Billionaire businessman, television personality and now presidential candidate Donald Trump is the latest candidate to jump into the race. He has made a number of tax proposals. His more recent proposals, in contrast to ones he proposed back around the 2000 election, would likely sharply increase the national debt and make the U.S. tax system substantially more regressive by both cutting taxes for the rich and creating a massive new tax that would disproportionately hurt lower-income Americans.
What exactly are Trump’s tax plans? The most recent detailed plan that Trump has offered is contained within his 2011 book, Time to Get Tough. His five-step plan includes eliminating the estate tax and the corporate income tax, lowering the tax rate on capital gains and dividends, enacting a 20 percent tariff on all imported goods and creating a new, lower income tax rate structure. The income tax would include a tax rate structure of 1 percent for up to $30,000; 5 percent for $30,000-$100,000; 10 percent for $100,000-$1,000,000; and 15 percent for income over $1,000,000.
As Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) has shown, the benefits of eliminating both the estate and corporate tax and lowering the capital gains tax rate would go overwhelming to the wealthiest Americans. In addition, the lower tax rate structure would provide the wealthy with huge tax cuts on top of the already large tax breaks just mentioned.
Of the five planks, the only one that would potentially raise revenue is Trump’s proposal to place a 20 percent tariff on all imported goods. This proposal is very much in line with 19th century tax policy in America, in which the federal government got most of its revenue from high-rate tariffs. Fortunately, high-rate tariffs have become a thing of the past thanks to the efforts of progressive reformers, who recognized both the regressive impact of the tariff (consumers end up bearing most of the burden) as well as the economic damage that high-rate tariffs cause by disrupting trade between nations. The idea of imposing such a high-rate tariff today would fly in the face of 100 years of economic progress and would violate the many treaties that have reduced tariffs at our instigation. The economic costs would likely be very substantial.
Taken together, these five proposals would also create a multi-trillion dollar hole in the federal budget that Trump has not outlined any substantial plan to fill.
While Trump has not specified a new tax plan in the run-up to his 2016 candidacy, he has indicated that he supports a flat tax and the so-called “Fair Tax” (a national sales tax). If Trump ends up proposing a flat tax, he would not be alone considering that other presidential candidate supporters of a flat tax include Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Sen. Lindsey Graham and yet to announce candidate Gov. John Kasich, while the national sales tax is supported by both Mike Huckabee and Sen. Cruz. If enacted in a revenue-neutral way, both the Fair Tax and a flat tax would likely cut taxes on the wealthiest American by an average of over $200,000, while significantly increasing taxes on the vast majority of Americans.
The oddest thing about Trump’s recent support for a flat tax is that it represents a significant reversal from his previously stated opposition to a flat tax. During the 2000 election Trump released a book, titled The America We Deserve, in which he explicitly rejected the flat tax. He said that a flat tax would be “unfair to the poor,” who would be forced to pay more in taxes due in part to the repeal of the earned income tax credit. He also said that it would be unfair to allow the wealthy to get away with not paying any taxes on income from dividends, capital gains and interest.
Instead of a flat tax or a series of regressive proposals, the major tax proposal that Trump made during the 2000 election was a one-time 14.25 percent wealth tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth over $10 million, which he proposed to use to eliminate the national debt. Putting aside the debate over the administration and constitutionality of a wealth tax, Trump defended his proposal on equity grounds, writing that while some might argue that his plan is “unfair to the extremely wealthy,” he believed that “it is only reasonable to shift the burden to those most able to pay.” In other words, Trump actually made the case for a progressive tax proposal during the 2000 election, in stark contrast to his latest tax proposals.
One last notable discontinuity between Trump’s latest tax positions and the proposals he made in 2000 is the fact that he proposed the creation of a $3,000 annual tax credit for individuals that purchase health insurance (outside of employer-subsidized health insurance). While the details differ, Trump’s health insurance tax credit is broadly in line with Obamacare’s health insurance premium tax credits, which coincidently provide an average annual benefit of just over $3,000 to those who qualify. The discontinuity at play here is the fact that Trump has also called for the complete repeal of Obamacare in his latest book, without mentioning that the bulk of what he would repeal is similar to his own previous tax proposal to make healthcare more affordable.
Given his recent musings on a flat tax and a national sales tax, it’s likely that Trump will use his current presidential campaign to push for regressive tax changes. Whether it’s a flat tax, some version of his tax plan from 2011, or some new and wacky plan remains to be seen.