CHRIS EDWARDS, CATO INSTITUTE
Critics are saying that the Republican tax plan would give high earners the largest cuts. There has been a flood of news stories with that theme since the Tax Policy Center (TPC) released its analysis of the plan.
The TPC summary says, “Those with the very highest incomes would receive the biggest tax cuts,” and tables in the report encourage readers to come to that conclusion.
However, my parsing of TPC’s data reveals something different: the GOP plan would give the largest relative cuts to people in the middle. On average, middle-income earners would receive larger percentage tax cuts than higher-income earners.
The table shows data from TPC’s analysis and from its current law estimates released in March. Households are split into quintiles, or fifths, by income level. The columns titled “change” present the effects of the GOP cuts in different ways.
Columns 1 and 2. These results from TPC’s report suggest that high earners would receive the largest cuts.
Column 3. These figures from TPC in March include all federal taxes—income, payroll, estate, and excise. Note that the higher quintiles have higher tax rates, so if we cut everyone’s taxes an equal percent, then the higher quintiles would receive the largest cuts.
Column 4. These results from TPC’s study show the GOP cuts as a percent of all current taxes paid. The top and bottom quintiles get the biggest cuts, and the middle and fourth quintiles the smallest. But there is a problem with TPC’s presentation—Congress is reforming income and estate taxes, but TPC includes payroll and excise taxes in these calculations, which slants the results. (My column 4 data are slightly different from data shown in TPC’s study because of rounding issues).
Column 5. This column shows current individual income, corporate income, and estate taxes, based on TPC’s March data. These are the taxes that Congress is reforming. Current tax payments are hugely tilted toward the top end. The bottom two quintiles do not pay any of these taxes, on average. If we cut everyone’s taxes an equal percent, then higher earners would get—and should get—the largest cuts.
Column 6. This column provides the best answer—in my view—to the question of which group gets the largest cuts under the GOP plan (at least the GOP plan as interpreted by TPC). The middle quintile gets a huge 20 percent tax cut, on average, which is much larger than the 12.0 and 12.7 percent cuts for the top two quintiles. Looked at this way, the middle-class would get the largest tax cuts under the GOP plan.
I have assumed so far that TPC’s underlying analysis is sound, but actually there are problems with it. The TPC analysis is not dynamic, and thus overstates revenue losses, particularly from corporate tax cuts. That factor combines with the TPC assumption (erroneous in my view) that the corporate tax burden mainly falls on shareholders, not workers. The result of those two factors is that TPC exaggerates the tax cuts going to the top end.
TPC has fine analysts and it produces an impressive stream of reports, but I wish they would present their results in a more even-handed way. As an example, when they publish a table showing that the top quintile would get income/estate tax cuts of $8,470 and the middle quintile would get $660 in 2018, on average, they should show that the former group will currently pay $66,701 of those taxes and the latter group will pay just $3,300, on average.
By the way, I do not think that the middle class should receive the largest tax cuts, so I do not agree with the rhetoric of either party on that issue. High earners should receive the largest cuts because they pay the highest rates, and reducing their rates would generate the most economic growth.
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Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the CATO Institute and editor of www.DownsizingGovernment.org. He is a top expert on federal and state tax and budget issues. Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.