The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reflections on two wildly different tax proposals

(John Locher/AP)

Donald Trump’s tax plan gives rich households — those in the top 1 percent, with an average income of $2.4 million — a tax cut of $215,000 next year and more than $300,000 once it’s fully phased in.

Hillary Clinton raises taxes on those same households by $118,000 initially and $164,000 upon full phase-in.

Trump’s plan loses $6.2 trillion in revenue over a decade.

Clinton’s plan raises $1.4 trillion.

Trump’s plan cuts the corporate tax rate by more than half, and it allows the top rate on many partnerships and other “pass-through” businesses to go from a 40 percent rate today to a 15 percent rate.

Clinton hasn’t yet proposed any changes to corporate tax rates, but she makes it harder and more expensive for U.S. multinational businesses to “invert” (incorporate abroad to avoid U.S. taxes), eliminates tax subsidies for fossil fuels, and imposes a “risk fee” on large, highly leveraged banks, as well as a tax on high-frequency traders who cancel big-batch orders.

Trump offers a tax deduction against child-care expenses that provides the biggest benefits for the richest taxpayers.

Clinton significantly amps up the progressivity of the child tax credit by including those with very low earnings, who currently get nothing from this credit, and doubling the value of the credit for kids under 5.

In other words, we’re talking about tax policy from different universes. In fact, were an alien — a space alien, not an undocumented worker! — to land here and look at Trump’s plan, it would conclude that America’s most pressing economic problem is that really rich people simply don’t have enough income.

No one who’s paying attention will be surprised by any of this, I suppose. It’s the same argument President Obama had with Mitt Romney, though of course it dates to well before then, back at least to when Reagan Republicans realized they could tell people, “Don’t worry, tax cuts will pay for themselves,” and folks believed them!

Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that Congress will enact these plans wholesale, though the sad truth is I’m sure many lawmakers would be much more likely to try to cut taxes for their contributors than raise them, followed by dramatic hand-wringing about the growing budget deficit.

And then there’s the fact that this is perhaps . . . not sure about this . . . out on a limb here . . . not the most issues-driven campaign in recent history.

So why pay any attention to this at all?

Here’s why. No question, the next president won’t get much of what he or she ran on. But if history is precedent, they will get something. So let’s get a little into the weeds and think about what could come to fruition out of these proposals.

First off, we have to acknowledge a couple of big problems with Trump’s plan. For all his team’s tax-cutting zealotry, it actually managed to propose to raise taxes on a fairly broad group — more than 7 million families with children — of lower- and middle-income tax filers. Tax professor Lily Batchelder recently identified this problem, which occurs for technical reasons in the Trump plan (“for most married households with at least three dependents and most unmarried households with at least one dependent,” the repeal of personal exemptions is not offset by higher standard deductions; the Tax Policy Center (TPC) confirmed her findings on this point).

Second, as I wrote weeks ago, Trump’s pass-through loophole is a real problem. Recall that in the last debate Trump said he would close the carried-interest loophole, an indefensible tax break that allows hedge fund managers to pay about a 24 percent rate on much of their salaries instead of a 40 percent rate. Well, over to the TPC (my bold):

“Under the proposal, carried interest would be treated as labor income subject to ordinary income tax and payroll tax. However, hedge funds and private equity partnerships, which earn a substantial portion of income in the form of carried interest, would qualify for the special 15-percent business tax rate and thus would retain a substantial tax advantage on their income compared with wage earners.”

Trump taketh away a little and giveth back much more! And it’s not just financial managers who would tap this new loophole. Anyone with a decent salary and a tax lawyer would declare themselves to be a small business and pay 15 percent on their income instead of Trump’s top rate of 33 percent. The TPC assumes that “eventually half . . . of high-wage workers would become pass-through entities.”

So, if any of these lousy ideas should come up in the future, they should be firmly blocked.

Conversely, Clinton’s new child tax credit expansion is a real improvement, and it highlights a contrast between the two plans: If you’re trying to help less advantaged kids, refundable tax credits work much better than tax deductions.

Clinton’s plan doubles the existing child tax credit (CTC), from $1,000 per child to $2,000, for children under 5. And for all families that can claim the CTC, it makes a critical adjustment so the lowest-earning families, which currently get little to nothing from the credit, begin to benefit from it at dollar one of their earnings; the current credit doesn’t start to kick in until they hit $3,000 in earnings.

This extension would boost the incomes of 14 million low-income, working families and lift 1.5 million people out of poverty, including 400,000 kids.

A tax deduction, however, is a quite different beast, since you get to deduct a portion of a designated expense against taxes owed at your top rate. Under Trump’s child-care plan, for every dollar you spend on child care, those in the top tax bracket get to deduct 33 cents on the dollar; those in the lowest bracket, 12 cents. Those with no tax liability . . . zero.*

So what are the chances of a good idea like this CTC expansion becoming law? For the record, I predict that some sort of a deal on infrastructure is the most likely policy to see enactment under the next president’s first 100 days. That package, which may well involve some haggling over the repatriation of corporate earnings held abroad, could include some aspect of this CTC expansion, perhaps along with the boost to the earned-income tax credit that is needed to stop millions of childless workers from being taxed into poverty, an idea with bipartisan support. That could be the basis of a sound deal.

Okay — I grant you, that’s a lot of gnarly tax policy. But wasn’t that better — or at least more wholesome — than a lot of what we’ve been arguing about in recent days?

*Many other families also probably wouldn’t gain anything from this part of Trump’s plan because, if they took advantage of it, they’d lose access to a provision already in the tax code — the child- and dependent-care credit — that’s worth more to them. While Trump would provide a bump in the earned-income credit to help low-income families with child-care expenses, it would be far less than wealthy families’ deductions or Clinton’s CTC expansion.