Match 7, 2017
Donald Trump may have veered from self-inflicted crisis to self-inflicted crisis over the course of his young presidency, but he has kept one policy goal steadily before him: tax cuts for the wealthy. A case in point is his recent proposal to find $54 billion more for military spending by slashing Head Start, food aid for low-income pregnant women, environmental protection and other programs. Those trade-offs are bad enough in themselves. But they also reveal a ruinous worldview in which nondefense spending is always excessive and tax cuts are necessary for growth. This sort of thinking will only weaken the economy and betray the people who put their hopes in Mr. Trump.
Spending on the nonmilitary discretionary programs that have been targeted by Mr. Trump comes to 3.2 percent of the economy — well below the average of 3.8 percent going back to 1962. By calling for cuts that would average about 15 percent in almost every category other than defense and “mandatory” programs like Social Security and Medicare, Mr. Trump would undermine his promises to make sure “every child in America has access to a good education,” to help the “poorest and most vulnerable” and to rebuild infrastructure. Other categories at risk of being cut include scientific and medical research, job training, national parks, air traffic control and maintenance of dams.
Worse yet, some Republicans may call for limiting Mr. Trump’s proposed reductions by cutting instead from Social Security and Medicare, which Mr. Trump has pledged to protect. That would be needlessly tightfisted. A rich nation with a resilient economy can afford to care for both the poor and the elderly. Besides, support for the elderly is already becoming stingier as a result of changes instituted years ago, including an increase in the Social Security retirement age from 65 in 2002 to 67 by 2027.
That is not to imply that all spending cuts are off limits. But it’s sensible to mix them with tax increases. The approach of Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans would deeply cut taxes even as spending is slashed.
Mr. Trump has essentially called for three tax cuts: a personal income tax cut, a corporate income tax cut and a cut achieved by repealing the Affordable Care Act. Specifics are scant, but one thing is clear: All three would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. A campaign draft of the income tax plan indicated that at least half of the proposed multitrillion-dollar tax cut would flow to the top 1 percent of earners in 2025, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Repealing the A.C.A. would end the additional 0.9 percent Medicare Hospital Tax on incomes above $200,000 ($250,000 for married couples).
Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers say tax cuts spread prosperity by generating economic growth and thus increasing federal revenue — a thoroughly debunked claim. Experience shows that large tax cuts either deepen the nation’s debt or necessitate spending cuts. Forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office indicate that if tax revenue is not increased in the coming decade, spending cuts of $3 trillion — or about 25 percent outside of Social Security and Medicare — will be required to keep the debt at its current level of 77.5 percent of the economy. Clearly, if defense spending rises in the coming decade, as Mr. Trump has called for, while tax revenue declines, either the debt will rise or spending cuts will need to be even deeper.
Both outcomes can be avoided by abandoning deep tax cuts. It would be wise to take on new debt for stimulus during economic downturns or for infrastructure investments, but not to finance tax cuts during a military buildup. Economic activity could be encouraged by bolstering wages, including federal overtime protections. Tax revenue could be raised in constructive ways, including a carbon tax.
Giving the wealthy never-ending tax cuts while gutting programs for the middle class would create more of the resentment and inequality Mr. Trump has promised to address.