“In a world in which economic reality mattered to politicians, grandiose spending plans coupled with soaring government debt would pretty much preordain grim tax policy. But we don’t live in that world. In ours, tax and spending proposals are crafted based on their appeal to target audiences of voters, with no regard for balancing books or averting financial catastrophe.”
“It’s necessary, though probably pointless, to emphasize that neither Trump’s nor Biden’s tax plans come close to paying for the federal government’s anticipated spending spree in the years to come.”
“In 2016, Trump had campaigned on eliminating the national debt in under a decade. Yet by June 2020, the federal budget deficit had reached $864 billion…for just the month. That was more than the entire budget gaps in either 2017 or 2018. By September, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a $3.3 trillion annual deficit in 2020. Federal debt levels, which equaled just 35 percent of the economy in 2007 and 79 percent of the economy in 2019, would reach 98 percent. The CBO had previously warned that persistently high debt and deficits would have consequences: slower economic growth, an ever-increasing share of the budget consumed by interest payments on the debt, and reduced capacity to act should a major crisis arise.
And yet as the virus consumed the nation, even many deficit hawks were recommending more spending, at least in the short term.”
“In the early ’80s, some lawmakers had come under the influence of a macroeconomic theory that would come to be known as “supply-side economics.” This theory held that tax cuts could, in budget parlance, “pay for themselves” by boosting economic growth so much that the federal government would actually raise more revenue if it reduced rates.
There was some trivial truth to this. Imagine a world in which loaves of bread are taxed at 99 percent. This is a world in which not many loaves of bread are produced or sold and thus not much revenue is raised from the bread tax. Reduce the rate to, say, 50 percent, and you would probably see a marked increase in the production and sale of bread—and higher bread tax revenues as a result. Reduce the tax further, and the bread market would probably expand even more. Supply-side effects are real, but they typically offset only a small percentage of lost revenue.
Some Republicans took this to mean that tax cuts of just about any kind would often, and perhaps even always, result in higher federal revenues. At some point, however, lowering rates does in fact end up lowering revenues. A 0.001 percent tax on bread might unleash a powerful market in artisanal breadmaking. It would probably not produce higher total levels of tax revenue than a somewhat higher rate would.
In reality, this simplistic version of supply-side orthodoxy was not a macroeconomic theory so much as a convenient excuse for Republican lawmakers to give their voters what voters tend to want: tax cuts without spending reductions, i.e., a government they didn’t have to pay full price for.”
“As with many diets, it worked—for a time. Bill Clinton began his presidency by raising the top income tax rate from 28 percent to 36 percent—an increase, but still far lower than the top rate at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency. And then, following the Republican takeover of Congress, Clinton negotiated with GOP lawmakers to lower projected federal spending—when politicians talk about spending “cuts” they are often referring to reductions of planned future spending—particularly on welfare assistance. Accordingly, the deficit dropped from $203 billion in 1994 to $22 billion in 1997.
Forced to work across the aisle, Clinton and the Republican Congress had done what their predecessors had failed to do: reduce the deficit. Federal spending dropped as a percentage of gross domestic product, which boomed under the first wave of internet-induced investments—the 1990s tech boom. The rapidly growing economy kept voters from revolting, and Clinton framed the budgetary contraction not as a reduction in government services but as an end to federal overreach.
“We know big government does not have all the answers,” he said in his 1996 State of the Union address. “We know there’s not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over.”
In Clinton’s second term, the already shrunken deficit ceased to exist. By the year 2000, the federal government was running a $236 billion annual surplus. Finally, the deficit problem seemed to have been solved.
The trouble with diets is that even when they work, they’re hard to stick to. That is especially true when the diet must be renegotiated among a rotating cast of 535 lawmakers and a new president every four to eight years.
And so, under President George W. Bush, deficits returned”
“Simpson-Bowles consisted of 18 people—a bipartisan mix of a dozen members of Congress and six private citizens—tasked with producing a set of recommendations for deficit reduction. There were difficult choices ahead. The committee’s job was to suggest which ones should be made.
The commission was a classic Washington gambit in that, outwardly, it was an attempt to solve a policy problem, but in reality, it was a politically motivated attempt to avoid solving that very problem.
Nominally, the problem the committee was tasked with solving was how to reduce the deficit. But that wasn’t the actual problem it was trying to solve, because since the 1980s the solution had remained fairly obvious: To reduce the gap between outlays (spending) and revenues (taxes), Congress would need to either increase tax revenue, reduce spending, or do some combination of the two. To be genuinely effective, the tax hikes probably would have to hit the middle class and the spending cuts probably would have to hit entitlements.
The actual problem the committee was intended to solve, then, was that, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, neither congressional lawmakers nor the president wanted to do any of this.
In the end, Simpson-Bowles recommended cutting spending and increasing taxes. In particular, it recommended cutting spending on entitlements and raising some taxes on the middle class in order to broaden the tax base.”
“of course, neither the president nor congressional lawmakers agreed to any of it.”
“a problem with Congress—is that it can’t tell itself what to do. Not for very long, anyway. The 112th Congress in 2012 has no power to bind the 113th Congress, which means that if Congress in 2013 does not like the instructions passed down from its forebearers, it can tell the 112th Congress to go get stuffed.”
“Trump, like most Republicans, had run against the federal debt. His promise to eliminate it completely in eight years was deeply unrealistic, backed by no specific plan, and predicated in part on Trump’s confusion of the trade deficit (which measures inflows and outflows of goods between the United States and other countries) and the budget deficit (which measures how much more the federal government spends than it takes in). But it was, at least, a rhetorical concession to the Republican fiscal politics of the Obama years.
In early 2018, House Democrats negotiated a budget deal with Senate Republicans that suspended sequestration caps and authorized $300 billion in spending above previously allowed levels. The particulars were complex, as budget deals often are, but in broad strokes, the agreement was straightforward: Democrats got more funding for domestic spending, while Republicans got more funding for the military. Trump signed the bill, proclaiming, “We love and need our Military and gave them everything—and more.” The bill, he tweeted, would also mean “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS.”
For years, Democrats and Republicans had bickered over budget priorities. With the 2018 spending bill, they resolved their differences—by agreeing to spend more on everything.”
“What Democrats saw not only in the 2017 tax bill but in the decadeslong deficit wars was that Republicans had found a political advantage in arguing that tax cuts paid for themselves. There was a clear pattern to federal budgeting: Under Republicans, tax rates would go down, spending would increase, and the deficit would rise. Under Democrats, tax rates would rise slightly, spending would hold more or less steady, and the annual deficit levels would decline. The GOP, which had long branded itself the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, was the party of neither.
To the party’s base, this didn’t just mean that conservatives were hypocrites. It meant they could pursue their priorities without pressure to make concessions or tradeoffs. They had an argument, a rhetorical strategy—or, at the very least, a convenient and self-serving pretext—that insulated them from the understanding of shared pain and shared responsibility.
To rectify that political imbalance, the left—particularly the young, online left, which increasingly favored aggressive spending programs far more expansive than even many lifelong Democratic politicians would dare contemplate—would need a pretext of their own. And they would get it, in the form of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).”
“As with supply-side economics, the central insight of MMT is both true and trivial: The U.S. budget is not, strictly speaking, like a household budget or a business budget, because unlike a household or business, the federal government can print its own money. From this single observation, MMT theorists have constructed an entire macroeconomic worldview, which says explicitly that deficits don’t matter and, consequently, the government can and should print money to fund federal spending projects on a massive scale.
In this understanding of the economy, debt is not a constraint; nor are interest rates charged by bondholders. Debt can be paid down with a few congressionally authorized keystrokes on central bank computers generating new dollars. Bondholders will have little recourse but to accept these newly created dollars, because America’s currency is the global reserve.
The only real constraint MMT proponents recognize is inflation, which serves as a signal that there are too many dollars in the economy and that some should be recalled by the government. But inflation has been running low for years.
The upshot of all of this is a belief not only that current deficit levels are sustainable but that they are actually too low. Congress, MMT proponents argue, should be spending far, far more. Fears about accumulating a large national debt should disappear entirely.”
“The supply-siders had triumphed on the right, and the MMTers were winning crucial battles on the left. The deficit had always been a bipartisan problem. At last, America’s politicians had found a bipartisan solution. Lower taxes. Higher spending. And the biggest deficit ever. Finally, Washington had found its balance.”
“Trump has back-slapped the authoritarian leaders of the three main countries cited by the Times’s report: the Philippines, India, and Turkey. It’s less clear now if the bonhomie stems from their diplomatic relationships or because they lead nations that are lucrative for the president.
Turkey is perhaps the best example of this conundrum.
Trump said last year that he was a “big fan of” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but their relationship hit some snags over Ankara’s attacks on US allies in Syria and its unlawful imprisonment of an American pastor.
When US-Turkey ties were low, the Times recalled a few curiosities:
“[In 2018,] a Turkish business group canceled a conference at Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel; six months later, when the two countries were on better terms, the rescheduled event was attended by Turkish government officials. Turkish Airlines also chose the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Virginia to host an event [in 2017].”
In other words, countries like Turkey can potentially find ways to Trump’s heart by ensuring money goes into his family’s pocket in hopes of altering US foreign policy. The Trump Organization, then, gives nations an unprecedented extra leverage point to influence an American president.”
“If the president makes decisions based on his private interests, and not the public’s, then he’s subjugating the demands of US foreign policy for the bottom line of his family’s business.”
“That issue becomes more acute when you factor in Trump’s $421 million in debt, much of it owed in the next four years. It’s unclear exactly who he owes that money to, but it’s not unreasonable given the scope of the Trump Organization’s foreign business to assume some of the debt is held by foreign lenders”
“Trump’s business model, which goes something like this: Launch several businesses, many of which hemorrhage millions of dollars each year, and use the publicity from those businesses to make money on personal branding. The latter is highly profitable, earning Trump $427.4 million between 2004-2018. The losses from the former—his hotels and resorts for instance—are then used to largely offset his tax liability.
The Times’ report does erode the savvy businessman brand Trump has sought to cultivate for himself, both commercially and as a candidate for office. The president is not necessarily the astute entrepreneur he claims to be, though he may be uniquely skilled at making money by wasting money. His most high-profile business successes—his golf courses—have reportedly lost $315 million since 2000. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., just opened in 2016, has already lost $55 million, both numbers according to the Times.
Losing money for a living is certainly an unorthodox business model, but that doesn’t make it illegal.
Trump’s deductions don’t stop there, however. There’s also the $9.7 million tax credit Trump claimed to renovate the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., which would later become the aforementioned Trump hotel. That fell under the historic preservation tax clause, an entirely legal tax incentive meant to encourage the redevelopment of old structures.
It could be legally problematic, or just another revealing symptom of U.S. tax law, that Trump has claimed millions of dollars in unspecified consulting fees on various business projects, which typically amounted to 20 percent of his income, according to the Times. Ivanka Trump was allegedly the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in such consulting fees. The president also declared $1.4 billion in business losses in 2008 and 2009. An IRS audit is ongoing.”
“Our tax code, which Bishop-Henchman says was written in the style of a “phone book,” is replete with overly complex rules and regulations meant to influence the public’s economic behavior. Former Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to this. “I have nothing against Amazon,” he wrote in June of 2019, “but no company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers. We need to reward work, not just wealth.” The tech behemoth paid no federal taxes in 2018 after making use of legal tax incentives established by Congress, of which Biden was a member for 36 years. For example, Amazon invested $22.6 billion in research and development in 2017, something the legislature hopes will spur job creation and economic growth.”
“The Times story makes clear the supposedly wealthy president often paid no income taxes while his businesses regularly lost vast sums of money, and he himself was on the hook for increasing sums in loans. All of that is politically damaging enough to Trump’s image, and likely a sufficient reason to work hard to keep the tax returns secret.
But there’s likely another reason behind Trump’s reticence — because reporters would scour his returns for legally dubious claims, and put the pieces together to how he was trying to snooker the IRS.
That’s just what ended up happening here. For example, Buettner, Craig, and McIntire sussed out that mysterious write-offs for consulting fees on certain Trump projects matched the amounts of payments to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. And there’s far more in the Times’s excellent piece.
One major theme of the Times piece is that the IRS audit of Trump is extremely serious, and that he could end up owing the US government more than $100 million. So reporters’ scrutiny of his tax returns might not just be politically problematic for Trump — they could also be financially and legally problematic.”
“Trump did indeed pay zero in income taxes from 2011 to 2014, and a paltry $750 in 2016 and 2017. He pulled this off by claiming that his businesses lost massive amounts of money. He has $421 million in debt due in the next few years, and he could owe $100 million more to the US government if he loses his audit battle with the IRS.”
“the specific reason Trump paid no taxes is embarrassing — because his businesses lost tons of money. (At least, that’s what he claims; keep in mind that the tax return information is his representation of his businesses to the IRS.)
To be clear, some parts of Trump’s business really do make money — for instance, The Apprentice sent cash pouring in, and Trump Tower is profitable. But Trump avoids paying taxes on these profits because he’s claimed such massive losses from other parts of his business empire.”
“there’s clearly some legally questionable stuff in there.
For instance, the records obtained by Buettner, Craig, and McIntire show that Trump wrote off $26 million in supposed consulting fees as a business expense between 2011 and 2018. But the reporters took the added step of uncovering where some of that money was going — and they figured out that some of those write-offs matched payments to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, as revealed on her own financial disclosure forms.
Ivanka was an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, not some outside consultant. And sources told the Times that there were no outside consultants involved in certain projects for which Trump’s businesses wrote off consulting fees.
The Times story also mentions other questionable practices — Trump dubbed a Westchester, New York, mansion an “investment property” so he could write off property taxes on it, but his son Eric Trump called it “our compound.” The Trump Organization also wrote off Donald Trump Jr.’s legal fees for the lawyer who represented him in the Russia investigation.”
“An actual payroll tax holiday does mean an increase in take-home wages for some. According to recently published Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance on the president’s order, employers can temporarily stop withholding the employee’s 6.2 percent share of Social Security taxes for workers earning under $104,000 per year. That means more money in their paychecks for those eligible workers.
This could be significant. A little-known fact is that, for a majority of American taxpayers, the largest share of their federal tax bill is the payroll tax, not the income tax. In the way it’s designed, the payroll tax is regressive, so it hits lower-income earners harder. But a temporary reprieve is pretty much where the good news ends for the employees.
For one thing, as noted, the benefit may be short-lived. According to the IRS, unless Congress decides to go ahead and forgive the tax, it will eventually need to be collected by employers and sent to Uncle Sam. This is guaranteed to become a massive headache for employers, who will ultimately have to collect the deferred taxes from their employees. As a result, some large companies such as UPS have already announced that they will continue to collect the payroll tax from their employees and send the money to the federal government as usual.”
“as some point out, those tax deferrals will eventually become due, and employers may then have to withhold twice the amount of payroll taxes from employees’ paychecks starting in January.
This will create quite a bit of pressure on Congress to waive the deferred taxes next year. But even if that happens, somebody somewhere at some point will have to pay. There’s no such thing as a free tax holiday.”
Policy Basics: Federal Tax Expenditures 11 18 2019. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/policy-basics-federal-tax-expenditures The biggest U.S. tax breaks Drew Desilver. 4 6 2016. Pew Research Center Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2019-2023. 12 18 2019. The Joint
“In the February issue of the American Economic Review, researchers Kamila Sommer and Paul Sullivan consider the implications for the US housing market if this $90 billion subsidy to homeowners were to be scrapped. They find that getting rid of it would actually improve overall welfare by lowering home prices and expanding opportunities for home ownership among younger and lower-income households.
“The people who are the primary beneficiaries of the deduction are the high-income households,” Sommer said in an interview with the AEA. “When you take it away, house prices fall, they consume less housing, live in smaller houses…but the decline in house prices reduces the entry cost for the marginal households that are previously renting. It’s almost like this reallocation of housing from high-income households to low-income households.”
Critics say the mortgage interest deduction is a regressive tax policy that inflates prices and encourages buyers to choose more expensive houses and take on debt rather than sinking money into other investments. It also robs the Treasury of tax revenue that could be used to close the deficit. But real estate lobbyists say its repeal would depress homeownership and negatively impact social welfare.”
“More than half of all existing homeowners — 58 percent — would see their consumption improve after the reform, with most of the benefits going to young, low-income households. Rich homeowners with big properties suffer the most, since they have outsized amounts of mortgage interest that can be deducted from their income tax burden. When that benefit goes away they end up bearing the brunt of the impact.
It’s less certain whether there would be any meaningful impact on tax revenue for the government, the authors say. Getting rid of the deduction leads to a 2.6 percent increase in income tax revenue, but the falling home prices translate to a 7.8 percent drop in property tax revenue. Overall, it’s essentially a wash, with a total revenue gain of just one-half of a percentage point.”