Quotes of the day

In 2012, Mitt Romney complained that too many Americans were “takers” who paid no income taxes. One campaign later, Republicans are changing course: On Monday, Donald Trump became the latest Republican presidential candidate to propose exempting more families from federal income taxes.

Trump’s plan would eliminate federal income taxes for individuals earning less than $25,000 and married couples earning less than $50,000. That means that more than half of all Americans would owe nothing, including about 31 million households who currently pay at least some tax. Right now, about 40 percent of American households don’t pay income taxes, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center…

Taken together, Bush, Rubio and Trump’s plans represent a major shift in direction for the Republican Party. Romney notoriously complained that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes, and while those comments were recorded surreptitiously, the underlying idea — that too many Americans are “takers” rather than “makers” — was a core part of the Republican message in recent elections. Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, proposed a tax plan that focused on reducing tax rates by “broadening the base,” eliminating deductions and credits that benefit lower- and middle-income households.


When pressed on which taxpayers could expect to pay less in taxes if he is elected, Trump responded: “I will say this: There will be a large segment of our country that will have a zero rate, a zero rate. And that’s something I haven’t told anybody.”

Pelley then pointed out that the federal debt is $19 trillion and asked how the nation could afford those sorts of tax cuts. Trump said the numbers will work out as long as “the economy grows the way it should grow, if I bring jobs back from China, from Japan, from Mexico, from so many countries.”

Trump said the United States also must heavily tax imports, especially those from Mexico and Japan. He said the North American Free Trade Agreement has been “a disaster” and should be renegotiated. He also suggested that the United States could break the agreement because “every agreement has a defraud clause” and is “being defrauded by all these countries.”

“We need fair trade, not free trade,” Trump said. “We need fair trade. It’s gotta be fair.”


One of the biggest beneficiaries appears to be families that draw the smallest paychecks. Individuals that make less than $25,000 (and $50,000 for married couples) would pay no income taxes under Trump’s plan…

But many of those families already pay no federal taxes. Roughly 45% of American households will not owe any federal income taxes this year under the existing tax code, according to Tax Policy Center estimates. Trump said his plan will ensure a slightly larger share — more than 50% of households — pay no federal income tax…

Perhaps the most pressing question that Trump must answer is how he would raise enough revenue to offset his plan’s deep tax cuts, though he insisted Monday that his proposal would not add to the country’s debt or deficit.


A significant revenue gain would come from a one-time tax on overseas profits that could encourage U.S. multinational corporations to return an estimated $2.1 trillion in cash now sitting offshore, largely to avoid U.S. taxes. His proposal would impose a mandatory 10% tax on all of that money, even if the money stays overseas, but allow a few years for the tax to be paid. The Trump campaign estimates that many companies would choose to bring their money back home, boosting jobs and investment in the U.S…

The Trump plan would raise revenues in at least a couple of significant ways. It would limit the value of individual deductions, with middle-class households keeping all or most of their deductions, higher-income taxpayers keeping around half of theirs, and the very wealthy losing a significant chunk of theirs. It also would wipe out many corporate deductions.

All taxpayers would keep their current deductions for mortgage-interest on their homes and charitable giving.


His plan deviates from Republican orthodoxy in several ways.

Aside from his plan to kill carried interest, he also stops short of proposing to move the international section of the tax code towards a so-called territorial system, in which the IRS would not attempt to tax companies’ overseas earnings.

In fact, he would make it easier for Uncle Sam to take companies’ foreign profits by ending so-called deferral, something Republicans are sure to oppose.

Trump also doesn’t offer the generous writeoffs for business investments that many of his rivals have proposed, or cut capital gains taxes nearly as deeply.


Mr. Trump’s tax plan won the ringing endorsement of Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who founded the conservative Americans for Tax Reform organization.

“The plan is vintage Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Norquist said. “It is pro-growth, it is pro-fairness.”

After months of bumper-sticker slogans and sound bites, Mr. Norquist said he was pleasantly surprised by the comprehensiveness of Mr. Trump’s plan. He had a small gripe with how the proposal treats deductibility of business interest expenses but said he could live with the change to how carried interest is taxed considering the deep cuts to personal and corporate tax rates.

The plan is also “completely consistent” with the pledge not to raise taxes that Mr. Norquist uses to pressure candidates not to break ranks, he said, surmising that Republicans in Congress would be happy to support such a proposal.


Trump said he could do all of this without adding to the deficit, promising to further slash government spending. It’s a pledge that’s sure to raise skepticism among debt experts given that discretionary government spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product, is already at its lowest level since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

Trump said his plan reduces or eliminates most of the deductions or loopholes available to special interests and the very rich. “In other words, it’s going to cost me a fortune, which is actually true,’’ Trump said, while rejecting the notion that he is a “populist.’’

“I wouldn’t say populist at all. I would say I’m a man of common sense,’’ he said.

The plan would still continue deductions for home mortgages and charitable giving, he said. “We’re getting rid of deductions that are actually obsolete,’’ he said. “There are people in the very upper echelons that won’t be thrilled.’’


Mr. Trump has also proposed taxing investment returns related to life insurance that currently don’t appear on tax returns at all. This would raise more revenue than you might expect, perhaps $20 billion a year at Mr. Trump’s proposed tax rates, but still wouldn’t be enough to offset the high-end rate cuts.

Even the hedge fund managers Mr. Trump has railed against on the stump would get a tax cut under his plan. The usual fee structure for a hedge fund is called “2-and-20”: a flat management fee (often 2 percent) on all assets, plus a performance fee (often 20 percent) on profits above a set threshold. Currently, the management fee is taxed at ordinary rates up to 39.6 percent, while the performance fee enjoys a preferential rate of 23.8 percent. Under Mr. Trump’s plan, all this income would be taxed at a maximum of 25 percent. The performance fee would be subject to a small tax increase, but that effect would be dwarfed by the large tax cut on ordinary management fees.


Steve Gill, a tax and accounting professor at San Diego State University, said his quick calculation found that as a group, Americans making more than $200,000 a year would pay $400 billion to $500 billion less in taxes under Trump’s plan.

“This is not a serious plan,” said Michael Strain, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “He strongly indicated in television interviews the rich wouldn’t like this plan. The rich love this plan.”…

Trump also predicted his plan would “create tremendous numbers of jobs” and spark the economy to grow at least 3 percent a year, and as much as 5 or 6 percent. “We’re going to have growth that will be tremendous,” he said.

Most economists say such a high growth rate is unrealistic. But even under the most optimistic scenarios for growth, the size of Trump’s tax cuts will keep the government from raising as much revenue as does the current tax system, said Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform, a low-tax advocacy group that Trump consulted as he developed his proposal.


Club for Growth Action, which has been fending off a Trump lawsuit threat over its attacks on his old tax ideas, was less generous than Norquist — but came to the same conclusion. “Donald Trump has a long history of calling for the largest tax increase in U.S. history, of calling for higher corporate taxes to pay for government-run health care, of loudly advocating for sky-high tariffs that will act as a 25 percent – 35 percent sales tax on every family budget, and of using Obama-like rhetoric to claim that higher taxes should be imposed on those he deems worthy of such punishment,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “In just the past 24 hours Trump said he still supports universal health care. So, his tax plan begs the question: Does this mean you were completely wrong about all your liberal policies on taxes, trade, health care, bailouts, and eminent domain?”…

Trump, not one to ever admit an error, addressed none of this in his press conference today. But it’s true: the plan contained few real traces of the populism that he’s dabbled in since 1999. That year, Trump favored a one-time surtax of 14.25 percent on people worth more than $10 million. “The plan would cost me $700 million personally in the short term,” Trump wrote, “but it would be worth it.” If Trump’s back-of-the-classy-monogrammed-handkerchief math was correct, the surtax would have wiped at the debt.

Come 2015, this tax gimmick only survived as a way for the Club, Jeb Bush, and other mainline conservatives to accuse Trump of favoring “the largest tax increase in American history.” Unsurprisingly, it did not make it into the plan.


Trump’s plan is not much different in general structure from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan, though Trump has lower rates.

Trump pointed out that he is a poster boy for some of his own reforms, as he has stocked “millions” overseas and has utilized tax loopholes. This was because he does not like the way the country’s current leadership spends his tax money:

“I pay a lot of tax but I fight like hell to make it as low as possible. But I would feel quite differently if our leadership was such that I respect their decisions.”


Mostly, it looks like a steroidal tax cut for just about everybody, especially the wealthy, that’s suspiciously reminiscent of the budget-nuking plan that Trump’s favorite punching bag, Jeb Bush, recently laid out. In fact, it almost looks as if Trump simply looked at Bush’s plan, then slashed all the rates a little further—or, you know, classed it up a bit…

Which, in the end, is kind of brilliant. It’s not that Bush’s tax plan is some carefully rendered piece of policy artistry that Trump was wise to imitate—it looks like the fevered sort of thing a supply-side fanatic would dream up on an ayahuasca trip. More than half the benefits of the personal income tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent, and depending on your assumptions about growth, it could well add trillions to the deficit. But Trump doesn’t care about policy cred. He just needs to signal that he’s willing to do the Republican tax cut dance—but, you know, with more energy than Bush. And look: Grover Norquist is already kvelling about it.

Trump, you may recall, has built a very lucrative, low-risk real estate business slapping his name on other people’s buildings. Now, rather amusingly, he seems to be applying the same approach to the world of campaign policy production. Don’t be surprised if he starts promising 5 percent growth soon.


The Trump tax cuts would not be very large for lower-income households, because those households don’t have a lot of federal income taxes to cut. But there are a lot of them. Trump’s plan—which resembles Jeb Bush’s plan to a suspicious degree—would by Team Trump’s own reckoning take 31 million households off the tax rolls, and it would substantially reduce taxes for a lot of households making more than $50,000 a year, too. The idea that this is going to be made revenue-neutral by dickeying around with deductions—while sheltering all of the big, popular deductions, such as the one for mortgage interest—is pure fantasy.

All the cheap talk about “hedge fund guys” and carried interest isn’t going to make up that lost revenue, either, especially when you add in the cuts to the corporate income tax, etc. For all of the awed talk about hedge funds, their profits are not nearly large enough to rely upon taxing them heavily to close our national fiscal gap. Certainly not under Trump’s plan: Bumping a couple of hedge funds and private equity firms from the top long-term capital gains rate of 23.8 percent to a top personal tax rate of 25 percent isn’t going to generate a lot of revenue. In fact, it very well may constitute a tax cut for at least some of those financiers, who do pay ordinary income tax rates on a substantial share of their incomes.

Trump’s other big idea—also one of Barack Obama’s big ideas—is to attempt a forced repatriation of companies’ overseas profits, offering a sweetheart rate (10 percent) to soften the blow. This moves in precisely the wrong direction: The United States maintains a counterproductive tax system that presumes to tax the worldwide activity of U.S.-based companies; most advanced countries use a “territorial” system, meaning that they tax activity within their actual jurisdictions. (It is not clear where the U.S. government imagines that it gets the power to take a piece when a U.S. company builds a widget in South Korea and sells it in Switzerland.) This would simply create yet another incentive for U.S.-based firms to move their headquarters abroad to jurisdictions with less insane tax and regulatory environments, or to engage in ever-more-complex tax-avoidance shenanigans. 

Thoughtless? Criminally simple-minded? Sure, but par for the course for a guy who just went on 60 Minutes and proposed inventing Medicaid


Every Republican tax-reform plan should be rooted in this reality: If you are going to have federal spending that is 21 percent of GDP, then you can have a.) taxes that are 21 percent of GDP; b.) deficits. There is no c.

If, on the other hand, you have a credible program for reducing spending to 17 or 18 percent of GDP, which is where taxes have been coming in, please do share it. 

The problem with the Growth Fairy model of balancing budgets is that while economic growth would certainly reduce federal spending as a share of GDP if spending were kept constant, there is zero evidence that the government of these United States has the will or the inclination to enact serious spending controls when times are good (Uncork the champagne!) or when times are bad (Wicked austerity! We must have stimulus!). So even if we buy Jeb Bush’s happy talk about growth, or Donald Trump’s, the idea that spending is just going to magically sit there, inert, while the economy zips forward and the tax coffers fill up, is delusional. 


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