The Three Choices for Tax Reform

The Three Choices for Tax Reform

September 13, 2017

Trump administration officials and GOP leaders in Congress are still putting together their tax plan. Nevertheless, the early signs point to decisions that could sink the project or produce changes that would jeopardize economic growth.

Congress can approach changing the corporate tax in one of three ways. It can try to simplify the code, it can reform it, or it can cut it back. The GOP’s current approach appears to start with simplification. Simplifying the corporate tax normally means phasing out a package of tax preferences for particular industries or business activities, and using the revenues to bring down the current 35 percent tax rate to 28, 25 or even 20 percent. This model shifts the burden of the tax among industries but not among income groups, since shareholders continue to bear most of the burden. Such simplification can also attract bipartisan support and produce real economic benefits. At a minimum, it lowers tax compliance costs for most businesses; and if it’s done thoughtfully, it can increase economic efficiency. To be sure, any efficiency benefits will be marginal unless the simplifications are fairly broad and sweeping.

The record also shows that serious tax simplification is very hard to achieve. Support from President Obama and congressional GOP leaders wasn’t enough to advance it in 2014, for the simple reason that most companies prefer their tax preferences to a lower tax rate. They’re not wrong economically: The Treasury calculated in 2016 that tax preferences lower the average effective corporate tax rate to 22 percent, and companies in many industries pay substantially less. Why give up those preferences for a 28 or 25 percent rate? A 20 percent rate could solve the problem for most industries, if anyone had a plausible way to pay for it. Of course, financing a deep rate cut was the border adjustment tax promoted by Speaker Paul Ryan, and which the White House and big importers and retailers quickly squashed.

The second option is genuine reform, where Congress changes the structure of the corporate tax. Economically, the most promising reform would give U.S. companies a choice of tax treatments when they invest in equipment. They could deduct the full cost of those investments in the year they make them (“expensing”) while giving up the current deduction for interest on funds borrowed to finance the investments. Or they could stick with the current depreciation system for their investments, including the deduction for interest costs. If enough companies choose the first route, as they likely would, this reform would spur investment and sharply reduce the tax code’s nonsensical bias towards financing business growth with debt rather than equity. Such a structural reform would make sound economic sense. It also seems as unlikely as serious simplification, because it foregoes the pixie dust of marginal tax rate cuts that GOP supply-siders demand.

That leaves the Trump administration and Republican leaders with option three: Cut the corporate tax rate without paying for it. The President seems to favor this approach. He has called repeatedly for slashing the corporate rate to 15 percent, a multi-trillion dollar change, and paying for a small piece of it by limiting a few personal tax deductions for higher-income people. It’s also catnip for GOP supply-siders who continue to proclaim that a deep rate cut will boost economic growth enough to pay for itself. We’ve tried this t several times already, so we now have hard evidence to evaluate those claims. The actual record shows, beyond question, that such turbo-charged dynamic effects do not occur. The most recent example is George W. Bush’s 2001 personal income tax cuts. His “success” enacting them produced huge deficits and ultimately contributed to the financial collapse that closed down his presidency.

A largely-unfunded cut in the corporate tax rate in 2018 would boost corporate profits as well as budget deficits, but it won’t increase business investment, productivity or employment. Prime interest rates in this period have been lower than at any time since the 1950s, so companies have had easy and cheap access to funds for investment for years. At a minimum, this tells us that there’s no real economic basis to expect businesses to use their windfall profits from a big tax cut to expand investment.

Instead, they’re likely to use some of their additional profits to fund stock buy-backs. The rest will flow through as dividends and capital gains, mainly for the top one percent of Americans who hold 49.8 percent of stock in public companies, and the next nine percent who own another 41.2 percent of all shares. Those lucky shareholders will use much of their windfall gains to buy more stock; and coupled with the corporate stock buy-backs, the boost in demand for stocks will pump up the markets. To be sure, those shareholders will also spend some of their unexpected gains, which will modestly stimulate growth. Once that stimulus dissipates, as it will fairly quickly, the ballooning budget deficits will drive up interest rates and slow the economy for everyone else.

The worst scenario is that large, deficit-be-damned cuts in the corporate tax rate could produce a stock market bubble that could take down the economy when it bursts. The good news is that the current Congress would never enact it. The odds of Democrats supporting Donald Trump on a tax plan to make shareholders richer are roughly the same as winning the Powerball; and the certainty of soaring budget deficits should scare off enough conservative Republicans to sink the enterprise.



The Trump Administration is Disrupting the 2020 Census – And it Matters More than You Think

September 5, 2017

The decennial Census is a genuinely powerful institution in American life. I didn’t understand its impact until I oversaw the Census Bureau as it prepared and carried out the 2000 decennial Census, when I was Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs. Believe me, the upcoming 2020 decennial Census will matter more than you think. Yet, Congress and now the Trump administration have set the 2020 decennial on a course that threatens its basic accuracy. In so doing, they put at risk the integrity and effectiveness of some of the national government’s basic missions.

Normally, the Census Bureau spends the first six years of each decade planning the next decennial Census. The Bureau’s funding ramps up in years seven, eight and nine of the decade, when it tests and purchases its technologies, conducts a nationwide inventory of residential addresses, orders forms, letters and advertising, and begins to lease local offices and train temporary workers. It is expensive to accurately locate and count 325 million people in 126 million households (2016). That’s why, for example, Census funding jumped 96 percent from 1997 to 1998, and more than 60 percent from 2007 to 2008.

The problems began in 2014, when the Congress decreed that the 2020 Decennial Census should cost no more than the 2010 count without adjusting for inflation, or some $12.5 billion. The Obama administration objected, but to no effect – although it’s worth recalling that Bill Clinton took a different tack in 1998, when he vetoed an omnibus budget bill and risked a government shutdown to get rid of a provision that would have barred the Census Bureau from using statistical sampling to verify the 2000 count.

The Census Bureau did what it had to do to live within its new budget constraints: it drew up new plans to cut costs by replacing thousands of temporary Census workers and hundreds of temporary offices with new technologies and online capacities. It also had to do what it shouldn’t have done: To save money, the Bureau aborted a planned Spanish-language test census and didn’t test or implement new ways to more accurately count people in remote and rural area. Census also ended its plans to test a range of local outreach and messaging strategies to get people to fill out their census forms, which are crucial to minimizing undercounts in many minority and marginalized communities.

Even so, the Census Bureau prepared to ramp up funding in 2017 and 2018, as it normally did, udner the $12.5 billion cap. Enter the Trump administration, which cut the Obama administration’s 2017 budget request for the Census Bureau by 10 percent and then, this past April, flat-lined the funding for 2018. It is no coincidence that the Director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, resigned in May, effective in June. It’s a serious loss, since Dr. Thompson directed the 2000 decennial count and is probably the most able person available to contain the coming damage to the 2020 count. For its part, the administration hasn’t even identified, much less nominated, his successor. It is no surprise that the Government Accountability Office recently designated the 2020 Census as one of a handful of federal programs at “High Risk” of failure.

The costs of starving the decennial Census could be great. It not only paints the country’s changing demographic and geographic portrait every 10 years. Its state-by-state counts determine how the 435 members of the House of Representatives are allocated among the states; and its counts by “Census block” (roughly a neighborhood) shape how members of state legislatures and many city councils are allocated in those jurisdictions. That’s just the beginning.

Consider as well that every year, the federal government distributes about $600 billion in funds to state and local governments for education, Medicaid and other health programs, highways, housing, law enforcement and much more. To do so, the government uses formulas with terms for each area’s level of education, income or poverty rate, racial and family composition, and more. The decennial Census provides the baseline for those distributions by counting the people with each of those characteristics in each state and Census block. Similarly, the Census Bureau conducts scores of additional surveys every year on behalf of most domestic departments of government, to help them assess the effectiveness of their programs. Here again, the decennial Census provides the baseline for measuring each program’s progress or lack of it.

Without an accurate Census, many states and cities will be denied the full funding they deserve and need, and the federal government will have to fly blind for a decade across a range of important areas. Moreover, many businesses also rely on decennial data, from retailers and commercial real estate developers to the banks that finance them. Data on the demographics and locations of potential customers not only inform their planning and investments. In some cases, the data actually make their projects possible, for example, when an investment qualifies for special tax treatment if it occurs in places with certain concentrations of low or moderate-income households.

The Trump administration cavalier approach to the 2020 decennial Census is evident in ways other than its funding deficit. A draft executive order, leaked but not issued so far, would direct the Census Bureau, for the first time in over 200 years, to “include questions to determine U.S. citizenship and immigration status.” The Census Bureau is legally required to protect the privacy of all Census data from requests by anyone, including government officials. Unsurprisingly, many people remain skeptical and avoid answering the Census out of fear that other government agencies will access their information. Requiring that Census 2020 probe each respondent’s citizenship and immigration status would turbo-charge those fears among Hispanics and other immigrant groups. The result would be systemic undercounting and underfunding of states, cities and towns with substantial populations of Hispanics and other immigrants.

There is still time for a course correction that could rescue the 2020 decennial Census, in next month’s negotiations over the 2018 budget. With some GOP members of Congress exhibiting a measure of newly-found independence from the Trump administration, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell could need Democratic support to pass a budget. A wide range of minority advocacy and business groups, along with most big city mayors, have vital interests in an accurate decennial Census. It’s up to them to pressure Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to make adequate funding for the Census one of their top priorities. Otherwise, one of the basic mechanisms for fair and competent governance could be disabled for a decade.