New study confirms ordinary Americans got fleeced by the Trump tax bill

Alan Pyke

Alan Pyke Deputy Economic Policy Editor, Think Progress

Sorry, America’s middle class: President Donald Trump’s signature tax code overhaul has not generated any meaningful new economic growth that wasn’t already underway, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has found.

The new numbers inject further complexity into a contentious and ongoing debate around the landmark tax legislation as to who actually benefited from its passage. But the study should also offer additional clarity: With hard numbers now available on the economy’s performance in the first full year of the legislation, it’s easier than ever to talk instead about who got what and how — and the answers, so far, aren’t pretty.

Large corporations with shiny accounting departments ended up being the largest beneficiaries of the tax bill’s largesse, with the rate of tax they actually pay dropping by half in 2018, according to the CRS analysis. But the vanishingly insignificant comparative break Trump’s law gave workaday people lays the game bare. This tax bill is already reshaping the real-world economy in ways that limit the prospects of ordinary people, potentially reinforcing the structural inequities that adversely impact democratic society.

Trump and his congressional allies had forecast massive jumps in GDP growth and working-family incomes from the package. None materialized in year one. Annual growth hit 2.9% – identical to the 2015 mark, well below the 3.3% the Congressional Budget Office forecast when it sought to predict the tax bill’s impact in April of 2018, and right in line with what the CBO had predicted the economy would have done without Trump’s corporate-tax munificence.

The report’s findings underscore the deceitful nature of the administration’s first-term sales pitch.

Working people were supposed to benefit from the slashed corporate income tax rate and related rules tweaks intended to lure offshored profits back into the U.S. economy. American companies weren’t hiding $3 trillion in profit outside the country out of malice, the argument went. Rather, they were afraid of seeing it taxed too sternly, and would happily bring it home to make productive and equitable use of it just as soon as they felt it was safe from the taxman.

Some business heads dutifully followed this script in small and symbolic ways shortly after the law was signed, issuing year-end bonuses to their frontline employees and accompanying them with heavy fanfare in the press. But even the high-end estimates of those bonus payments account for less than 3% of the money corporate payers got handed back to them by the tax law. Those bonuses may have had as much to do with firms’ recognition that falling unemployment rates would make it easier for unhappy workers to leave for greener pastures, the CRS report notes.

So what happened to the other 97% of the money corporate accountants were handed by the government? A trillion dollars of it went to shareholders, as the law triggered a record wave of stock buybacks – an unproductive back-scratching activity that keeps the money firmly ensconced in upper-class hands that have little reason to spend that new cash back into the economy where working stiffs make their living.

This grand act of class solidarity between wealthy elected officials, wealthy corporate executives, and wealthy investors was entirely predictable. Corporate tax repatriation enticements and rates-slashing typically generate this kind of unproductive reshuffling of capital – thereby reinforcing the working class’s sense that they aren’t even being dealt into the hand.

Such stark differences in outcomes for the masses and the privileged few help fuel the populist anger that’s on the march across nearly every developed democracy on the planet.

Wages – a more stable indicator of how much wealth capitalists are allowing to pass through to their labor than any one-off bonus – offer no respite from the gloomy CRS diagnosis. Blue-collar wages rose just 1.2% in 2018 after accounting for inflation, the report’s authors found, which “indicated that ordinary workers had very little growth in wage rates.”

Out of every three taxpayers, roughly two owed the government less this tax year than they had prior to the new tax law. Many people who got a tax cut in year one appear not to have noticed, as the New York Times’ Jim Tankersley and Ben Casselman reported recently, because the annualized cut was spread across a year’s worth of paychecks instead of lumped together at year end.

But whether working families noticed the new money or not, the combined effect of those modest middle-class cuts and the massive corporate giveaways that make up the bulk of the Trump tax law’s price tag were supposed to load the economy’s engine with high-octane juice. The working theory was that this “2 Fast 2 Furious” boom would rain new revenue down on the treasury with such swift thoroughness that the public would neither notice nor care that a large amount of its collective money got handed over to wealthy multinational companies. The cut, its proponents insisted, would pay for itself.

A year on, the tax bill is miles behind the trajectory required to make that promise plausible. The authors of the CRS study calculate that the tax law’s 2018 performance generated “5 percent or less of the growth needed to fully offset the revenue loss” in year one.

“Much of the tax cut was directed at businesses and higher-income individuals who are less likely to spend,” the CRS researchers wrote. “On the whole, the growth effects tend to show a relatively small (if any) first-year effect on the economy.”

That mathematically correct conclusion misses an important wider point about public policy choices. The bill has had a huge effect on what kind of economy we have, if not on the size of that economy as measured in the stats these analysts parse. Inasmuch as the costs of the bill could have been spent on other people if their government had made other choices, the tax law is redistributing wealth upward, providing the wealthy investor class a jolt of money they have no reason to spend.

Everyone else saw a relative pittance – enough money to make a difference to a working family, but a tiny fraction of the public money federal lawmakers chose to give to private companies and their shareholders through these changes – and none of the wider opportunity-sparking growth promised by the people marketing the bill 18 months ago.

Tax cuts that don’t pay for themselves are not automatically illegitimate. When such subsidies are bestowed on Main Street economies, they can boost the virtuous cycles of consumer spending that working-class communities need in order to provide a stable economic foundation.

The tax cut former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put on Trump’s desk has instead subsidized the wealthy, just as the GOP intended.

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Reposted from ThinkProgress

Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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