As Congress takes up consideration of the tax bill of 2017–what the President and GOP have labeled “tax reform,” and what impartial observers describe as tax cuts mostly for the wealthy–it’s time for a re-run of my rant on the subject of taxation.
I’ve been particularly incensed by the appearance in Indiana of a TV spot aimed at Senator Joe Donnelly. Donnelly is a Democrat (moderate, of the Hoosier variety) considered vulnerable in 2018. The spot features a lovely young woman talking about the importance of tax reform–no specifics, no definitions, just a plea to Donnelly to support “fair” taxation.
I’m all for fair taxation, and I’m willing to bet everyone reading this is, too. I’m also willing to bet that definitions of a “fair” tax system vary widely (the devil, as we all know, being in the details). The one thing we should all recognize, however–whatever our personal opinions about “fairness”–is the difference between tax reform and tax cuts.
As Jared Bernstein recently wrote in an article in the American Prospect,
In D.C. tax-debate parlance, “tax reform” means something specific: cutting tax rates and broadening the tax base. Rate reductions lose revenue, but you make it up by closing loopholes, exemptions, and favorable treatments of one type of income over another, thus broadening the income upon which taxes are levied.
As Bernstein points out (and we all know), most loopholes are the result of lobbying by special interests, not some disinterested analysis of their utility, making them very hard to eliminate. Even more pernicious is the belief–an article of faith in the GOP–that lower rates will generate more economic activity and thus more tax revenue. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this theory, and considerable evidence rebutting it, but it refuses to die.
In the current tax debate—no surprise—the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are predicting that their tax cuts will return large growth effects. They claim their plan—and to be clear, there is, as of yet, no plan—will increase the real GDP growth rate by at least half, from around 2 percent to 3 percent or 4 percent, and that this increase will offset much of the costs of the cuts.
This was the same story told by Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, and in every case the results belied the claims. The most recent example, from the state of Kansas, is particularly germane to this discussion, because it reveals flaws in the same ideas being bandied about by the current Congress.
Tax policy experts estimate that the measures being discussed would cost government $6.5 trillion in revenues over ten years, and dramatically increase the deficit the GOP pretends to care about.
The vast majority of the benefits of these measures accrue to the wealthiest households: Almost 50 percent of the cuts go to the top 1 percent, while 6 percent go to the middle fifth. About 27 percent of the gains go to the 120,000 families in the top tenth of the top 1 percent, whose average pretax income is $11 million.
If anything remotely like this package passes, it will exacerbate levels of inequality that already exceed those of the Gilded Age.
this tax reform plan gives a lift to growing inequality, and signals that the GOP is okay with persistent poverty and with the inability of one-third of us to feed our kids. It’s time to ask ourselves, how do we craft tax reform for the long term—reform that tackles American poverty and inequality and creates the conditions for inclusive economic growth?
I would suggest that genuine tax reform begins with the recognition that “tax” is not a four-letter word. Taxes are the dues we pay for social peace and stability, for the myriad of services that modern societies require and their citizens demand, and from which we all benefit.
We currently have a system that incentivizes the “haves” to evade their responsibility to pay a fair share, or even to discuss what a fair share would look like. Until we have that conversation, we may see tax cuts–mostly for the already privileged– but we won’t see anything resembling genuine tax reform.