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The state of the economy loomed large in the minds of voters as they went to the polls. According to CNN exit polling, 62% of the voters characterized the economy as “not good” or “poor,” and a majority of those who felt that way voted for Donald Trump. The 27% of voters who said they were worse off than four years ago voted for him by a 77% to 19% margin.
Although the economy has been growing steadily since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the rate of growth has been fairly slow, and the income gains from that growth have gone mostly to the very wealthy.
What does President-Elect Trump propose to do for the middle class? He would give them a modest tax cut, create good jobs by spending on infrastructure and negotiating more favorable trade deals, and stimulate the economy to increase the rate of economic growth. (I won’t discuss new trade deals here, since they are such an unknown at this time, and they require the cooperation of our trading partners.)
Taxes and spending
As I described in more detail in an earlier post, Trump would like to reduce personal income taxes and corporate taxes, as well as completely eliminate estate taxes. The income tax cut would provide a small benefit for the middle class. For example, a married couple with a $50,000 taxable income would have their taxes reduced from $6,572 to $6,000.
This might not be a free lunch, however. Like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him, Trump would like to cut taxes and increase military spending at the same time. If past experience is any guide, that would increase the deficit and make it hard to fund any job-creating domestic initiatives. If Congressional Republicans run true to form, they will rush to cut taxes and then clamor for spending cuts to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Trump’s fiscal problem is likely to be especially acute, since he wants infrastructure spending as well as military spending increases. He also wants particularly drastic tax cuts, including complete elimination of estate taxes (a huge financial windfall for his own family and those of his billionaire friends) and a reduction in corporate rates from 35% to 15%.
Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin, has created some uncertainty about tax cuts for the wealthy. He has said, “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” That would be good news for the rest of us, since it would make the tax cuts fairer and also preserve revenue that could be better spent on job creation. However, Mnuchin’s promise goes against strong Republican inclinations, as well as being in opposition to the plan previously announced by Trump himself. According to the New York Times:
In that plan, middle-class families would see a 0.8 percent increase in their after-tax income, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation, while the top 1 percent of taxpayers would see a 10.2 to 16 percent gain. Another group, the Tax Policy Center, calculated middle-class families would get a 1.8 percent boost in after-tax income, while the top 0.1 percent of earners would see a 14 percent gain and a tax cut worth an average of $1.1 million.
I will be surprised of Congress can agree on enough changes in tax deductions to offset the large reductions in tax rates that Trump has proposed for the wealthy.
Ever since the Reagan Revolution, “supply-side” economists have dreamed of cutting tax rates without actually reducing government revenues, so as not to increase the federal deficit. In theory, that could be accomplished if tax cuts stimulated economic growth and increased the income base from which taxes are collected. In practice, Republican tax cuts since Reagan have not paid for themselves, and the annual deficit has risen under Republican administrations while falling under Democratic administrations. (The total national debt, however, has risen under both parties’ administrations, since only rarely has the government run a surplus. Bill Clinton did toward the end of his presidency, but then George W. Bush used the surplus as an excuse for another round of tax cuts and deficits.)
Since middle-class tax rates are already fairly low, the middle-class tax cut is probably too small to produce much stimulus. Those who believe in top-down economic growth are pinning their hopes more on the corporate tax cut. That could translate into widespread income gains, but only if corporations actually invest the money in expansions of output (as opposed to just distributing it in dividends to mostly wealthy shareholders or buying up existing assets), and spend a lot of it on labor, not just on labor-saving machinery.
What the country needs is a virtuous cycle of higher productivity and higher wages. Higher productivity justifies wage increases, and higher wages create the consumer demand that justifies investment in the expansion of supply. What is missing from the Trump economic policy, and from Republican policy in general, is much support for higher wages. That would mean federal support for workers in their efforts to bargain for a fairer share of the income gains the economy is capable of generating. For a man who presents himself as a friend of the working class, Trump has remarkably little to say on this subject. In a way, he is the personification of trickle-down economics, the billionaire who just asks people to trust rich folks like him to create wealth for the masses.
We get occasional hints that President-Elect Trump might depart from the standard Republican playbook of tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for everyone else. His interest in infrastructure spending and his Treasury secretary’s support for concentrating tax cuts on the middle class are hopeful signs. But overall, I remain skeptical that much that is good for working families will survive Trump’s embrace of Wall Street and the Republican establishment.