POLITICS
08/31/2017 10:16 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2017

Here Are 4 Populist Tax Reforms Trump Could Have Adopted If He Really Cared About Working People

Lowering rates for the wealthy is not one of them.

The Senate passed a massive, $1.5-trillion tax cut bill Saturday morning, clearing the last major hurdle to an overhaul that would dramatically reduce taxes on large corporations and wealthy individuals.

After President Donald Trump’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cutting taxes became a do-or-die affair. Deep-pocketed donors threatened to cut the party off entirely unless the GOP reduced taxes.

From the beginning, however, Trump has framed so-called tax reform not as a sop to donors but as a necessary step to restoring American competitiveness and lifting the fortunes of ordinary Americans.

To hear Trump tell it, going back to an August speech in Springfield, Missouri, the United States’ tax burden is a major impediment to economic growth. 

In fact, the evidence suggests that Trump’s tax cuts would line corporate CEOs’ pockets while depleting the Treasury and doing little, if anything, to boost working class Americans’ bottom line.

“Trump’s plan would double down on the anti-populist features of the current system,” said Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the progressive Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Here are some ideas Trump could have gotten behind if he were really interested in championing working people.

End The Rule Allowing Foreign Firms To Stash Money Abroad

Trump and congressional Republicans argue that corporations are hoarding money overseas, and otherwise choosing not to invest in the U.S. economy, because the top corporate tax rate of 35 percent is higher than most other countries.

But large corporations, adept at accounting gimmicks, pay a lot less than the official top rate.

U.S. corporations paid a tax rate of 24 percent on profits from new investments in 2014, compared with 21 percent for other G-7 countries, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. When it comes to taxes paid on global profits, from 2006 to 2009, U.S. multinational corporations actually paid a slightly lower rate than their competitors in other G-7 nations, the Center on Budget found.

And many of the big-name firms now insisting that lower taxes would spur investment and job creation have a record of failing to do so despite the relatively low effective rates they already enjoy. AT&T, for instance, is one of the 92 profitable, publicly owned corporations with effective tax burdens of 20 percent or less where median employment actually went down 1 percent from 2008 to 2016, compared with 6 percent growth in the private sector as a whole, according to a report that the Institute for Policy Studies released on Wednesday.

There’s a long history, at both the national and state levels, of business leaders asking for tax breaks and just seeing what they can get. Matthew Gardner, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

“There’s a long history, at both the national and state levels, of business leaders asking for tax breaks and just seeing what they can get,” Gardner said. “All too often, these companies have been rewarded simply for asking.” 

Just as Trump and his Republican allies have misdiagnosed the problem, their proposed solution would fail to solve it and create new shortcomings in the process. The bill that passed the Senate early Saturday would lower the top corporate rate to 20 percent.

Absent foolproof enforcement, however, corporations could still seek lower tax locales to stash their on-paper profits. That’s because even now, companies such as Apple are merely pretending to make their profits overseas through tricks like registering their highly valuable intellectual property in tax havens. If a company is able to shop for the lowest-tax nation, nothing the U.S. can lower it to can beat countries like Bermuda, where the corporate tax rate is zero, Gardner noted.

Instead, Gardner and Sarah Anderson, lead author of the IPS report on low-tax U.S. corporations’ recent job creation history, favor ending the loophole that allows corporations to defer U.S. taxes indefinitely on profits that are technically held overseas until they are repatriated to the United States. Under their plan, all corporate profits around the world would be subject to U.S. taxes, minus the foreign taxes a company has already paid on a particular profit pool.

Shutting down a major incentive for companies to offshore their earnings would pave the way for corporations to shoulder a larger share of the national tax burden. But on its own, it would not guarantee additional investment from corporations. Corporate profits have soared since the 1980s even as corporate investment has declined.

To incentivize the kind of corporate investment that increases productivity and employment, Trump could enact regulations aimed at reforming corporate governance that would discourage corporations from paying out the lion’s share of their profits as dividends and stock buybacks.

“Our system is really set up to reward short-term performance” rather than long-term investment, Anderson said.

Massively Expand The Earned Income Tax Credit

One of the most direct ways to help struggling Americans is to literally give them more money.

Unfortunately, major cuts in income tax rates, by their very nature, disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 20 percent of earners who pay a majority of the country’s income taxes. The lower 80 percent of Americans are already paying less in federal taxes than they have in decades.

A better way for Trump to assist the struggling working class, as he claimed he would during his campaign, would be to dramatically increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, an annual check the government cuts to working, lower- income families. Former President Gerald Ford established the EITC, which was increased by his fellow Republican successors, and it was designed as a way to lift the fortunes of the poor and, by making benefits dependent on employment, encourage impoverished people to work. 

Chuck Marr, who directs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ tax policy program, is the chief architect of a plan that would expand EITC eligibility to cover childless workers and roughly double its benefit from the current maximum of $3,400 for a family with one child. He sees it as a proposal that Trump should find naturally appealing, given his campaign’s professed focus on lifting up the working class.

If Trump were interested in the idea, he would not have to craft legislation from scratch. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in September that would double the EITC for working families. The legislation would cost an estimated $1 trillion, according to Khanna, which happens to be the exact amount of money that the Trump tax cuts would add to the debt over a 10-year period, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan body that analyzes tax legislation for Congress.

Then-candidate Donald Trump signals support for coal miners during a May 2016 rally in West Virginia. He campaigned as a
Mark Lyons/Getty Images
Then-candidate Donald Trump signals support for coal miners during a May 2016 rally in West Virginia. He campaigned as a champion of the working class.

Tax Capital Gains At The Same Rate As Ordinary Income 

Currently, earners in the top income tax bracket only pay a 20-percent tax rate on investment dividends and capital gains ― or income obtained from the sale of a financial asset ― that they have held for longer than a year. By contrast, those same earners pay a 39.6 percent tax rate on all ordinary income above $418,400.

As of 2013, the top 1 percent of earners owned 39 percent of the stock market, according to an analysis by New York University economist Edward Wolff ― making the wealthiest sliver of Americans the primary beneficiaries of the lower tax rate on capital gains.

“It would be hard to develop a tax break more geared to the 1 percent than the capital gains tax break,” Gardner said. “If you wanted a populist reform, you’d start by getting rid of the capital gains tax break.”

Conservative economists argue that raising the capital gains tax rate would discourage investment in the economy. But numerous other experts, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett, have found no evidence of a correlation between capital gains tax rates and economic growth.

Enact A Financial Transactions Tax 

Levying a modest tax on individual financial transactions has gotten more attention in developed nations since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The policy’s proponents argue that it would both raise significant revenue and discourage the sort of risky, financial short-termism that helped trigger the 2008 crash.

Estimates of the amount of revenue such a tax would generate in the United States range from $30 billion on the low end to more than $340 billion on the high end. Dean Baker, a co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, projected in a July 2016 report that a 0.2 percent tax on stock trades, and slightly lower taxes on bond and derivatives trades, would raise $120 billion in revenue per year.

“If you want to talk about helping Pennsylvania and Ohio at the expense of Wall Street, it is hard to do better than the financial transactions tax,” Baker said.

Revenue from such a tax unlocks funding for major social programs that benefit middle- and working-class people. During his 2016 presidential run, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed using a 0.5 percent financial transactions tax to pay for the federal portion of free college tuition at public universities.

Critics say that imposing a financial transaction tax would stifle the financial sector. But London, which has a 0.5 percent tax on stock purchases, has one of the world’s most vibrant financial hubs.

This article was initially published in August. It has been updated to reflect the passage of a tax bill in both houses of Congress.

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