Thu, Jan 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Trump’s tax legislation adds insult to injury: inequality will grow

By Joseph Stiglitz

Never has a piece of legislation labeled as both a tax cut and a reform been received with as much disapproval and derision as the bill passed by the US Congress and signed into law by US President Donald Trump just before Christmas.

The Republicans who voted for the bill (no Democrats did) claim that their gift will come to be appreciated later, as Americans see their take-home pay go up. They are almost certainly wrong. Rather, the bill wraps into one package all that is wrong with the Republican Party and, to some extent, the debased state of US democracy.

The legislation is not “tax reform” by even the most elastic reading. Reform entails closing distortionary loopholes and increasing the fairness of the tax code. Central to fairness is the ability to pay, but this tax legislation reduces taxes by tens of thousands of US dollars, on average, for those most able to pay (the top quintile).

When fully implemented (in 2027), it will increase taxes on a majority of Americans in the middle (the second, third and fourth quintiles).

The US tax code was already regressive long before Trump’s presidency. Indeed, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world, famously complained that it was wrong that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

The new legislation makes the US tax system even more regressive.

It is now universally recognized that growing inequality is a key economic problem in the US, with those at the top capturing almost all the gains in GDP over the past quarter of a century.

The new legislation adds insult to injury — rather than offsetting this disturbing trend, the Republicans’ “reform” gives even more to the top.

A more distorted economy is not a healthy economy.

The IMF has emphasized that a more unequal society worsens economic performance — and the new tax legislation will lead inexorably to a more unequal society.

Much of the complexity and distortion in the US tax code arises from different types of income being taxed at different rates. Such differential treatment leads not only to the (correct) perception that the tax code is unfair, but also to inefficiencies — resources move to favored sectors, and are wasted as firms try to convert their incomes and activities into the more favored forms.

The worst provisions of the old tax code — such as the carried-interest loophole, which allows job-destroying private-equity firms to pay taxes at low rates — have been retained and new categories of favored income (earned by so-called pass-through entities) have been created.

The hoped-for spur to economic growth is unlikely to materialize, for several reasons.

First, the economy is already at or near full employment. If the US Federal Reserve comes to view that to be the case, it will raise interest rates at the first sign of a significant increase in aggregate demand and higher interest rates mean that investment, and therefore growth, will slow, even if the consumption of the very rich increases.

Moreover, squeezing the “blue” (Democratic) states, including California and New York, by including provisions in the tax bill aimed specifically at them, not only further widens the US’ political divide, it is also bad economics.

No sane government would undermine the most dynamic parts of its economy and yet that is what the Trump administration is doing.

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