Our tax code redistributes wealth, stifles growth, and is too complex. Most importantly, the progressive system is a primary reason why our government is not responsive to we the people — because the leviathan is built upon debt and a relatively small group of truly wealthy taxpaying individuals, thereby empowering the socialists to grow government without much backlash.
The GOP plan for individual tax rates does not fundamentally alter this dynamic, and in fact, it might make the overall income tax pie even more progressive and the code more convoluted.
Moreover, as I’ve noted before, tax policy is not the issue of our time. The domestic issues of our time are health care, regulations, and debt. The only people who pay a significant amount in taxes will not get much of a cut and in some cases will get no cut at all. And those who pay very little, by definition, can’t get much back. Contrast that with the Obamacare cost of an extra ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year for middle-income families not being subsidized, and you will see why it’s dumb for Republicans to write off health care and move on to taxes.
But we already knew that the GOP had no plans to repeal Obamacare or systematically restructure the source of federal taxation. Thus, the ultimate concern was that the new plan would outright raise taxes on a meaningful number of middle- and upper-middle-income Americans. But the tax cuts projected in the plan are insignificant for most people, and many, depending on their state and family size, might see a tax increase.
The main reason the GOP is obsessing about taxes is because of the corporate lobbyist push for a business tax cut. They are certainly right to ask for one, and the clean cut from 35 percent to 20 percent is very pro-growth. Then, because the GOP is incapable of messaging to the American people that corporations are individual jobs and wages, they feel a need to deal with the individual tax code as well. But because cutting individual taxes would necessarily require a tax cut for the rich (those who pay most of the taxes) and the loss of revenue, they went on a wild goose chase to raise some rates while lowering others, cutting some deductions and credits while increasing others. The fact that they refuse to cut spending and are, in fact, increasing spending has boxed them into a corner.
Before getting into the weeds on the individual provisions of the plan, it’s important to note that the Joint Committee on Taxation scored the overall budgetary outcome of the individual tax reforms as $3.3 trillion in new cuts and $3.0 trillion in new tax revenue. The corporate tax cut is a $1.5 trillion cut. By definition, this essentially revenue-neutral cut on the individual side means that some will pay more in taxes, and it will not be those who already barely pay taxes or who make money off the tax code. It is quite evident that those at the bottom will pay even less and that the very wealthy might pay more under this plan, especially with the back-door 46 percent rate on wealthy job creators.
Before conservatives sign off on this plan, at a bare minimum, they must work out on paper that no significant group of people, particularly upper-middle-income families, will see their taxes rise. That is the ultimate act of political malpractice and would make the entire package fall flat.
For the purpose of this analysis, I focus mainly on how the main provisions of the bill affect middle-income and upper-middle-income families who file jointly. Some of the ancillary provisions and the effects on other income levels will be addressed in future columns.
- Middle-income and upper-middle-income brackets:
Details: The current seven tax brackets would be consolidated into four brackets: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent, and 39.6 percent. For married couples, the low 12 percent rate would last all the way until $90,000 of income, the point at which the 25 percent rate would kick in. At present, that rate kicks in at $75,900. Also, under current law, all income from $18,000 to $75,900 is taxed at 15 percent; now it will go down to 12 percent. This, in a vacuum, is a significant tax cut. The 25 percent rate goes all the way through $260,000 of income under the GOP plan, whereas under current law most of that income is taxed at the 28 percent tax bracket. However, at $260,000 is where you get hit with the 35 percent rate, whereas under current law, that high rate doesn’t kick in until $416,000 of income.
Outcome: As you can see, this is a clean tax cut for those earning below $260,000. For those earning between $260,000 and $416,000, which includes a lot of hard-working successful professionals where both spouses have good jobs, this is something of a wash, but for most will still be a cut. However, the steep cliff of paying such a significantly higher rate on increased income is anti-growth. Which is why it’s dumb to collapse rates for the sake of it. Once you agree to the premise of a progressive, graduated income tax, the extra gradations are really necessary.
- Standard deduction doubled/personal exemption eliminated:
Details: On the one hand, this bill would double the standard deduction for individuals from $6,350 to $12,700 and for couples from $12,000 to $24,000. On the other hand, it abolishes the personal exemption, which deducts $4,050 per person in the family, including the filer.
Outcome: For individuals, this is a clean tax cut because the $6,350 in increased standard deduction would outweigh the loss of $4,050 personal exemption. And given that most individuals don’t own homes, they are likely not itemizing deductions.
For families, any household with four or more individuals is clearly losing more in the exemption ($4,050 X 4+) than gaining with doubling the standard deduction ($12,000). Plus, most families who own homes itemize their deductions anyway and might still take that route even with the expanded standard deduction. However, coupled with the reduced marginal tax rates and the extra $600 in tax credit for every child (see next point), many, but not all, will still come out on top.
- Elimination of state and local income tax (SALT) deduction:
Details: Under current law, individuals below the AMT-threshold income can deduct all state and local income taxes and property taxes from their income for purposes of federal income taxes. This bill would abolish the deduction for income taxes but allow for up to a $10,000 deduction for property taxes. It also limits the mortgage interest deduction to $500,000 worth of mortgage interest on homes purchased after the enactment date, but not on existing mortgages.
Outcome: The deduction for state income and property taxes, in conjunction with the mortgage interest deduction and charitable deduction, is why almost every middle- and upper-middle-income family that owns a home chooses to itemize deductions rather than take the standard deduction of $12,000. Even with the doubling of the standard deduction, most of these families above a certain income level, particularly those who tithe or give large amounts of charity, still deduct over $24,000 in itemization. By getting rid of the state and local deduction, most of those families will be placed into a scenario where it’s no longer worthwhile to itemize. It will de-incentivize charity, in contrast to current law.
Also, the GOP made the worst possible compromise on SALT. State income taxes are universal to almost every taxpayer in most states. That deduction was completely abolished. Yet, not only did they not abolish the real estate tax deduction, they have a cap of $10,000, which only applies to either wealthy homes or very high tax areas. The better compromise would have been to cap all SALT at $10K — no matter the breakdown. This was a handout to the realtors. Many individuals, not just in high tax states, will wind up paying more in taxes, even after the other cuts.
- Expanded child tax credit
Details: This bill would expand the child tax credit from $1,000 to $1,600 per child. It would also raise the income threshold for phasing out this credit. Under current law, married families earning over $110,000 see their credit reduced by $50 per $1,000 of income over that threshold. This bill would dramatically raise that cap, to $230,000.
Outcome: In a vacuum, this is one of the best provisions of the bill. It is pro-family and also rectifies an unfair part of the tax code for upper-middle-income families. Phasing out the credit for those who work hard discourages upward mobility and is fundamentally unfair, especially when lower-income earners, in addition to the other programs, get to enjoy the tax credit to the point where it pays them money when their tax liability is zero (a “refundable” credit). It’s also important to note that the expanded portion of the credit — the extra $600 — is not refundable. A further positive provision is that the bill would require Social Security numbers to receive refundable tax credits, ensuring that most illegal aliens will not benefit from them.
However, the million-dollar question is whether the expanded child tax credit is enough to offset the increases on upper-middle-income families as a result of elimination of deductions and the personal exemption.
- Abolishes AMT
The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) would be abolished. For many tax filers, this provision is a wash because the main outcome of the AMT is that it eliminates the personal exemption and credits and deductions. The new bill eliminates the AMT but abolishes those exemptions and deductions for everyone. However, this provision is very positive for those earning enough to be in the AMT but not too much to be locked out of the child tax credit. Thanks to the increase in phase-out amount (see previous point), families earning roughly $180K-$280K will get to receive most or all of the credit, thanks to the increase in threshold, but won’t see it abolished because the AMT is eliminated.
Bottom line: Revenue-neutral tax cut is not worth the political capital it will use
This proposal makes many systemic changes, without resulting in systemic outcome changes and a clear tax cut for everyone. While some will be slightly better off, others will pay slightly more. Using tax software and the expertise of my CPA brother-in-law, I calculated my 2016 tax return and compared it to the proposed changes. The result? I’d actually pay $169 more in taxes. And I’m not an outlying taxpayer. I’m a typical family of five in the 25 percent tax bracket, with a $350,000 home. While Maryland has a high income tax, it’s not among the highest, and my county property taxes are very average. If people like me will not see a tax cut, then many in the breadbasket of the GOP base will not see a tax cut.
Obviously, location and family size will make different stories, but no typical middle-income family (and, I would argue, even upper-income family) should pay more in taxes. That is political malpractice.
The liability of increasing the tax burden of a middle-income family by $500-$1000 per year is much more potent than the political reward for giving people a $500-$1,000 cut.
Additionally, I hope to address in a separate column the provision of this bill that uses the “chained CPI,” a less generous metric, to index income thresholds of the brackets to inflation. Over time, this will blunt some of the benefit of the rate reductions while still retaining the full loss of the deductions.
What Republicans should do instead
To rectify the problems, Republicans should do one or a mixture of the following:
- Repeal Obamacare, which is the biggest tax on consumers, and replace it with free-market health care, which would represent the biggest spending cut of all policies. This will free up revenue for a real tax cut.
- Focus for the next year on cutting other spending and cutting regulations, and save tax cuts for later.
- Write a more systemic reform of the code, or abolish withholdings and require that everyone either write a check or receive a payment on April 15. That way everyone will know who actually pays taxes and how much they pay.
- For now, stick with only the corporate tax cut and properly message it to the American people.
- Repeat the Bush tax cuts — a clean, across-the-board slashing of rates along with the child tax cut expansion and increase in phase-out for upper-middle-income families. This will ensure that everyone gets a tax cut and that there are no political problems that embarrass us with our own voters.
In other words, either cut spending, create a real tax cut, or preferably both. But to keep spending high and box themselves into a revenue-neutral tax cut will result in the worst political and policy outcomes imaginable.
Republicans were created to cut taxes. They clearly don’t do anything else well in fiscal, social, and national security policy. Come on, Republicans, at least pretend: You have one job.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct a typographical error, from “chained CPA” to “chained CPI” (Consumer Price Index).