The United States is a low-tax country.
This is not a widely accepted point, granted. The share of Americans who say that their taxes are too high is at roughly 50 percent, a 15-year peak. Moreover, Republicans have sold their tax bill as an essential tax cut for America’s income-starved, tax-strangled families and businesses, promising to deliver $4,000 a year to the average family and huge boosts to corporate investment. “Today, America has one of the least competitive tax rates on planet Earth, 60 percent. Think of that, 60 percent higher than the average in the developed world. So our taxes are 60 percent higher,” President Trump said this month. “These massive tax cuts will be rocket fuel.”
But much of this rhetoric is incorrect. The United States is a low-tax country and is about to become a lower-tax country, assuming the Republicans manage to pass their $1.5 trillion in cuts. It is also a low-benefit country and is about to become a lower-benefit country, if Republicans can move forward with their long-planned cuts to safety-net and social-insurance programs. And it is becoming a lower-tax, lower-benefit country at a time when the economy needs more support for poor and middle-class families—not less.
Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development clearly shows that the United States is not a particularly heavily taxed country at all. Indeed, out of 35 developed economies, the United States’ tax burden as a share of GDP—26 percent—is the lowest save for four others: Turkey, Ireland, Chile, and Mexico. (Turkey, Mexico, and Chile are considerably poorer than the United States, and have considerably younger populations.) The social democracies of northern Europe, like Denmark and France, take in nearly 50 percent of their GDPs and spend the money on ample welfare states, including child-care benefits and old-age pensions. “From a global perspective, [our tax rate is lower] than average,” said Scott Hodge, the president of the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “The difference is that other countries tend to have a value-added tax, in addition to the same system we have with income taxes, payroll, and all that stuff.”
Moreover, Trump has insisted that the United States has an extremely high corporate-tax burden, one that forces businesses to keep money overseas and hurts jobs and income growth here at home. He is correct that the United States has very high statutory tax rates on corporate incomes, with a top rate of 39 percent on business’ profits. But the American corporate tax code is also full of exceptions, special provisions, and loopholes that companies use to reduce their tax bills. Factoring in deductions, credits, and so on, the effective corporate tax rate is about 19 percent—lower than the top marginal rate that Republicans would put in place. The OECD has found that the United States is about average when it comes to hitting companies with income taxes.
Nor is the United States’ tax burden especially heavy now when compared with the country’s recent history. The measure of federal income as a share of GDP has waxed and waned around the same narrow band—15 to 20 percent, give or take—since the end of World War II, while nearly all other developed economies have chosen to increase tax revenue as a share of GDP to build bigger, stronger welfare states. Nor are taxes on America’s wealthy heavier than they have been historically. As noted by the economist Gabriel Zucman, the United States’ marginal tax rates on its top earners are similar to those in the 1920s, though the government is three times bigger now than it was then. Indeed, the top federal income tax rate has generally been far higher than it is right now: 92 percent in the 1950s, 70 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. Under the Senate proposal, the top rate would be set at 38.5 percent, higher than it was after the George W. Bush tax cuts but lower than at most other times since World War II.
All in all, the Republican plan cuts taxes, driving the bulk of benefits to businesses and wealthy families, with negligible effects for most lower-income and middle-class families a few years out. As a result, taxes as a share of GDP would fall. Current law and government forecasts suggest that government revenues would be 18 percent of GDP in 2020. Under the Senate bill, they would be just 16.7 percent after accounting for the slightly bolstered growth the legislation would generate—with the government taking in $245 billion less in tax revenue than current law would have it in that one year alone.
Those big tax cuts are paving the way for big spending cuts. Because it would increase the deficit so much, the Senate tax bill would trigger automatic budget reductions that would pull $25 billion from Medicare, $14 billion in farm aid, and $2 billion in block-grant money for community-development initiatives in 2018 alone, along with a number of other smaller cuts, were Congress not to act. Budget experts predict that some number of programs might get zeroed out entirely. Then, there are the sweeping changes that Republicans are planning to make to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the remainder of the safety net, including the welfare program and food stamps. “You cannot get the national debt under control, you cannot get that deficit under control, if you don’t do both—grow the economy, cut spending,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said this month at a town hall in Virginia.
The overall effect would be to make government far less redistributive, meaning post-tax, post-transfer inequality would become even more severe. Indeed, a new analysis by the Tax Policy Center found that most working families would end up with less money in pocket as a result of the Republican plans. “If you consider plausible ways of financing either the House or the Senate bill, most low- and middle-income households would eventually end up worse off than if the bill did not become law,” writes William Gale, the co-director of the TPC. “In other words, they would lose more from inevitable future spending cuts or tax hikes necessary to eventually offset the costs of the tax bill than they would gain from the tax cuts themselves.”
This would happen at a time when the country’s population is aging, requiring bigger outlays for government health and income-security programs. “We’re on the hook for a lot more spending in the years to come,” said Len Burman, an economist at the TPC and a professor at Syracuse. “It makes some sense to fund that rising spending obligation with a [value-added tax on goods]. But Republicans won’t even consider it.” It would also happen at a time when economic growth has failed to raise wages and earnings for millions and millions of working families, due to the forces of globalization, technological change, and the decline of unions, among other trends. Indeed, government programs—especially initiatives like the Earned Income Tax Credit—have become more and more important at reducing poverty and supporting families hit by shuttered factories, closing mills, and stagnant wages. The Republican plan would do little to cut taxes on those families, but would cut programs that aid them.
The result would be not just a lower-tax and lower-benefit country, but a more unequal one, and one more vulnerable to the forces suppressing incomes and reducing mobility for working families. The result would be not a vastly bigger, stronger economy, but one more tilted towards the rich. Trump describes his tax-cut plan as “rocket fuel,” but not everyone will be on his rocket.