Watching Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues struggling to finish writing their long-awaited tax bill over the past few weeks brought to mind an adage attributed to Al Smith, the street-schooled New York politician who served four terms as governor, during the nineteen-twenties: someone is going to be cheated, the question is who. The Republicans—having committed to huge tax cuts for corporations, unincorporated businesses, and very large estates, while also pledging to help out middle-class households—were in a bind. According to some reports, they were trying to fit five trillion dollars’ worth of tax cuts into the $1.5 trillion allotment they had pencilled into their budget for 2018.
You don’t need to have gone beyond eighth grade, which is where Smith completed his formal education, to know that this was a tricky task. The size of the math problem helps explain why the bill unveiled on Friday morning by Ryan, the House Speaker, and Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was so long (three hundred and thirty-six pages), complicated, and filled with the kind of accounting that would have fit in at Enron. But, despite its complexity, the basic thrust of the bill is straightforward: the Donald Trumps of the world get caviar; the ordinary person get peanuts; and future taxpayers, who will bear the burden of all the new debt issuance necessary to finance the package, get shafted.
In announcing their bill, both Ryan and Brady claimed that a typical middle-class family, with two kids and about fifty thousand dollars in earnings, stood to save close to twelve hundred dollars in taxes. (To be precise: $1,182.) “This plan is for middle-class families who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ryan said. The owner of a small business that makes sixty-two thousand dollars a year would save more than three thousand dollars, Ryan added.
Figures like these demand close scrutiny. In reducing marginal tax rates, doubling the standard deduction, and expanding tax credits for children and other dependents, the bill would benefit many middle-class households. But abolishing personal exemptions could hurt middle-class families who have a lot of children. As could eliminating the deductions for state and local taxes, health-care expenditures, and student-loan interest.
The treatment of state and local taxes, and the new limits the bill would place on mortgage-interest deductions, appear to be targeted at households in blue states, such as New York and California, which have high taxes and expensive real estate. No surprise there: it’s partisan politics. Other aspects of the bill would affect households everywhere. Unlike the tax cuts for corporations and other businesses, the tax cuts for families are temporary: after five years, they expire.
Without taking factors such as these into account, it is hard to reach any firm conclusions about what the bill means for middle-class families. (In the coming days, various tax experts will make some assumptions and produce over-all distribution tables.) But, in gauging how the legislation would affect corporations and very wealthy people, we can be definitive: they will benefit hugely. Despite the fact that the bill keeps the top rate of income tax at 39.6 per cent, it represents a big giveaway to the rich, particularly the very rich.
How so? The measure shifts the burden of taxation in the U.S. from corporations, which are largely run and owned by rich people, to households. It cuts the top rate on “pass through” business income—the sort of money generated by sole proprietorships, investment partnerships, and S-corporations—from 39.6 per cent to twenty-five per cent. And it phases out the estate tax, which falls heaviest on the largest estates, starting in 2024. Indeed, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, fully three-quarters of the over-all tax cuts in the bill are directed at businesses and large estates.
But that’s not all. The bill also repeals the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to ensnare rich people with clever accountants and a lot of sheltered income. In doing so, the bill creates enormous incentives for engaging in tax-evasion schemes, particularly the conversion of highly paid employees into unincorporated businesses.
To understand how all this could work in practice, it might be helpful to consider the case of a single very rich taxpayer (or non-taxpayer): Donald Trump himself. As I noted back in September, when the central proposals of the G.O.P. plan were already public, Trump stood to benefit in three different ways; that analysis has now been confirmed.
First, consider the abolition of the A.M.T. According to Trump’s 2005 tax return, parts of which were leaked earlier this year, he paid $38.4 million in federal taxes on income of $152.7 million, which means that his effective tax rate was about twenty-five per cent. But $31.3 million of his payment went to cover his A.M.T. liability. If there hadn’t been an A.M.T., he would have paid just $7.1 million, or about five per cent of his taxable income. To look at it another way, if this tax bill had already been in effect, Trump would have seen his tax bill reduced by more than eighty per cent.
Since Trump owns hundreds of different unincorporated businesses, he also stands to be a big beneficiary of the new flat rate on pass-through income. In his 2005 tax return, he declared $67.4 million in income from “rental real estate, royalties, partnerships, S corporations, trusts, etc.” Since pass-through income is currently taxed like salary income, income of this sort would theoretically be subject to the 39.6-per-cent top rate. In actual fact, Trump offset much of this income by itemizing a huge, unexplained loss that was probably carried over from the early nineteen-nineties. But when those carryovers eventually run out, as they probably have by now, Trump will have a great deal of pass-through income to pay tax on. Thanks to the Republican bill, he’d pay a rate of just twenty-five per cent.
Finally, there is the abolition of the estate tax. To be sure, Trump may have already taken precautions to avoid the estate tax, by, for example, setting up specialized family trusts. But if he lived another ten years and then left his heirs, say, two billion dollars of unsheltered assets, then, under the current system, they would face a federal tax bill of eight hundred million dollars. Under the Republican bill, that liability would disappear.
The tax affairs of very rich people are all differently arranged, of course. But in some ways Trump’s finances are fairly typical. He earns most of his income from businesses. He already exploits the tax system to the max. And he has benefitted enormously from the great asset-price boom of the past twenty years. On Thursday afternoon, he said the Republicans were giving the American people a “big, beautiful Christmas present.” For some reason, he didn’t explain that the biggest presents, by far, would be handed out to people like him.