WASHINGTON – What I most dislike about the Trump/Republican tax plan is the shameless cynicism with which it has been peddled.
Recall how it works: The government borrows $1.5 trillion over a decade and instantly uses that money to cut taxes for major constituencies – workers, families, small businesses and big companies.
The handouts aim to buy votes. This is borrowing to bribe. It’s not subtle. If it’s not cynical, what would be?
Democrats can scream all they want about inequality, but the Republicans will have plenty of money to distribute. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates that all income classes will receive cuts and that, in 2018, only 5 percent of taxpayers will experience higher taxes compared with present law. That figure climbs up to 9 percent in 2025.
It’s true that the biggest cuts go to the richest taxpayers, but the main reason for that is that these people pay most of the taxes. In 2018, taxpayers with $200,000 to $500,000 of income would represent 6.6 percent of taxpayers, pay 24.1 percent of all federal taxes and would receive a $6,560 tax cut, equal to 2.9 percent of their after-tax income, according to the TPC.
By contrast, taxpayers with incomes from $50,000 to $75,000 represent 13.9 percent of taxpayers, pay 6.3 percent of all federal taxes and would receive a $870 tax cut, equal to 1.6 percent of after-tax income.
Whether all this shuffling of money has the political effect that Republicans desire remains to be seen. But what’s unusual about the Republicans’ plan is the heavy reliance on borrowed money. Scott Greenberg of the non-partisan Tax Foundation estimates that 27 percent of the Republicans’ tax cuts are financed by more debt. (The rest is financed by ending other tax breaks.)
Strictly speaking, this is not new. The government has run deficits for decades. It spends more than it taxes. But until now, no major Republican or Democrat has – as far as I can remember – suggested borrowing amounts that are tied explicitly to tax cuts.
You may find this a distinction without a difference. Does it matter whether deficits are the unplanned residual of over-spending and under-taxing? Or are deficits somehow better (worse) if calculated and condoned in advance?
Yes, it does matter. Here’s why:
It’s probable that, in the past, most members of Congress felt a vague guilt that sanctioning ever larger amounts of federal debt was good for the country. But now, even that sense of embarrassment and self-restraint is fading, as Republicans openly defend their $1.5 trillion giveaway.
Budget discipline, already weak, erodes further. The irony is that the $1.5 trillion was intended to check deficit financing. Instead, it has become a political permission slip authorizing at least that much additional borrowing.
To be fair, Republicans argue that their tax cuts will pay for themselves by speeding up the economy and generating a gusher of new tax revenues – a claim doubted by many economists. If Republicans had the courage of their convictions, they would have advanced a stand-alone corporate tax reduction (touted as the biggest contributor to growth) financed entirely by ending other tax breaks.
As it is, the Republicans send exactly the wrong message. We need more taxes, not fewer. Even with the economy near “full employment,” annual budget deficits total hundreds of billions of dollars, and under present policies, they will expand as more Americans retire and health costs grow. Although we can’t know the full consequences, they could be serious.
There’s something inherently sleazy about borrowing for the express purpose of funding politically convenient tax cuts. This is a $1.5 trillion bribe.
Robert Samuelson is a columnist for The Washington Post. © 2017 The Washington Post Writers Group