Income Tax of 35% is too high and should be lowered to a rate which is more competitive with other developed countries. Republican Congressional leaders and the Trump administration have agreed that a 20% rate is about the right level.
Now the question is how to make up the tax revenue lost to the federal government from a lower tax rate. One idea is to impose a Border Adjustment Tax on imports into the U.S. but exempting exports from such a tax. Since the U.S. trade deficit is currently running at about $500 billion per year (see chart), a 20% tax on imports offset by a 20% tax credit for exports would raise the necessary $1 billion per year.
Economic theory predicts that a 20% BAT would mean that the dollar would rise in value by 20%, offsetting the higher costs of imports. But if this happens, then other industries, such as U.S. tourism, would take a big hit.
Other countries could retaliate in ways that would be unfavorable to us and cause a “Trump slump.”
If a BAT leads to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports, the $500 billion trade deficit will shrink and so the BAT will bring in less revenue than the predicted $100 billion per year.
The Barron’s article suggests much better ways to make up the $100 billion in tax revenue (on a static basis) which would be lost to a corporate tax rate cut to 20%. For example:
A corporate tax rate cut of this magnitude would be revenue enhancing (on a dynamic basis), easily raising an additional $50 billion in tax revenue.
The CATO Institute recently compiled a list of corporate welfare programs in the federal budget totaling $100 billion. Eliminating just half of this would save an additional $50 billion.
Conclusion. Cutting the corporate tax rate to 20% from its current level of 35% will contribute significantly to faster economic growth. It should be quite possible to keep such a tax rate cut revenue neutral by cutting back on crony capitalism.
All four of the major presidential candidates have tax plans. Hillary Clinton would make small tweaks in our current tax system. Bernie Sanders would raise current taxes substantially. Both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would both radically reduce the size of the federal income tax but would also greatly add to the national debt over the next ten years.
I have been trying to make the case on this blog that fundamental tax reform is the best thing we can do to get the economy growing faster in order to create more and better paying jobs. I have also discussed a specific way to accomplish fundamental reform, namely the so-called Competitive Tax Plan proposed by the tax law expert, Michael Graetz. It is a progressive consumption tax, a so-called Value Added Tax. As reviewed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Reihan Salam, the editor of the National Review, the Graetz Plan has these features:
A broad-based VAT of about 14% on goods and services.
Families earning less than $100,000 per year are exempt from the income tax. The tax rate would be 15% for incomes between $100,000 and $250,000 and 25% above this level.
The payroll tax (supporting Social Security and Medicare) would be greatly reduced for all workers earning less than $40,000 per year.
The corporate tax rate would be lowered to 15%, making it among the lowest in the world.
The Graetz Plan is revenue neutral as verified by the Tax Policy Center.
Think of the incredible advantages of such a tax plan. Of the expected 145 million tax returns for this year, 120 million would no longer be necessary. Extravagant deductions such as for mortgage interest would have much less political support. The low corporate tax rate would bring jobs back to the U.S. instead of sending them overseas. The rampant cronyism involved in tax breaks being handed out by Congress would be greatly reduced.
What is not to like about the Graetz Plan?
Several large U.S. corporations have recently announced that they are planning to merge with foreign companies and move their corporate headquarters to a low tax country such as Ireland or Great Britain. The Obama Administration proposes to disallow such tax inversions by requiring that after such a merger at least 50% of the stock of the new company would have to be foreign owned. Such a regulatory fix is unlikely to solve a much more fundamental problem. The Tax Foundation has just published a new study, “Tax Reform in the UK Reversed the Tide of Corporate Tax Inversions,” describing a similar situation in Great Britain just a few years ago and what was done to reverse it. Basically GB took two actions:
Implementing a territorial tax system where profits are only taxed in the country where they are earned, and
Lowering the corporate tax rate from 28% in 2010 to 21% in 2014 and 20% in 2015. The GB rate had already been somewhat lower than the U.S. rate since the early nineteen-eighties.
These two changes in the corporate tax code have had a dramatic effect. First of all, the number of corporations in GB has been increasing steadily. By 2017 GB is likely to overtake the U.S. in total number of corporations. Secondly, GB actually raises more corporate tax revenue than the U.S. and has been doing so for some years. It should be clear from this discussion that the U.S. should significantly lower its corporate tax rate. The biggest problem in doing this is public opinion. The organization Wallet Hub has just published its “2014 Tax Fairness Survey” which shows that only 10% of the population believes that taxes should be higher on wages than on investment income, whereas 33% thinks the reverse. An equal tax rate on both is preferred by 57% of respondents. This will make it politically difficult, for example, for the U.S. to match GB’s 20% maximum rate on corporations since even middle class U.S. taxpayers pay a tax rate of 25% or higher. However it might be possible to abolish the corporate tax altogether if dividends and capital gains were then taxed at the same rate as wage income.
The most important thing, however, is to significantly lower the corporate tax rate, one way or the other, in order to incentivize U.S. multinational corporations to keep more of their business and profits in the U.S.
My last post “Real Tax Reform: Abolish the Corporate Income Tax,” gives six substantial reasons for abolishing the U.S. corporate income tax. As shown in the table below, many American companies are keeping large percentages of their total cash balances overseas in order to avoid paying the very high U.S. corporate tax rate of 35% on these funds. Sheila Bair, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006 – 2011, has recently endorsed the same idea in “Why Getting Rid of the Corporate Income Tax Makes Sense”. Ms. Bair’s recent book, “Bull by the Horns,” is one of the best books written about the financial crisis.
Ms. Bair makes many of the same points as in my last post including the suggestion that in return for totally eliminating this tax, both dividends and capital gains should be taxed at the same (higher) rates as for ordinary earned income. She points out that applying ordinary tax rates to realized investment income would make up only about $90 billion of the approximately $300 billion annual cost of eliminating the corporate tax. She suggests that the remaining $210 billion could be raised by implementing Martin Feldstein’s proposal to cap individual tax deductions, excluding for charitable contributions, at 2% of adjusted gross income.
As she says, “We are on an unsustainable path. Caught between eroding corporate revenue on one side and low tax rates for wealthy investors on the other, middle and upper-income wage earners are being squeezed – and there are only so many of us. At some point we might start thinking about moving too.”
Keep in mind the fundamental reason for this proposal: to incentivize U.S. companies to bring their foreign earnings back home for reinvestment and distribution of profits to shareholders (who will then be taxed on this income). This will give our economy the large and permanent boost which it so badly needs to regain its former vigor.
Several large U.S. corporations have recently announced that they are planning to move their headquarters to a low tax company such as Ireland or Great Britain, in order to reduce the high corporate taxes which they now have to pay. Many observers agree that the best way to address this problem is to lower the corporate tax rate down to an internationally competitive rate of about 20% to 25%. Such a rate cut would be paid for by closing the loopholes and deductions which many corporations now enjoy. The Business Insider reporter, Danny Vinik, makes a very good argument for going further and completely eliminating the corporate income tax for the following reasons:
Corporate taxes don’t collect that much revenue. As shown above the revenue from this tax has dropped to about 2% of GDP which is about $300 billion at the present time. This is roughly 10% of total annual federal tax revenue.
Tax capital gains and dividends at the same rate as earned income. This would make up for the lost revenue and is justified because there would no longer be double taxation of corporate earnings.
The corporate tax is not progressive. It is now paid for by both workers (with lower wages) and shareholders. Eliminating this tax (and replacing it with higher taxes on dividends and capital gains) makes the tax more progressive.
Corporations waste huge amounts of money trying to reduce their tax bill. What they now spend on tax lawyers and lobbyists could be put to more productive use.
The current system disadvantages new businesses. It’s the old firms which have collected all the deductions. New firms start out paying the full 35% rate which puts them at a large competitive disadvantage.
It will make our financial system safer. Since debt payments are tax deductible and equity financing is not, debt financing is currently incentivized. The elimination of the corporate tax would end this preference of debt over equity.
Taking this action would not only have all of these benefits, it would make the U.S. the most desirable place in the world to locate a business. We would experience a huge economic boom, creating millions of new jobs. It would end our present economic funk and put us back on a rapid growth trajectory. What are we waiting for!
Several large U.S. companies have recently announced that they are planning to merge with foreign companies and move their corporate headquarters to a low tax country such as Ireland or Great Britain. The Obama Administration proposes to disallow such “tax inversions” by requiring that after such a merger at least 50% of the stock of the new company would have to be foreign owned. Otherwise the firm would still be considered American for tax purposes. Such a technical fix is unlikely to solve a much more fundamental problem.
As the latest issue of the Economist, “How to stop the inversion perversion,” makes clear, “America’s corporate tax has two horrible flaws. The first is the tax rate, which at 35% is the highest among the 34 mostly rich-country members of the OECD. … The second flaw is that America levies tax on a company’s income no matter where in the world it is earned. In contrast, every other large rich country taxes only income earned within its borders (a so-called ‘territorial system’). Here, too, America’s system is absurdly ineffective at collecting money. Firms do not have to pay tax on foreign profits until they bring them back home. Not surprisingly, many do not: American multinationals have some $2 trillion sitting on their foreign units’ balance sheets.” A relatively simple solution to this glaring problem would be to lower the corporate tax rate to 25%, the OECD average, and shift to a territorial system. Revenue losses would be offset by closing loopholes and deductions.
A better, but likely more controversial, solution would be to completely eliminate the corporate income tax and then tax dividends and capital gains at the same rate as earned income. This would avoid the double taxation problem whereby profits are taxed first at the corporate level and then again for individuals as dividends and capital gains.
The overall goal in this entire endeavor should be to boost the economy, thereby creating more jobs, and additionally to raise the tax revenue needed to pay our bills. Fairness is important but growth is even more important!