I am hoping that some potential voters are still interested in hearing about policy differences between the presidential candidates. As the election campaign stands now, it seems to be mostly a debate over the candidates’ character. Does Donald Trump have the right temperament to be president? Is Hillary Clinton trustworthy? Their actual policy proposals are often overshadowed by the latest mini-scandal, what Trump said about so-and-so, or what was found in an email on Clinton’s server. I watched the CBS evening news the day that Clinton presented her economic plan, and they made no mention of it. They did, of course, do a story on Trump’s description of the President as the “founder of ISIS,” which he later said he meant sarcastically, sort of.
Meanwhile, the country faces a number of difficult policy decisions, which will remain important regardless of who wins, but on which the candidates have taken very different positions. Decisions about fiscal policy–how to tax, how to spend–are among the most important. They affect what the federal government is able to do, and what impact it has on the economy.
Both candidates promise to accomplish things that require new spending, although they often describe their goals without trying to put a price tag on them. One goal they have tried to price out is repairing and improving the nation’s infrastructure. Hillary Clinton has proposed to spend $275 billion over five years, and Donald Trump has promised to out-build her (that’s what he’s good at) with his own $500 billion plan.
Each candidate has other initiatives that will also need funding. Clinton wants to increase federal aid to education so that students from families with incomes below $85,000 can attend state colleges tuition free. (That threshold would rise to $125,000 over the next four years.) Trump wants to put more money into strengthening the military.
The candidates differ dramatically on how they would pay for their new spending. Clinton is the more fiscally conservative here, proposing to pay for new spending with higher taxes targeted specifically at the wealthy. Trump, on the other hand, wants to cut taxes, so at least in the short run the government would face a double whammy of more spending but less revenue. (He hopes that the government would recover at least some of that revenue when his tax cut stimulates the economy; more on that later.) Trump proposes to offset some spending with reductions in “waste, fraud and corruption,” a familiar goal to be sure, but I couldn’t find any proposals for specific budget cuts on his website. He has also said that he is willing to run a larger deficit and take on more debt. He has boasted about his ability to manage debt, but we know from his business history that his methods include declaring bankruptcy and repaying debt at less than full value. At one point Trump even suggested that the United States could also shortchange its bondholders, something that the country has never done. (That could very well end up costing the country more, since it would shatter confidence in our bonds and force the Treasury to pay higher interest rates.)
So on the face of it, Clinton seems to be the fiscal conservative, and Trump the fiscal risk-taker, which makes some Republicans very nervous. However, his “borrow and spend” approach isn’t that much of a departure from what Republican administrations actually do, as opposed to what conservative orthodoxy says they should do. While Republicans sound like the ultimate deficit hawks when they are opposing Democratic spending plans, their record on reducing deficits and balancing the budget is actually very poor. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush ran up large deficits by doing a lot of what Trump wants to do, increase military spending while cutting taxes.
Ever since the 1980s, Republicans have supported their tax proposals with an argument from “supply-side” economics. Tax cuts aimed at corporations and the wealthy provide more capital that businesses can use to expand, create jobs, and boost incomes. That in turn increases tax revenues, so the tax cuts don’t really increase government debt in the long run. Not very many economists subscribe to this view today, at least with regard to cuts in personal income taxes. We have had relatively low taxes on the wealthy for 35 years, and we have experienced sluggish growth and a soaring national debt. In contrast, during the great period of economic growth in the mid-twentieth century, tax rates were higher, but growth rates were also higher and deficits were smaller.
Personal income taxes
As I said, Hillary Clinton proposes to increase taxes on the wealthy. She would put a 4% tax surcharge on incomes over $5 million, in effect raising the top tax bracket rate from 39.6% to 43.6%. She would also like to make anyone with an income over $1 million pay at least 30%. Although millionaires are in the 39.6% bracket now with regard to “ordinary income,” they can pay as little as 20% on income from capital gains. That’s why Warren Buffet can point out that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. (He is supporting Clinton’s plan, by the way, even though it will raise his own taxes.) The proposal for a 30% minimum rate for millionaires was previously proposed by President Obama, and has come to be known as the “Buffet rule.”
Clinton is not proposing any major tax changes for the non-millionaire majority. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is proposing “lower taxes for everyone, making raising a family more affordable for working families.” His first proposal cut taxes so much that most analysts dismissed it as fiscally irresponsible. More recently, he has apparently adopted the plan put forth by House Republicans, at least with regard to tax rates. The details are not entirely clear because they are not yet available on the Trump website.
We do know that the Trump plan proposes to simplify the rate structure by replacing the current seven tax brackets with only three: 12%, 25% and 33%. To keep the presentation brief, I will focus on households headed by married couples filing joint returns, but the general conclusions would be true for single filers as well. Here is how the plans would affect households with various taxable incomes (after deductions and exemptions):
- $25,000: Currently this household is in the 15% bracket, but their effective tax rate is only 11.3%, since the first $18,550 is taxed at only 10%. Their tax is now $2,822. After Trump’s simplification, all their income is taxed at 12%, so their tax rises slightly to $3,000.
- $30,917: I’ve picked this odd number because it is the break-even point where Trump’s plan makes no difference. The household is currently in the 15% bracket, but their effective rate is 12% already, and it remains 12% in Trump’s plan. Their tax is $3,710 either way.
- $50,000: This household is also in the 15% bracket under the current system, with an effective rate of 13.1% and a tax of $6,572. After Trump’s simplification, they are taxed entirely at 12%, for a tax of $6,000 and a savings of $572.
- $100,000: This household is currently in the 25% bracket, but with an effective rate of 16.5%. Under Trump’s plan, they are still in the 25% bracket, but their effective rate drops to 15.2% because the first $75,300 of their income is taxed at his 12% rate. Their tax goes down from $16,542 to $15,211, a savings of $1,331.
- $1 million: Currently they are in the top 39.6% bracket, with an effective rate of 34.2%. Trump’s top bracket is only 33%, so their effective rate comes down to 30.2%. Their taxes fall from $341,666 to $301,695, a savings of $39,970.
And so it goes. The greater the taxable income, the larger the tax reduction, not only in dollars but in rate. Like all Republican tax proposals, this one gives the greatest tax relief to the wealthy who pay the most taxes, with the aim of making the rate structure flatter and less progressive.
In addition, the Trump plan does not address the “Buffet rule,” and so it continues allowing millionaires to pay a lower rate if their income is primarily from capital gains.
The Trump plan is marketed as “lower taxes for everyone, making raising a family more affordable for working families.” But the family with a $50,000 taxable income saves $572, while the family with the million-dollar income saves $39,970. Why should the government give up badly needed tax revenue to help families that are already doing fine?
A word of caution: a complete analysis of a tax plan would have to consider more than just the tax brackets and rates. For example, the House Republican plan (and maybe the Trump plan?) also proposes to increase the standard deduction from $12,600 to $24,000, while eliminating the personal exemption. Some households, especially those without children, would see their taxable income fall. Others, especially families with two or more children, could lose more from the loss of exemptions than they gain from the increased standard deduction. I don’t think that changes my basic conclusion, but it is not simple. The candidates need to post their plans with as much specificity as possible, so that outside experts can evaluate them.
One suspects that the real objectives of the Republican plan are probably something else besides providing tax relief to the working class. Many Republicans sincerely believe that more tax cuts for the wealthy will promote economic growth, although doing that from the top down is a dubious proposition. Democrats are more likely to believe that government spending on useful job-creating projects is a more direct path to growth. The difference is even starker, since some Republicans have advocated tax cuts specifically to deprive the federal government of revenue in order to keep government small and weak, “small enough to drown in a bathtub,” as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has put it. As far as I know, Donald Trump has not made that argument. He really can’t, since he is promoting increases in both military and domestic spending. But it may be an objective of House Republicans, who could be very influential in a Trump administration. They do want to reduce domestic spending, although they have to be careful about how they present that to the public. Better to speak of “entitlement reform” than “cutting social security benefits”; better to speak of “reducing dependency on government” than “taking away food stamps from hungry children.” Surveys have found that Americans like the idea of limited government in the abstract, but rarely rally around when specific programs are on the cutting board.
A presidential campaign should be an opportunity to have an honest, fact-based debate over fiscal policy, among other things. Right now, that’s just not the kind of thing that get’s voters’ attention.
In the next post, I’ll discuss differences between the candidates on estate taxes and corporate taxes.