In a national speech on Wednesday, President Donald Trump framed the tax reform debate that will continue to unfold when Congress returns next week.
The president’s vision focused on letting Americans keep more of their own money. Done rightly, this vision can unleash robust economic growth that will benefit all Americans.
America is suffering under the current tax code. It features high rates and endless complexity for most Americans while providing untold opportunities for a privileged few.
The rich can afford accountants and lawyers to navigate the code’s bureaucratic morass while every other American merely files their taxes and hopes for the best.
The president’s vision for a simpler tax code that allows the economy to grow can be realized through four key reforms.
1. Allow full expensing.
The United States has an outdated and overly complex system that makes it near impossible for businesses to deduct the full cost of investments. This current system artificially raises the cost of investing by denying the full deduction, resulting in slower wage growth and less job creation.
Full expensing would allow businesses to deduct all investment expenses from their taxable income immediately, such as the cost of new office space needed to hire additional workers. This simple change could grow the economy by more than 5 percent over 10 years by removing the current tax bias against investment.
It would also greatly simplify tax paying, as businesses would no longer have to track investments over many years for tax purposes—a requirement that costs businesses over $23 billion annually.
The benefits of expensing are not just for large corporations. They are accessible to all businesses, big and small. Expensing must be a primary component of any tax reform plan that emphasizes economic growth and job expansion.
2. Lower the corporate income tax rate.
The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, with an average combined federal and state rate of almost 40 percent. Compared to China’s 25 percent or Ireland’s 12.5 percent, the U.S. offers one of the least attractive tax business environments in the world.
Lowering the corporate tax rate to the president’s previously proposed 15 percent and no longer taxing profits earned overseas would largely even the playing field, allowing U.S. firms to compete with foreign firms.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the burden of the corporate income tax falls almost entirely on workers in the form of lower wages.
Businesses invest money in their workplace so that their employees can be more productive. Part of this investment involves paying higher wages to employees who are able to become more productive. But high corporate taxes discourage this kind of investment in the workplace, thus killing the potential for workers to earn higher wages.
On the flip side of the coin, American households would share in the benefits of a corporate rate cut through higher wages. A corporate tax cut helps all Americans.
3. Lower tax rates for individuals.
To allow Americans to keep more of their own money, tax reform must lower tax rates for individuals. In addition to sending less money to Washington, lower rates strengthen the economy by improving incentives to work, save, and invest.
For individuals and most small businesses (who pay their taxes as individuals), the top marginal federal tax rate can be as high as 43.4 percent.
What’s worse is that such high rates don’t raise all that much revenue. Even though the top individual tax rate fluctuated between 91 and 28 percent over the past 50 years, total individual tax receipts have remained relatively stable.
Lowering rates should be paired with eliminating many current credits and deductions. The state and local tax deduction, for example, forces federal taxpayers in low-tax states to subsidize taxpayers in high-tax states.
Federal income tax rates could be reduced by about 12.5 percent for everyone if the state and local tax deduction was eliminated.
Lowering marginal tax rates is also important for economic growth as high rates discourage work and entrepreneurship.
4. Eliminate tax subsidies.
The tax code should not be used to pick winners and losers. That means that tax reform should eliminate as many individual and corporate deductions, credits, exclusions, and exemptions as possible.
Cronyism in the tax code slows economic growth as people’s time and investments are wasted on politically favored projects over those that consumers value. The economy suffers because of this market distortion.
Tax reform should eliminate unjustified tax subsidies that benefit politically favored industries, such as the myriad tax breaks for the production and consumption of wind farms, solar panels, and nuclear electricity production.
Other examples of the hundreds of such preferences include the state and local tax deduction, the research and development tax credit, education tax credits, and the exclusion for municipal bond interest.
Updating the tax code for the 21st century requires more than just cutting taxes. True reform will include structural reforms like expensing and the wholesale elimination of accumulated carve outs for privileged interests.
Tax reform that does all of this will truly make America great again through higher wages, more jobs, and untold opportunity.