Given recent controversies, I was interested to read National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn’s answer to a “why are you staying?” question put by Stuart Varney of the Fox Business Network last week. To his credit Cohn did not back away from his reservations about the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence. He said “Look, tax cuts are really important to me. I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We haven’t done tax cuts in 31 years. So, to be a part of an administration that gets something done that hasn’t been done for 31 years is enormously challenging, enormously interesting to me.”
The problem with this statement is how utterly wrong it is. Taxes were not cut 31 years ago. A central point of the 1986 Tax Reform Act was that it was revenue neutral. And since that time, taxes were cut in 1997, 2001, 2003, 2009 and 2015.
Now perhaps Cohn misspoke in invoking tax cuts three times and meant to convey with his references to 31 years ago that in his view there was a chance for another major tax reform achievement like the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Fair enough. The trouble is that as best as one can glean from what is out there, the tax legislation the administration is working toward is more opposed to, than in line with, the spirit of the 1986 act.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was all reform, with no net cut. The current effort is mostly cuts, with very little structural reform. TRA 1986 was about raising taxes on corporations. The current effort is about reducing business taxes. TRA 1986 was about facing down well-heeled lobbyists; these groups seem centrally involved in the current effort. TRA 1986 was all about bipartisanship as President Ronald Reagan worked closely with Democratic leaders. There is nothing bipartisan about the “Big Six” driving the current effort. And given the increase in debt/GDP ratios and rising income inequality, there is a stronger case to be made today than even three decades prior for not moving in the costly, regressive direction the Trump administration appears headed.
Cohn had a bad day with facts last Friday. In addition to his erroneous statements about the history of tax cuts, he asserted on CNBC, “The biggest public pension funds are the biggest owners of equity in the world. They're the policemen, they're the firemen, they're the teachers, they're the civil servants of America today who have their money in public pension funds being managed in the U.S. equity market. We're helping Americans by delivering returns back to them.”
There are two problems here. First as CNBC noted, while pensions do hold stocks, most are held by the wealthy. Second, the vast majority of the pensions to which Cohn refers are defined benefit plans, with employers liable for a benefit tied to a worker’s salary path. This means, of course, that workers themselves do not have a wealth interest in how the stock market performs.
Press reports suggest Cohn may be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Certainly his extensive financial experience prepares him well for key parts of the job. But credibility is a crucial attribute in a Fed chair and that requires developing the habit of accuracy on matters of verifiable fact. It also requires the ability to stand up to misguided presidents.
Correction: A previous version of this post identified Stuart Varney as of Fox News. He is an anchor on the Fox Business Network.