Reactions to the Trump/GOP tax bill have mostly focused on the domestic consequences of that fiscal abomination: the steeply rising deficits and national debt; the “no show” economic boost; the unconscionable further enrichment of the already obscenely rich; and Mitch McConnell’s stated intent to address that newly massive national debt by cutting programs that benefit the poor and elderly, notably Medicare and Social Security.
Donald Trump often complains that the media don’t give him credit for his achievements. And I can think of at least one case where that’s true. As far I can tell, almost nobody is reporting that he has presided over a huge — but hidden — increase in foreign aid, the money America gives to foreigners. In fact, the hidden Trump program, currently running at around $40 billion a year, is probably the biggest giveaway to other nations since the Marshall Plan.
Unfortunately, the aid isn’t going either to poor countries or to America’s allies. Instead, it’s going to wealthy foreign investors.
The 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act–which, as Krugman reminds us, is the only major legislation Trump can claim thus far– cut taxes on corporations. Significantly. As credible economists predicted, it led to a drastic reduction in tax revenues. Krugman pegs the shortfall at $140 billion just the past year.
Supporters of the bill claimed that the benefits would be passed on to workers in the form of higher wages, and they made a big deal over a flurry of corporate bonus announcements in early 2018. But those bonuses weren’t actually very big, and they didn’t continue.
In fact, at this point it’s clear that the bonus surge, such as it was, was all about tax avoidance: By moving up payments they were going to make anyway, corporations got to deduct the expense at the old, higher tax rate. Now that this option has expired, bonuses have dropped back to their normal level, or even a bit lower.
Job creation? Investments in the business? Nah.
The benefits of the tax cut have gone almost entirely to corporate shareholders, in the form of increased dividends and capital gains from corporations using their windfall to buy back their own stocks.
And a big share of these gains to shareholders has gone to foreigners.
Over all, foreigners own about 35 percent of the equity in corporations subject to U.S. taxes. And as a result, foreign investors have received around 35 percent of the benefitsof the tax cut. As I said, that’s more than $40 billion a year.
Krugman compares Trump’s gift to foreign investors with the amounts we expend on foreign aid.
In 2017, the U.S. spent $51 billion on “international affairs,” but much of that was either the cost of operating embassies or military assistance. The Trump tax break for overseas investors is considerably bigger than the total amount we spend on foreign aid proper.
Now, the U.S. economy is almost inconceivably huge, producing more than $20 trillion worth of goods and services every year. We’re also a country that investors trust to honor its debts, so the tax cut, irresponsible as it is, isn’t causing any immediate fiscal stress.
So Trump’s giveaway to foreign investors isn’t going to make or break us, although it’s probably enough to ensure that the tax cut will be, over all, a net drain on economic growth: Even if the tax cut has some positive effect on the total income generated here (which is doubtful), this will probably be more than offset by the increased share of that income accruing to foreigners rather than U.S. citizens.
Still, even in America, $40 billion here, $40 billion there, and eventually you’re talking about real money. Furthermore, it does seem worth pointing out that even as Trump boasts about taking money away from foreigners, his actual policies are doing exactly the opposite.
I seriously doubt that Trump understands any of this. After all, it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t the foggiest notion how tariffs work (or don’t). Or how government works, for that matter.
We shouldn’t be shocked to discover that the President is an economic ignoramus.