Releasing a long-negotiated and long-awaited Republican tax plan this week, the Trump administration made three promises.
First, the plan would not cut taxes for America’s richest households. “The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan,” Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic advisor, said on Good Morning America. Second, the plan would slash taxes for America’s middle class. “Our framework includes our explicit commitment that tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected,” President Trump said in a speech in Indiana. “They can call me all they want. It’s not going to help. I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me.” Third, the tax plan would not increase the deficit. “We think this tax plan will cut down the deficits by a trillion dollars,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Fox Business Network. “That’s a large number.”
All three of those statements are false, according to an analysis of the Republican framework by the Tax Policy Center (TPC), a nonpartisan think tank. The plan would add about $2.4 trillion to the deficit over a decade, discounting any effects on growth, the TPC found. Nearly 90 percent of earners would see their tax burden fall or remain unchanged in 2018. But the richest families would get the biggest tax cuts in both dollar and percentage-of-income terms, with upper-middle-income families facing significant tax increases in time.
The TPC noted that its analysis involved some guesswork, given that the Republican framework contained very little detail and was missing many crucial numbers—including where each tax bracket would start and end, and even how many brackets there would be. The think tank filled in the blanks with numbers from prior Republican proposals, with its projections then showing modestly wealthy and upper-middle-class families getting hit with tax hikes, lower-income and middle-class families provided with small tax cuts, and the very rich and big businesses benefiting far and away the most.
Given the plan’s piddling cuts for middle-income families, as well as the intensity of tax-reform negotiations more generally, much of the plan is likely to change in the coming months. Some Republicans, for instance, are already pushing back on a provision that would eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes.
Though Republicans have insisted that the tax plan is not a cut for the rich, the proposal includes large rate cuts, the creation of a significant tax loophole for so-called “pass-through” business filers, the elimination of the estate tax, and the repeal of the alternative minimum tax. It also maintains incentives for charitable giving, mortgage interest, retirement savings, and education—all of which are most beneficial to the rich. “It’s hard to see, if you continue to have those provisions in a tax proposal,” how it would not disproportionately aid top earners, Mark Mazur, the director of the TPC, said on a call with reporters.
Even though the plan eliminates many other tax breaks, the richest of the rich would still come out far, far ahead, indeed the farthest ahead, the TPC found. Taxpayers in the top 1 percent, with incomes above $730,000 a year, would gain half of the overall benefits in 2018, with their average post-tax incomes jumping almost 9 percent. More than 97 percent of filers in the top 0.1 percent would see a tax cut due to the Trump plan—and a very large one, worth an average of $747,580—compared with about 70 percent of the poorest households.
Despite his statement in Indiana, Trump himself would almost certainly see his own tax bill shrink, possibly by more than $1 billion over time, a New York Times analysis found. Repealing the alternative minimum tax would have saved him an estimated $31 million on his 2005 return, and the creation of the pass-through loophole $25 million. But the bulk of his tax savings would come from the elimination of the estate tax, which as currently constructed would put a 40-percent levy on his estimated $3 billion in assets upon his death. (Granted, that accounting is tenuous, given that Trump still refuses to release his tax returns, unlike all modern-day presidents before him.)
Moreover, America’s richest would likely benefit disproportionately from the huge corporate tax cuts in the bill. Shareholders, rather than workers and consumers, end up footing the bill for or benefiting from changes in corporate taxes, most economists agree. (Kevin Hassett, the chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors, is a notable dissenter, arguing that workers bear the brunt of the corporate income-tax burden.) The Republican plan to slash the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, exempt foreign profits from taxation, and grant a special one-time, low-rate “holiday” to encourage companies to repatriate money from overseas would likely be a huge boon to America’s shareholders—meaning, overwhelmingly, older and richer Americans.
Meanwhile, the Trump tax cuts would be “modest” for the bottom 95 percent of the income distribution, the TPC found, equivalent to just 1.2 percent of after-tax income in 2018. The bottom four-fifths of the income distribution would see a tax cut worth just 0.5 percent of after-tax income, or less, a decade out. Families would benefit from the bigger standard deduction and child tax credit, but would lose out from the elimination of personal exemptions as well as the state and local tax deduction.
Many upper-middle-class households would not benefit from Trump’s proposal at all, and many would see their taxes go up. By 2027, about one in three taxpayers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 a year would be paying more, as would about 60 percent of families making between $150,000 and $300,000 a year. That is in part because the plan, as written, would replace personal exemptions that are indexed to inflation with credits for children and other dependents that are not, and because the plan would get rid of the state and local tax deduction.
Accounting for all the changes to the individual income-tax code, the Trump tax cut is not much of a tax cut at all. The reductions for the middle class are so small and the tax increases for the upper-middle class significant enough that the plan actually raises money compared with current law. The very wealthiest and corporations, on the other hand, get cuts worth trillions. “It kind of looks like a free lunch, that everybody’s better off,” said Len Burman, an economist at the TPC and Syracuse University. “The thing that’s surprising about this is that there are some groups that don’t get to share in the $3- or $4 trillion of tax cuts.”