Grover Norquist, thanks for joining us, today.
MR. NORQUIST: Good to be with you.
MS. ALEMANY: I'm excited to wonk out with you. Monday--I just want to get straight into things. We're less than three months into the Biden presidency. President Biden obviously has unveiled multiple plans that would increase taxes. What's your response to the administration's latest plan that we've seen?
MR. NORQUIST: Well, you have to ask yourself, we're coming out of a pandemic; we're coming out at a time when many states closed much of their economies. We're beginning to come out of this and why would Biden think now is a good time to raise the American corporate income tax to the highest in the world, higher than communist China; higher than anything in Europe; and the most low-growth path by having such a high corporate income tax? Why would you double the capital gains tax? Why would you set a second level of the death tax? Why would you add energy taxes? The United States is very competitive in its cost of energy and he wants to subsidized, uncompetitive, expensive energy and tax energy that's less expensive; and undo infrastructure, to tear down exactly the infrastructure that gets natural gas to people's jobs and stopping the pipelines in the Midwest?
So, why a list of things all of which we know slow economic growth and put us in a bad path in terms of jobs or GDP or competitiveness in the world?
MS. ALEMANY: I want to push you--push back on that, though, because the system, as-is, is not working for a lot of Americans, as we've seen really exacerbated throughout the pandemic, with the poverty rate rising over the past year.
And under Trump's tax cuts, 55 of the world's largest corporations paid no federal tax, income tax, on $40 billion worth of profits last year. So, what else would you recommend that the government to do in order to equalize the playing field, here?
MR. NORQUIST: I think anybody in the government should have a longer period of history or of memory than 12 months. When the Republicans cut taxes, we took the highest corporate rate in the world, 35 percent, all the rest of the world had lowered their corporate rates below 35 percent and they were getting stronger economic growth as a result. We were still at 35 percent, 10 points higher than communist China. What happened when the Republicans cut individual rates, rates on small business, rates on corporations?
We went to the lowest unemployment in 50 years, 3.5 percent; this is 2019. We went to the lowest poverty rate in 50 years. Everything that the liberals said they want to do with big spending programs was actually achieved. The bottom quarter earners got larger raises than the top quarter earners in the economy.
So, for everything from equity to jobs to creation, compare it to the rest of the world. The U.S. growth in 2018 was 2.9 percent; that was twice Germany's, which was 1.5 percent; more than twice Britain's.
We were not only out-competing--in one year, one year alone, 2019, the median income, which is the median income, family income, half people make less, half the people make more. Bill Gates making a billion dollars doesn't move the median. The median income, in that one year alone, increased 6.8 percent, or $4,440; $4,000 raise for the median income. That means tens of millions of Americans saw their income increase by those amounts. That compares to, oh, during the Obama years, in eight years, Obama increased it 5 percent. In one year, the lower rates in 2019 increased the median income 6.8 percent, or over $4,000. By the way, almost exactly what the Republican economists in the White House predicted would happen if you cut taxes and more capital, more investment per worker flooded in.
So, to compare where we are and say tax policy is flawed because of the pandemic, certainly shutting down many of the states was not a particularly bright idea, and we see those states which shut down more didn't do any better on the pandemic and did do much worse on unemployment. But if you look at tax policy, we have a very successful tax policy and economic growth policy and the pandemic knocked that down a bit. And before that, the weakest recovery since World War II was the Biden-Obama Recovery. Reagan's was the strongest because he cut taxes and tried to rein in spending; Obama and Biden's was the weakest, the lousiest, the worst, in terms of jobs, in terms of people's incomes, in terms of standards of living increasing.
When we shifted to a low-tax policy, we got one of the stronger economies and we got serious growth. And why would you reverse-engineer from the success of 2018/2019, somehow blame the pandemic on tax policy--I missed that one--and then to go back to Jimmy Carter's capital gains tax, which even the Democrats in Congress rejected and overrode his objections and they cut it in half and we did a little bit better because of that.
We did have a lot of rhetoric from Obama and from Biden. There was an effort during the campaign to get the tax cuts, to say, oh, it's just for rich people. Or even now the president runs around saying that.
But as you know, The New York Times pointed out that the people who said that were wrong, that most people got a tax cut. The Washington Post pointed out that most Americans received a tax cut. CNN said the facts are most Americans got a tax cut. And The New York Times said there was a sustained and misleading effort by liberal opponents of the law to brand it as a broad middle class tax increase. In point of fact, we saw serious reductions at median income, family of four, $73,000 income got a $2,000 tax cut.
If Biden wants, as he has said 56 times in front of television cameras--and it's online. You can go to our ATR website and see all the times that he and Harris have said, "We're going to abolish the whole Trump tax cut, the whole Republican tax cut." If he did that, that is a $2,000 increase on median income family of four; a $1,300 tax increase on a single parent with one child, median income. Now, maybe he's not going to get rid of all of it, but he spent a campaign saying he was going to and saying it didn't help the middle class, which misses the jobs that were created, the income that was created, faster than under Obama, faster than other countries, because lower taxes.
MS. ALEMANY: But President Biden and White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, have said repeatedly that families making less than $400,000 a year, middle class families, are not going to see an increase in their taxes. Are you suggesting that they're not being truthful?
MR. NORQUIST: Well, you're citing their revised edition of what they claimed during the campaign. Again, more than 50 times, the president, in front of television cameras, so he can't back out of this, said that no single person--no one, nobody--not families, no one would receive--would have a tax increase if they earned less than $400,000.
What Biden did was exactly what Obama did. Obama ran saying, "I'm not going to tax anyone--anyone--who earns less than 250,000." He then turned around and said, "Oh, I meant families, so I mean 125,000." And then, he didn't even mean that because, under Obamacare, his Obamacare penalty tax hit five million Americans, three-quarters of whom earned less than $50,000 a year. So, Biden did pummel people who are lower middle-income families with higher taxes.
And Biden's position was, "I'm not going to tax you unless you make less than 400,000. Oh, did I mean you? No, I meant your family." So, now cut that in half, $200,000 per person. This is the Biden marriage penalty tax. If you're not married, it's 200,000--if you are married--you get married and all of a sudden you're going to get hit with the higher of the two. So, this is a real challenge.
Now, he's not even going to keep the 200,000 or 400,000; he's already broken it in the last tax bill. But if you look at what he wants to do in terms of taxes, he says he's going to double the capital gains tax. Twenty-eight million Americans filed tax returns with capital gains last year, 28 million. You know what? That's not 1 percent of the population. He's going to double the capital gains tax.
Then, he turns around, he's going to have a second level of death tax, the step-up in basis, something the Democrats tried in the past worked so poorly they undid it. They're talking about a wealth tax, which worked so poorly that 11 of the 15 countries in Europe that tried it have abolished it. The others have pulled it back.
He's trying to push a bunch of things that we've seen fail either in the United States or in other countries.
Of course, when he raises the corporate income tax, who pays that? Well, for starters, 90 percent of Americans who pay--who have utility bills from investor-owned utilities--90 percent of people who have utility bills, water, electricity, natural gas, the corporate income tax that those utilities pay are, by law, passed right through to consumers. And when Republicans cut the corporate income tax, billions of dollars were reduced in people's utilities because they were no longer passing on the higher tax. So, that went away.
When Biden raises the tax, he said originally 35 percent when he was running, now some of the staff are saying 28 percent--whatever it is, add to that 5 percent, which is the average state tax, corporation. And you're talking, if it's 28 percent, you're talking about 33 percent corporate income tax, state and national. That's higher than every other country in the world and eight points higher than China. It makes us uncompetitive with the rest of the world. And when you put that tax in, it also flows into everybody's utility bill. So, 90 percent of Americans will see higher utility bills. Ninety percent of Americans do not make less than--more than $400,000 a year.
And then, well, some of the tax, the corporate income tax, is paid by investors, right? Not just--you can debate whether it's 20, 50, or 70 percent of a corporate income tax is paid in lower wages, which is the economists put around roughly 70 percent. Liberal economists have said 20 to 40, but when you're raising corporate income taxes by $2 trillion, 40 percent or 20 percent of that is a huge wage blow to middle-income people.
But think about--
MS. ALEMANY: You know, I'm running--
MR. NORQUIST: But think about the owners of capital, [audio distortion] if you have a 401(k), your 401(k) will be worth less because it's a higher corporate rate, and 53 percent of American households have a 401(k); 53 percent of Americans do not make more than $400,000 a year. Biden is going right for the middle class, right for the upper middle-class and that 400,000 is a dead letter and never amount to anything, and certainly doesn't mean anything now.
MS. ALEMANY: I'm wondering, though, what taxes you would be in favor of because, at the end of the day, this gets pushed through by a budget reconciliation, Democrats are going to have to find a way to pay for this, though, presumably, tax cuts. And what we've seen with the president, the former president's tax cuts, were that they disproportionately benefitted the wealthy.
You know, these statistics, as you well know, are startling, between 1979 and 2015, the top 1 percent's income grew by 230 percent in the U.S.; while the bottom 90 percent increased by 46 percent.
So, if not a wealth tax, which I think you just ruled out, what about a value added tax, a financial transactions tax, which Senator Joe Manchin has proposed? What taxes would you be in favor of that would, you know, make the wealthier echelon of Americans pay some federal income tax, here?
MR. NORQUIST: Well, when you looked at when higher-income people paid more in--made more money versus less money, if you look at the Obama years, you're quite right, the richer people got much richer; the poorer people got poorer. It was during the growth of the first three years of the Trump administration where the lower quarter of the population saw their wages increase more and their taxes go down more than the higher-income people. And that was--but that was three years, because that was the tax cut.
MS. ALEMANY: Well, I'm not sure that's completely--
MR. NORQUIST: When you [audio distortion] under Reagan, you also saw higher-income people pay an increasing percentage of the total tax burden and lower-income people pay a lower burden.
You're asking me what taxes would I raise to come up with a whole series of new spending programs? The answer is, the federal government is spending too much now; it is deficit spending now. It has entitlements that they haven't reformed for decades. There's been one reform of entitlement and that was on aid to families with dependent children during Clinton, and Obama dismantled much of that reform, and Biden's planned to dismantle the rest of it. So, he is undoing the only effort that the Democrats had on rethinking and reforming some of their entitlement programs, and everything else is on full speed ahead.
So, the other taxes you mentioned are particularly damaging. Certainly, a value added tax, if you look at Europe, the reason why the American tax code is much more progressive than the European tax code is they have more things like social security taxes and wage taxes, and they have the value added tax, which is about 20 percent in many of those countries, a sales tax on top of everything you buy. It's why Europe grows slower than the United States, why it's less wealthy than the United States, has lower income than the United States. It's something to avoid, not something to think we ought to jump into.
The fact that a Biden or AOC or somebody can come up with ideas on how to spend more money, it's not incumbent on anybody else to see how to go to the middle-income people or anybody and say, "We're going to take more of your resources." Right now, in the United States, we ask all candidates for office, House, Senate, president, state, legislature, governor, 44 Senators have signed a pledge never to raise taxes--no net tax increase; tax reform, yes; 178 Congressman have made the same written public commitment to the American people; and 13 governors. And that's a high on governors, about 1,000 state legislators. So, those who have said, don't raise taxes; instead, reform government to cost less. There's a great deal of reform that can be done. There's no excuse for raising taxes, particularly on some of the infrastructure programs of people looking at spending--that the government has spent $17 trillion in 50 years on the great society trying to make them work, and they haven't.
MS. ALEMANY: And I want to get your perspective on reimposing the Obamacare tax penalty. The president wants to reimpose the tax penalty for those who decline to purchase health insurance, either on their own or to get covered through their employer. You wrote that the tax penalty hit five million American households per year, three-quarters of whom earned less than $50,000. The tax was between $7,000 and 2,085. What should the federal government do instead in order to help people obtain health insurance without this tax penalty?
MR. NORQUIST: Sure. We should expand health savings accounts and make them available to everybody, which solves some problems for self-employed people and people who are not working for a big company. A health savings account, it allows you to save for when you have challenges on health care and you can put a certain amount of money in the--your employer can, you can. And it allows you to--the other one is the idea that the Republicans have pushed for some time at the state level is to take people with preexisting conditions and put them in a separate area and say, "We will subsidize your specific health insurance because you have a preexisting condition, which costs a lot." And rather than making it difficult for the whole insurance industry or the whole insurance pool to function, take those people who have preexisting conditions and make a subsidy available to them so they can afford it and allow--get rid of some of the mandates that people put in, the politicians--the corrupt politicians like to say, "I want to mandate this, this, and this, because those different people give us money in campaign contributions." So, everybody should have to pay for a chiropractor whether they want to or not.
The fewer mandates and the more openness there is in how people deal with this, and speeding up, getting new drugs to market, the right to try movement, which successful passed in 40 states and then passed through Congress, President Trump signed it, said that if you have a terminal disease and a new drug is proven to be safe but it's going to take four or five years before they decide if it's effective, and in four or five years you're dead or your child is dead, you know what? You should have access to that without having to wait for somebody to decide whether they think it's important or useful or effective and should be available to you.
So, there's a lot you can do with the FDA. We saw a lot of reforms come in place during the pandemic. Remember, the CDC guys wanted to be the only people to do testing. Well, that turned out to be a six-week disaster, and now many people have created testing and gotten it done. They spread up the process on approving the new drugs--didn't reduce any of the safety things, but they just made things get faster, as was done with AIDS research. Speeding up new drugs drops the cost of the drugs and saves lives. So, there's a lot of reform at the FDA that can be done that reduces costs and gets new drugs to people.
MS. ALEMANY: And Grover, you--you know, are perhaps the single most important figure, I think, in shaping the way the Republican Party has approached tax policy over the past 20-30 years. I'm wondering--I'm sure you've been having conversations with Republican lawmakers as Biden is crafting some of the biggest legislative proposals that we've seen since FDR's New Deal. What are they willing to compromise on? What are you hearing from them? And are there any taxes that Republicans would potentially be in favor of implementing, here?
MR. NORQUIST: Well, the Republican Party--there isn't a Republican in the House or the Senate that would vote for a net tax increase. If you want to do tax reform, the Republican tax reduction in 2017, the one that Trump signed, had a great deal of reforms in it. They got rid of many deductions and credits and reduced rates. So, it was both a reduction in the overall tax burden, on individuals, on companies, on consumers, on energy, and on wages. But it was also tax reform in getting rid of all of the special privileges and special deals--not all of them. You still have subsidies for energy that doesn't quite pay for itself, wind energy and solar and so on. Those get rather massive tax credit subsidies. It's not really a tax bill; it's a corporate welfare subsidy program.
So, I think we could do a lot to reign in other spending. You could reduce spending in various areas and look to--if you need different resources somewhere else. One of the things the Democrats have not done is say, is there anything we're doing now that makes no sense that we should do less of, or do better, or allow the 50 states to experiment, as we did with Clinton's aid to families with dependent children, when that was block-granted to the states. Fifty different states took different approaches. Some saved a lot of money; some saved some; they were able to target people who needed help more easily in the state. That could be done with a lot of the means-tested programs we have, and would save a great deal of resources. Doing that, just keeping the spending on track with the wage increases of the American people. So, there's a lot of resources you can--money you can save through less spending. But the idea of raising the tax burden on people when spending is already too high on many things that need to be rethought doesn't make any sense.
And again, the biggest difference between the two parties right now is that the Republican Party at the national level will not raise your taxes. They may invade small countries they can't pronounce, but they won't raise your taxes. And there isn't a Democrat in the House or the Senate who won't cheerfully raise your taxes. And there isn't a Democrat in the House or Senate that will vote for a tax cut. So, the biggest difference between the two parties is the question of is your income safe or does somebody want to take more of it. The Democrats have no limit to how much they're willing to take it.
They do do this thing where they say, "I'm only going to tax rich people," but that's sort of trickle-down taxation. Remember when they put the federal income tax in 1913, top rate was 7 percent; now, the bottom rate is more than 7 percent. You had to make $11 million to hit the top rate. Now, you hit the top rate a long time before $11 million. So, they took a tax on rich people, the income tax, and democratized it to where, during World War II, it's a tax on everyone. Now, it's on a tax on about half the people in the country. To pay for the Spanish-American War tax, they taxed long-distance phone calls. Only rich people--cause phones cost $4,000 in 1898. That was a tax on rich people. Forty years later, everyone in the country had a phone and they were still paying the federal excise tax on phones. The tax on--the alternative minimum tax, Ted Kennedy wanted it because 155 people who were not paying any taxes because they were putting all their money in municipal bonds, which weren't taxed; 155 millionaires weren't paying taxes. So, they came up with the alternative minimum tax and when--before the Republicans called it back, it was on track to hit 30 million Americans, the alternative minimum tax.
So, they start by taxing rich people--and Biden has one of those in. He's got a tax--the Social Security tax on people who make more than $400,000 a year. He interestingly does not index the 400,000 to inflation. Your children, if they become small businessmen and women will be paying both sides of the Social Security tax as self-employed people at 400,000, which will not mean tomorrow what it means today with inflation.
MS. ALEMANY: But, you know, I want to push you back on that. There's a Wharton School study that was released earlier this week which had estimated that the infrastructure plan would actually reduce the U.S. debt by 6.4 percent and increase the GDP by nearly 1 percent by 2050.
You know, this modest reduction in economic growth is attributed to the fact that infrastructure improvements will allow Americans to be more productive. So, when you hear those numbers, doesn't your--you know, does it influence your opinion, at all? Isn't this some--aren't these two--the shrinking the national deficit?
MR. NORQUIST: We've been--I mean, three times we were told, I'm not going to tax anyone who isn't rich. Clinton said it, he lied; Obama said, lied; Biden said it; he's already broken it and, in his plans, that was a lie.
So, when you say, do you trust them on this? The answer is, we know better than that. And the idea that the government can [audio distortion] efficiently than you can spend your own money doesn't work very well, and doesn't--when you're talking infrastructure--and again, people think they mean roads, but only about 6 percent of this infrastructure bill is what you think of--what people think they mean when they say infrastructure: roads, highways, airports, waterways, 6 to 7 percent.
There's a whole bunch of it that is, in fact--they want to do broadband because they've decided broadband is the future. They--somebody didn't tell them about satellites. Somebody didn't tell them about 5G. And so, they're taking yesterday's technology and deciding that everybody's got to have this one-size-fits-all approach as opposed to subsidizing those people in the rural areas who really need it because of the extra amount of time--the length of band to get there. Or you might actually think that it might make more sense to use satellites, which are being put up right now to solve some of these problems.
So, when the federal government comes in--the federal government is going to build a whole bunch of public housing. Now, let's see, will that work out? I don't know. Maybe we should think about the last 50 years and how well they did with that. And is it low-cost housing? No, it's actually much more expensive housing because the Davis-Bacon Act requires that you pay above-market rates for wages, the Davis-Bacon Act being a law that most Americans don't know about. It was put in the 1930s as an explicitly racist act because they didn't want Black workers coming from the South and taking White unionized jobs in the north, and that law still exists, with all the same incentives--South Africa had similar laws--and by requiring that government-funding programs pay above-market rates to keep out young whippersnappers who are trying to get their first job in--and get--step up on the ladder. That makes everything the government does with government money more expensive than it was done privately.
And also, the decisions on how you do it are all political instead of economic. And by the way, anything you're doing on infrastructure today is something the federal government looked at over the last 50 years and said no; the state governments looked at over the last 50 years and said no; individuals with a bunch of money that wanted to invest on something they thought would pay off, they looked at it and said no. So, you're talking about new investment programs or new spending programs that have been looked at before and been rejected.
We were told that the great society was going to do everything that this new bill was going to do. And in point of fact, the great society, about $17 trillion spent. All the metrics that you would use in terms of, are you getting people out of poverty; is education better off when you spend more money on it, or does it not show up in higher achievement and more learning? We've kind of seen this play before [audio distortion] and build high-speed rail and everyone would get rich, except they don't, because it doesn't work. And they keep bringing these new ideas out--and again, if it worked, you know, Bezos would be out doing. But somehow, he's not--
MS. ALEMANY: Well, Bezos has--for the record, has called for an increase in the corporate tax hike, which is worth noting. He hasn't explicitly backed the infrastructure plan, but he does believe that the wealthiest Americans and our biggest corporations should pay more in taxes.
And I also have to fact-check what you--the claim that you made about what percentage of the infrastructure plan actually allocates money to roads, railways, ports, water systems, it's actually about a quarter to half of the plan that is dedicated to transportation and those utilities. But I'm wondering--
MR. NORQUIST: You're padding that number. You're including subsidies for electric cars and subsidies--I mean, we don't subsidize gas stations--subsidies for things that--people already have roads, they already have cars. They want to push you out of one kind of car and give every--give those people--
MS. ALEMANY: I think even--outside of the tit-for-tat on what--
MR. NORQUIST: The railways--the railways to nowhere that Obama tried, the high-speed rail?
MS. ALEMANY: [Audio distortion]--at a very local level who have called for infrastructure who said that Republicans are going to lose in 2022 midterms if there's not--and if Republicans don't call to invest in infrastructure.
So, if the country doesn't resolve these problems involving infrastructure now, don't you think it's going to cost more in the coming years, not just in upgrades, but in lost revenue and job growth?
MR. NORQUIST: We should pay for the roads, but when you give the government money in gas taxes, they do things other than pave the roads. That happens in all 50 states, it happens at the federal government. They siphon money that are supposed to go to roads into big city subways. They siphon money into light rail that doesn't actually have the number of people on it that they advertise it does. These have never come out and worked out the way they said they were going to.
They don't build roads; they don't pave roads; and they don't build bridges with the money that they have spent over the last 10, 20, 50 years, you're quite right. They've taken that money and put it onto other things. They're not going to put it into roads, now. They actually don't like roads anymore, if you've been listening to what the radicals on the left think is a good idea and we should all live on railroad lines like in the Soviet Union and not have roads is a way to get everywhere--or to be able to get everywhere.
There's some--we were told this when Obama in the first two years spent all that money on--what was it? Shovel-ready programs. And we were told Republicans voted against it because they said it's a boondoggle. And two years later, what did people say? They said Solyndra, they said corruption, they said not shovel-ready, and the Democrats lost the House and six Senate seats.
You've got House and Senate guys out there putting their names on a bill with spending that's going to go out the door in politicized reasons and for politicized purposes. And two years from now, people are going to be asked, why did you vote for that bill and all that spending and why is my 401(k) not doing what it used to do and why is my energy bill higher because you've raised or taxed energy or you've taxed the companies that sell energy and you've made it difficult for people in the Northeast to pay to heat their selves or, in the South, for air conditioning. Raising people's basic living costs is not a way to win elections, it's a way to lose elections. And throwing a bunch of political money around, much of which is going to end up spent corruptly and poorly and bridges to nowhere and is going to cost people House and Senate seats.
Again, we don't have to imagine: We lived through this with the first two years of Obama, all the same promises and all of the problems that you would expect to have when people hand money out for free to people who didn't earn it and some of that's going to be very political and there will be Solyndras and there will be collapses and there will be corruption and it's not going to look good for people.
And much of this spending is years and years from now. Why commit it now? What's the point of that? What's the emergency? Why call it a COVID bill when only a certain percentage was COVID. And when I say, it's not roads and bridges, and somebody says, you should count all of this high-speed rail that doesn't work, that's not infrastructure. That's somebody playing with toys with other people's money. You know, people should buy their own railroads.
MS. ALEMANY: Well, it's not called a COVID bill but, again, 548 billion of this 2 trillion would be allocated--that's 24 percent of the $2.3 trillion pie was going to be allocated--is going to be allocated to concrete and steel structures.
But Grover, we're running out of time, but quick question for you: When do you plan on returning to Burning Man? Any big post-pandemic plans?
MR. NORQUIST: Well, we're going to go to Burning Man as soon as we reopen again. It was a disaster to lose it last year. I think we'll be back this year. This--we are way past not--first of all, it's all outdoors, for crying out loud, it's in the desert. And it is--Burning Man, all they need is for the nice people at BLM to back off and leave them alone and let them have Burning Man go.
So, I'm looking forward to a good burn this year and there was an effort to expand it somewhat. That got held up with all the pandemic stuff. Hopefully, more people will be able to come to Burning Man. It's in the middle of nowhere and there's a lot of open space. So, we could have a few tens of thousands more people fit very well into Burning Man this coming year.
MS. ALEMANY: Well, thanks so much for joining us.
MR. NORQUIST: Thank you.
MS. ALEMANY: And everyone, on Monday, at Washington Post Live, please join us, we're going to have David Ignatius interviewing the chief of staff to the Army, and Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of food company, Chobani.
Thanks so much for watching. Have a great weekend. See you next week.
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