Clinton and Trump on Fiscal Policy (part 2)

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The last post discussed differences between the candidates in their approach to taxing and spending. Both have ambitious spending plans, but Hillary Clinton proposes to raise the revenue to finance hers by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Donald Trump proposes to increase spending and cut taxes at the same time, with the largest reductions for the wealthy.

Estate taxes

The candidates also sharply disagree over estate taxes. As a result of previous tax cuts, estate taxes only apply to individual estates valued at over $5.45 million, or $10.9 million for married couples. Only one estate out of every 500, or 0.2% of estates, are large enough to have to pay any estate taxes at all.

Amounts that exceed these thresholds are taxed at 40%. However,the wealthy are also able to use various legal devices to limit the size of their taxable estates, so that most pay less than half of that.

Consistent with her aim to get the rich to pay “their fair share,” Clinton proposes to raise the estate tax rate to 45% and to apply the tax to more estates. The new, lower thresholds would be $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples.

Trump would abolish the estate tax altogether, creating another big tax break that would benefit only the richest 1/5 of the 1%. For those as rich as himself (or at least, as he claims to be), the tax savings could run into the billions.  Personally, I think that any candidate who claims to care about struggling working families could find a better use for that tax revenue.

I will cheerfully state my own bias here. I think that taxes on large estates are a good idea in a democracy. They help equalize opportunity, rather than letting the children of the rich be born with a gilt-edge guarantee of future prosperity. They also help avoid the formation of  hereditary aristocracies or plutocracies, which tilt power toward the wealthy and away from average citizens. How strange that an alleged populist cannot appreciate that!

Business taxes

In the area of corporate taxes, the Clinton plan is again more moderate than the Trump plan. She proposes some small changes to the tax code in order to discourage businesses from moving abroad. For example, she would crack down on “tax inversions,” where companies avoid US taxes by merging with a foreign company and moving their corporate headquarters to that country.

Donald Trump would reduce the incentive of companies to leave the United States by lowering the corporate tax rate, which at 35% is one of the highest in the world. Many corporations take advantage of the many deductions and loopholes in our tax code, some pretty reasonable and others pretty tricky. In general, Trump proposes to do what many tax critics recommend, lower the rate but close many of the loopholes.

However, the Trump plan is radical in some respects. He proposes a new corporate rate of 15%, which is below even the House Republican recommendation of 20%. He would also apply that rate to all sorts of businesses, including partnerships, limited liability companies and sole proprietorships. As it stands now, those entities “pass through” income to individuals, who pay taxes on it at “ordinary income” rates as high as 39.6% (or 33% after Trump’s other cuts). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, two-thirds of this pass-through income goes to the top 1% of taxpayers, who are obviously in the top bracket. Taxing those entities at only 15% would be another windfall for the wealthy.

In addition, it would create a new tax loophole for wealthy individuals. Many highly paid employees could lower their taxes to 15% simply by reclassifying themselves as independent contractors and selling their services to their former employers.

The choice

In her tax and spend proposals, Hillary Clinton comes off as the fiscal moderate but social progressive, wanting to finance her new spending plans with modest tax increases on the wealthy. Her tax plan is expected to bring in $1.1 trillion in additional revenue over ten years. Donald Trump comes off as the fiscal risk-taker and plutocrat, willing to increase the deficit in order to give out more tax breaks, primarily for the wealthy. His original plan would have reduced revenue by as much as $9.5 trillion over ten years, although he would hope to offset that by stimulating a higher rate of economic growth. (That’s what tax cutters always hope for but rarely achieve.) The current plan discussed here is just beginning to be analyzed, but I would be surprised if the cost in revenue would come out less than four or five trillion.

As I have said before, the Republican Party has the perennial problem of how to win electoral majorities while pursuing an economic agenda whose top priority is tax relief for rich people. The solution is often some form of cultural conservatism with broad appeal, such as Christian conservatism. Declining enthusiasm for the Religious Right has created an opportunity for a more troubling form of conservatism, more nativist and nationalist, to arise. In Donald Trump we have an odd marriage of nationalist populism and anti-tax plutocracy, the first appealing more to the less educated, and the second more to the rich. But not enough of the educated middle class are buying into this mix to make it the new ideological foundation for the party. Meanwhile, the Democrats are gradually becoming more progressive again, and they should be a formidable political force. For one thing, they are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the younger generation, at least in this election.

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