This year’s US presidential election campaign differs radically from past patterns, including in the departure of the Republican nominee from many of the policy positions traditionally taken by his party. Examples are his lack of support for international trade, military alliances, or the institution of marriage. But when Donald Trump released some positions on tax policy recently, the differences with Hillary Clinton’s proposals fell very much along usual party lines. His is the kind of tax policy that has long been favored by Republican presidential candidates and congressmen: tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich and that are not accompanied with any plans to pay for them.
Should we pay attention to campaign platforms?
Of course there are reasons for hesitating to judge presidential candidates by their platforms. Plans announced in the campaign are often a poor guide to what the president will actually do once in office. Candidate George W. Bush, for example, promised in 2000 to renounce nation-building adventures abroad, to maintain fiscal responsibility, and to treat greenhouses gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Needless to say, his administration rocketed off 180 degrees in the opposite direction on these issues.
Mr. Trump, in particular, changes his positions with head-spinning frequency, denying that he said things that he is on record as having said a short time before. A common tactic is to accuse the media of making up the earlier statements, even when the earlier statements are on tape. Another tactic is to say that he was only being sarcastic.
Are we supposed to take seriously, for example, his statements during the primary debates that American workers’ wages are too high? Or that he could and would happily contemplate negotiating the terms of the national debt with creditors, otherwise known as defaulting? Are we supposed to overlook such reckless statements, and ascribe them to an earlier period when he was “young and irresponsible”?
Compare the zig-zags that Trump has pulled off with the minor shifts that have been sufficient in the past to get other politicians tarred with “flip-flopping”. Remember, for example, the reaction when John Kerry in 2004 said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” (The earlier Democratic measure that he supported would have paid for the $87 billion in Iraq war funding by reducing Bush’s tax cuts, whereas the version that he voted against instead irresponsibly added the cost to the national debt.)
In any case, we policy wonks are obliged to try to evaluate the policy plans that the candidates offer. The alternative is to leave the national discussion focused entirely on the current week’s poll results, reporting unedifyingly whether the candidates are rising or falling among voters classified by various combinations of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
How the parties differ
Some positions that a candidate may truly hold don’t deserve the attention they receive because in practice he or she stands little or no chance of being able to bring them about if elected. An obvious case is when their proposals are blocked by the other party if it has a majority in congress. Another case is international constraints. Although there is a lot of attention to trade agreements this year, promises by presidential candidates to negotiate a new improved trade agreement are seldom if ever implementable once they get to office. (The truth is, in international negotiations such as TPP, the US has already gotten about the best deal it can get, one that is much better than most people realize.)
The difference between the two parties lies not in some fantasized ability to reverse the rise in inequality by turning the clock back 50 years on trade, or even on somehow reversing the long-term shift from manufacturing to services. Rather the difference lies in some very practical live policy issues, particularly some that would reverse the trend that leaves many workers behind. Examples include universal health care (extending the ACA, i.e., Obamacare, rather than abolishing it), infrastructure spending ($275 billion cumulative, in Secretary Clinton’s campaign proposal), compensation for those who lose jobs due to trade (or other forces beyond their control), and a more progressive tax structure (including expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit).
Trump’s tax plan
Trump made his most serious attempt at a fiscal plan on August 8. The tax proposal has four salient features, fairly described as tax cuts for the rich. There is no indication how the tax cuts will be paid for and every indication that they will sharply expand the budget deficit, as happened when Reagan and Bush enacted record budget-busting policies. All of this is very much in line with proposals from Republican politicians over the last four decades, all the while attacking Democrats for running deficits.
- Trump proposes to abolish the estate tax entirely. Bush and congressional Republicans tried hard to do this, and got close, but didn’t quite make it. Trump, like his predecessors, tries to hide the fact that only the very rich would benefit because the current estate exemptions are so high: $10.9 million for the estate of a married couple (and half that for an individual). In the most recent year available, only 4,700 estates in the entire country, out of 6 million deaths, required the reporting of some estate tax liability. Trump repeated the old fairy tale of farms or small businesses that have to be sold by heirs to pay the estate tax; but Republicans after all these years are still unable to come up with specific instances of this actually happening.
- He proposes to cut corporate income taxes very sharply, to 15%. It is true that the US corporate income tax rate is among the highest in the world, at 35%, and that this probably contributes to companies keeping profits overseas, rather than repatriating them to the US. But as most tax policy experts will tell you, a reduction in the overall rate should be accompanied by base-broadening. In particular, we should abolish corporate tax deductions such as those designed to encourage corporate debt and oil drilling. We could thereby reduce harmful distortions in the economy while simultaneously making up revenue.
- Trump’s proposals to cut personal income taxes have now changed a bit.
- Before the primaries, his fiscal proposals included cutting the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6 %, the current level, to 25%. Independent analysts pointed out that his tax policies would lose about $10 trillion in revenue over the first decade, a mind-bogglingly big number. They would rapidly drive to record levels the national debt as a share of GDP, which has been coming down over the last five years. His most recent proposal is to cut the marginal tax rate for high earners by about half as much, to 33%.
- A new proposal, apparently added at the urging of daughter Ivanka Trump: Allow tax deductions for the entirety of average child care costs. Any such deductions benefit only those in high enough tax brackets to itemize deductions (like mortgage interest), which is mostly those who earn more than $75,000. That is well above US median household income of $54,462 in 2015.
The Democrats would love to be able to accuse Trump of designing his tax cuts so as directly to benefit him, his family, and people like them. It is harder to make this accusation because the candidate still refuses to release his own income tax records (unlike all previous candidates since Richard Nixon). There is no shortage of guesses as to what it is that Trump must be trying to hide. One good guess is that in some years he has paid no taxes at all, by taking advantage of loopholes already available to big real estate developers. If so, his annual tax bill can’t be cut further. But he would still gain from the elimination of the estate tax.
How to pretend that tax cuts = fiscal discipline
Basic arithmetic says “government outlays minus tax receipts equals the budget deficit.” Republican presidential candidates have seemingly had trouble understanding this equation since 1980. They propose large specific tax cuts without specific spending cuts, and yet claim they are going to reduce the deficit. The outcome was the record increases in budget deficits during the terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump’s tax cut proposals follow in this tradition of fiscal irresponsibility. The budget plans are still too vague — particularly with respect to discretionary government spending, social security and Medicare – to allow an informed estimate of their impact on the federal deficit and national debt. But the candidate may be subjected to pressure to become more specific as the date of the election draws near.
Trump may look to his predecessors’ strategies for guidance. It is worth recalling the four magic tricks that politicians calling themselves fiscal conservatives have been using for 35 years, evasions to facilitate making fiscal promises with a straight face. These tricks are often deployed in sequence, one succeeding another as they fail to work.
(1) The “Magic Asterisk.” The candidate promises to balance the budget at the same time as cutting taxes by spending cuts that are not specified but supposedly will be in the future (“future savings to be identified”).
(2) “Rosy Scenario.” One can forecast an increase in tax receipts if one forecasts an increase in the national rate of growth of income. One PhD economist has finally signed on as an adviser to the Trump campaign (though he has apparently yet to talk to the candidate); he has suggested that under a Trump presidency the American GDP growth rate will magically double. This is the same tactic adopted by Jeb Bush during the primaries, and many other politicians before.
(3) The Laffer hypothesis. But why should growth double? Reagan, Bush, McCain, and other candidates signed on to the proposition that their proposed cuts in tax rates will spur economic activity so much that total tax revenue (the tax rate times the economic base) will go up rather than down. Although this “Laffer proposition” has been disproved many times, and the economic advisers to those three candidates clearly disavowed it, the temptation to square the budgetary circle by making this claim is too strong to resist. Watch for Trump to come out with it.
(4) The “Starve the Beast” hypothesis. Finally, after the other justifications for big tax cuts turned out wrong, Presidents Reagan and Bush fell back on the theory that, even though tax revenue had in fact fallen rather than rising, this was a good thing after all: it would politically force congress to approve spending cuts. But these are cuts that the president himself never gets around to proposing.
Perhaps it is inevitable that candidates at the platform-making stage wish away such real-world constraints as congressional politics or international realities, leaving voters disappointed after taking office by failed “promises”. But politicians shouldn’t be able to wish away the constraints of arithmetic — not when the promises reflect the same failed sleight of hand that has been tried and exposed so many times before.