In my last post I made the case that the two fundamental principles for effective tax reform are:
Faster economic growth, to create more jobs and bigger pay raises.
Revenue neutrality, since more debt at this time is just too risky.
And then I went on to suggest the specific changes in the tax code which would achieve these goals:
Reducing the corporate tax rate to approximately 20%.
Full expensing for business investment replacing depreciation spread out over many years.
Simplification of rules for individuals such as fewer tax rates and fewer credits.
Achieving revenue neutrality by eliminating as many deductions as necessary to pay for the above tax rate cuts.
There are different ways to accomplish all this and I recently described one attractive plan put together by the Tax Foundation. The Republican Congressional Leadership (Big Six) has proposed a different plan which has been analyzed by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Unfortunately CRFB concludes that this plan will cost $2.2 trillion over ten years in lost revenue. But it could be modified in the following ways to become revenue neutral:
The mortgage interest deduction is maintained but limited to one dwelling and $500,000, down from the current limit of two homes and $1 million.
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance is limited. This not only increases tax revenue but also forces the 150 million Americans who receive health insurance from their employer to take an active role in holding down the cost of healthcare.
Drop the proposal of establishing a maximum “pass through” rate of 25% for business owners. Any such proposal would be subject to wide spread abuse. Businesses would be benefitting from the full expensing provision above and their owners should pay taxes at the same rates as everyone else.
Keep the estate tax until annual deficits are greatly reduced. It only brings in $20 billion per year but every little bit helps.
Conclusion. These common sense changes in the Big Six plan would make it revenue neutral and still capable of achieving a significant boost to the economy.
I have been criticizing the Republican Congress lately for straying from fundamentals in attempting to reform healthcare and tax policy. What are the fundamentals for tax reform? In my opinion they are:
Faster economic growth. The economy has averaged only 2% annual growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The unemployment rate has slowly fallen to the current 4.4% level and a labor shortage is now developing. But wage gains for the broad middle class and especially blue collar workers have been minimal. Faster growth will put pressure on employers to raise wages faster to acquire the skilled workers they need.
Revenue neutrality. With the public debt (on which we pay interest) now 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse without major changes in policy, it would be the height of irresponsibility for Congress to approve tax changes which increase our annual deficits.
Given these two basic principles, what should be the specific changes made to tax law? Here are my priorities:
Lowering the corporate tax rate from its current level of 35% to a competitive level, approximately 20%, with other developed countries. This would be a huge incentive for our multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home.
Full expensing for business investment is allowed, replacing depreciation over a period of years, to speed up new investment.
Simplification of the rules for individuals, such as with fewer tax rates and fewer credits, so that fewer errors will be made and a greater proportion of true tax liabilities will be collected.
Create revenue neutrality for the above tax rate cuts by eliminating, or at least shrinking, many deductions and closing loopholes.
Conclusion. Tax reform will be highly beneficial for the economy if it is done correctly. This means ignoring many of the special interest provisions which have also been suggested for conclusion. I will discuss these in my next post.
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, there is a clear bipartisan consensus on the fundamental principles to employ, see here, here, here, and here.
Promote growth and increase wages for working families
Modernize our outdated business and international tax system.
Rely on reasonable economic assumptions
Make sure that any rewrite of the tax code is revenue neutral
The Tax Foundation has outlined several different approaches to tax reform which meet the above guidelines. Their Option A is especially attractive:
The corporate tax is reduced to 22.5% and full expensing for business investment is allowed.
GDP increases by 7.1% long term which translates to a .7% increase per year for ten years, which is substantial economic growth.
All income groups, except for the top 1%, will see an after-tax increase in income.
Individual Tax brackets are consolidated into the three rates of 12%, 20.5% and 37% and the standard deduction is nearly doubled (from $6350 to $12,000).
All itemized deductions are eliminated except for home mortgage interest (limited to $500,000) and charitable contributions.
Capital gains and dividends are taxed as ordinary income with individuals being allowed to deduct 40% of qualified dividends and long-term capital gains.
The estate tax is eliminated.
This tax plan is revenue neutral on a static basis.
Conclusion. There are many attractive features in this plan. Being revenue neutral, with strong economic growth, means that the increase in tax revenue will shrink our huge current annual deficits. Only the very wealthy top 1% of taxpayers will see their income (slightly) decreased. The substantial decrease in the corporate tax rate will incentivize multinational corporations to bring their overseas profits back home for reinvestment.
Experts across the political spectrum agree that the U.S. tax code is a huge mess and needs to be reformed as well as simplified. It is also generally accepted that lower tax rates will lead to faster economic growth.
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, Senate Democrats have stated the basic principles which they would like to see included in any changes which are made:
Increase the wages of working families. This could be accomplished by lowering tax rates for all individuals across the board, paid for by eliminating (or at least shrinking) many of the personal deductions in the tax code. The approximately two thirds of all taxpayers who do not itemize deductions would then receive a tax cut, equivalent to a wage increase.
Promote domestic investment and improve middle class job growth. Lower tax rates will give businesses and entrepreneurs a bigger incentive to invest in business expansion and therefore grow the economy faster and create more new jobs.
Modernize our outdated business and international tax system. Our corporate tax rate at 35% is the highest in the developed world and, at the same time, produces below average revenue (see chart). Another reform would be to adopt business expensing (immediate tax write-off for new investment). Again, all such changes should be paid for by eliminating loopholes and shrinking deductions.
Any rewrite of the tax code must be deficit neutral. As important and valuable as tax reform is, it has to take into account our country’s most fundamental problem: our huge and rapidly growing national debt and therefore end up being deficit neutral overall.
Conclusion. The above principles, stated by the Senate Democrats, represent a sound approach to reforming the U.S. tax system. I hope that the Republicans are willing to recognize the validity of these proposals and include the Democrats in developing a bipartisan tax reform plan.
The Trump Administration has proposed a tax reform plan, with both good and bad features, and it is not yet known how Congress will respond to it. In the meantime we should focus on what tax reform can accomplish if does right:
Lower tax rates. Most observers agree that lower tax rates will increase economic growth by encouraging more business investment. Since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, GDP has grown at the historically slow rate of 2% per year. Any additional growth will be beneficial by tightening the job market, thereby creating more jobs as well as higher wages for the already employed.
Revenue neutrality. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII. At the present time interest rates are so low that the debt is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably rise back to more normal levels in the future. When this does happen, whether it be sooner or later, interest payments on our ever increasing debt will skyrocket, and eat up as much as a third of federal tax revenue. A huge fiscal crisis will then occur, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Observing historical precedent. There have been five tax rate cuts in the last half century: (Kennedy (1964), Reagan (1981, 1986) and Bush (2001, 2003)). Note that public debt was 40% or less of GDP at the time of each of these tax cuts (see chart). The revenue losses associated with each was temporary and the first three at least strongly stimulated new growth.
Conclusion. Our national debt is much too high at the present time to adopt a tax reform plan with an extravagant disregard for revenue loss. The current debt level is so high (and projected to keep getting steadily worse) that modest tax rate cuts, coupled with significant spending restraint, is clearly called for.
As a new administration prepares to take office in January, one of the key indicators of President Trump’s approach to government will be his first budget. This is especially true since the Republican controlled Congress is likely to take a Republican President’s budget seriously.
One of our nation’s chief fiscal watchdogs, the Concord Coalition, has summarized the most important things to look for:
What is the overall fiscal target? President Obama’s recent budgets have aimed at stabilizing the debt as a share of the economy. House Republicans have aimed for a more ambitious goal of balancing the budget within ten years, gradually reducing the debt as a share of the economy. What path will Mr. Trump recommend?
What specific tax cuts will be proposed and what are the likely revenue effects? During the campaign Mr. Trump proposed tax cuts amounting to $5.9 trillion in revenue loss over ten years. Even with dynamic scoring, taking the stimulatory effects of his tax cuts into effect, the revenue loss is still $3.9 trillion over ten years. Such huge revenue losses will make our debt much worse than it is already and won’t be approved by Congress.
What will the budget recommend for the federal debt limit? Currently the debt limit is suspended until March 16, 2017 when it will return at whatever level it is on that date. Congress will then have several months to reset it. Whatever the President recommends will send a strong signal, positive or negative, to the financial markets.
What economic growth rates will the budget assume? GDP growth has averaged 2.6% for the past 30 years. Any predicted long term growth rate higher than this will lack credibility without strong justification.
Conclusion. Mr. Trump has the opportunity to institute the change in course which so many Americans would like to see. His first budget will set the tone and provide an important clue as to whether or not he is serious about doing this.
In my last post, “Donald Trump’s Best Chance to Win in November,” I said that the best way for Mr. Trump to broaden his appeal beyond working-class whites and to have any chance of winning the presidential election is for him to endorse the reform plan, “A Better Way,” recently developed by the Republican House of Representatives. Here is a brief and positive summary of the Trump platform so far:
His tax plan is highly pro-growth and will not cost nearly as much as the previously advertised $10 trillion over a decade.
He supports legal immigration and simply wants to solve the illegal immigration problem, one way or another.
He is not opposed to foreign trade per se but wants to negotiate, from a position of strength, with countries that manipulate their currencies, steal intellectual property or compel companies to disclose trade secrets as a condition of entering their markets.
His policy proposals so described are completely compatible with the House’s “A Better Way” reform plan whose planks are:
Poverty. Reward work. Tailor benefits to people’s needs. Improve skills and schools. Demand results.
National Security. Defeat the terrorists. Protect the homeland. Defend freedom.
The economy. Regulate smarter. End bailouts and cronyism. Put students and workers first.
The constitution. Make government more accountable and more representative. Restore constitutional checks on spending.
Health Care. More choices and lower costs. Real protections and peace of mind. Cutting edge cures and treatments. A stronger Medicare.
Tax reform. Simplicity and fairness. Jobs and growth.
These guiding principles are being fleshed out into complete policy documents. They do indeed represent a better way forward for our national government. Donald Trump could do far worse than to endorse this comprehensive reform plan developed by the House Republicans. It would show that he is serious about “Making America Great Again.”