After supposedly chomping on the bit for years to pass meaningful tax reform, Republicans are now set to blow an historic opportunity. Whatever version of the Bill that emerges from the House and Senate Conference Committee (which will be signed by President Trump faster than he can down a Filet o’Fish), will be far less than the Republicans envisioned when they finally captured the White House and both Congressional Chambers in 2016. But from what I have seen of the particulars, the revisions to the tax code will offer a marginal, although temporary, win for low income individuals, a major slap for moderately successful wage earners and home owners, (especially in the high tax Blue States) and a huge victory for the extremely wealthy and certain categories of business owners. While it is certain that the plan will add to the growing deficit, its immediate economic and political impact is hard to predict.
For generations, taxpayers and politicians alike lambasted our overly complex tax code for its myriad of economic distorting loopholes that seemed to produce nothing except employment for legions of accountants and tax lawyers adept at gaming the system. As a result, talk about tax reform has always included proposals to make the system simpler, fairer, and more transparent. But on that front, the Republican proposals fail miserably. Trump and Congress will hail this achievement as being a major victory for the American people. But the true winner will be the swamp that Trump promised to drain.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who passed tax reform in 1986 by striking a deal with Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Trump and Congressional Republicans faced no particular need to compromise. If Reagan had the benefits enjoyed by Trump, Ryan and McConnell, his tax cuts would have been paired with significant spending cuts and perhaps a balanced budget. But to get O’Neill (and his whopping 71 seat House majority) to go along, Reagan’s ideals of fiscal prudence and smaller government had to be set aside. But Trump is no Reagan, and today’s Republican Party has about as much commitment to shrinking the size of government as did the Democrats in the 1980s.
Taxes are the price we pay for government. If Republicans want to reduce the tax burden, they need to make government less expensive. Tax cuts without spending cuts is the Republican version of a free lunch. But if government spending is not paid for with tax revenue, alternate sources must be found that will ultimately prove more costly than the forgone tax revenue.
Despite endless campaign rhetoric to the contrary, the Republican Party is no longer the party of limited government, fiscal responsibility, Federalism, the Constitution, sound money, or any of the principals that they typically espouse while stumping for office or raising money. Instead of reducing the size of government, thereby lightening the burden on taxpayers and limiting the economic drag caused by government, Republicans have chosen the easy course of tax cuts, replete with overly optimistic assumptions and gimmicks meant to disguise their true impact on future deficits. Adding insult to injury, they leave in place an even more complex tax code, replete with even more loopholes, that limits individual freedom and undermines economic growth.
True reform would have eliminated the income tax completely, or at a minimum, replaced it with a flat tax. It would have abolished the corporate income tax, payroll taxes, and the estate and gift taxes, and replaced them with a tax system based on consumption rather than production. Such a system would encourage savings rather than debt accumulation, and would restore some semblance of sanity to a system increasingly dependent on borrowing. Real reform would have included entitlement reform, as well as across the board reductions in government spending. Entire agencies and departments would have been eliminated, making government smaller and less expensive. These are the types of changes that are needed to head off a possible looming debt crisis and put the country back on a path to achieve real economic growth, not the phony financial gains we have seen in the past generation.
But instead, Republicans crafted a plan that would cut taxes for some while raising taxes for others. The political genius of the plan can be found in the elimination of state and local tax deductions that will raise taxes predominantly on higher wage earners in Democrat controlled states with high taxes. This move was a political freebie for Republicans, as it largely spares their constituents from tax hikes, but prevents Democrats from protecting theirs because to do so would require them to argue against raising taxes on the “wealthy.” It may also trigger a fiscal crisis in largely Democrat states as high earners, who provide an outsize share of state tax revenue, consider pulling up stakes for lower tax jurisdictions. But Republicans did not leave well enough alone. The taxes raised on rich Democrats will not nearly be enough to pay for the cuts they offer business owners, passive investors, and corporations. The balance will be “paid for” by borrowing. In addition, high tax states may be forced to scramble to adjust their tax policies in an attempt to forestall defections of the wealthy. To do so, they may shift taxes to businesses (for which state taxes will still be deductible from federal taxes). The businesses in turn, can pass these costs onto their employees in the form of lower wages and their customers in the form of higher prices.
Republicans, of course, argue that the economic growth that will be generated by lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% will generate enough new tax revenue to offset what is lost. While that idea is sound in theory, nothing about our current situation would suggest that a growth surge is around the corner, with or without corporate tax cuts.
We are already in the ninth year of a supposed economic expansion. Over the last century, these expansions (the time between recessions) have lasted, on average, about five and a quarter years. So, already our current “expansion” has lasted nearly twice the average. Also, this expansion has been extraordinarily weak, with growth averaging around 2% since 2009. This is far below the 3% to 4% rate seen in prior recoveries. (data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Bureau of Labor Statistics) It is also clear that this tepid number has relied heavily on surging asset prices in stocks, real estate, and bonds. But all three of those markets could easily reverse course.
The stock market has surged to all-time highs based on the expected likelihood that tax reform would be passed early in the Trump Administration. When this hope becomes reality, it may be that we will get a “buy the rumor, sell the fact” decline, especially if the final package is not all that investors hoped it would be. The real estate market may actually suffer under the new rules as high-end properties become more expensive to own and less attractive to buy given the limits on property tax and mortgage deductions. On the lower end of the market, the expansion of the standard deduction could mean far fewer will receive a tax benefit from buying modestly priced homes, thereby mitigating the advantages of buying over renting. (It is no accident that some of the biggest objections to the new proposals have come from real estate industry groups). And lastly, the bond market faces no shortage of headwinds. With the Fed threatening to sell much of its $4.5 Trillion holdings of Treasury and Mortgage bonds, the likelihood of falling bond prices and rising yields looms large. (In the past three months, 10-year Treasury yields have increased 30 basis points). Even the tax bill’s supporters acknowledge that it will increase the deficit significantly in the near term, thereby requiring the Treasury to sell more bonds to fill the gap. The extra supply could put downward pressure on bond prices and raise yields on the long end, creating losses in the bond market and raising borrowing costs for government, businesses and consumers.
For these reasons, it is logical to assume that the current tax proposals will have a more modest economic impact than the Tax Cuts of 1986 or even the Bush tax cuts of 2001. It is important to note that the Bush tax cuts occurred while the economy was already in recession, a time where economists could at least plausibly argue that fiscal stimulus was needed. But by putting these cuts through now, while the economy is still expanding (at least on paper), by the time the next recession arrives, the fiscal bullets will have already been fired.
Assuming that the hoped for economic growth does not materialize, the money borrowed now must eventually be repaid. Deficit spending means that today’s tax cuts merely sow the seeds for tomorrow’s tax hikes. But since taxpayers will not only be on the hook for the money borrowed, but the added interest associated with that debt, the future tax hikes could be larger than today’s cuts.
Of course, instead of raising future taxes to repay the money borrowed to fund today’s cuts, a cooperative Federal Reserve could simply print the money needed to buy the additional Treasury debt. But this does not mean we get all this government for free. The cost will come in the form of higher consumer prices as a new round of monetary expansion could cause a continuing drop in the dollar. So Americans may end up with more after tax dollars in their paychecks, but the reduced value of those dollars means they will actually be able to afford to buy less stuff. Just because it appears consumers dodged this bullet during the first three phases of Quantitative Easing does not mean that we will be as lucky with additional rounds.