Although controversial at the time, the Republican tax reform bill passed by Congress almost four years ago promised benefits for almost all American families.
Calculating the benefits of tax reform is no easy task, since the reform affects the typical family at different points over the course of a lifetime. During the child-rearing and home-buying years there is one set of benefits. When retirees begin to withdraw savings and pay capital gains and other taxes on investment income, there is another set.
Last year Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff and economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta took on the challenge. They produced a first-of-its-kind estimate of the lifetime effects of the reform on families in every state in the union.
The study found that the average U.S. household could expect a lifetime gain of about $25,000. For Georgia, the average household gain was estimated at $22,676.
That was certainly good news. But the study didnt consider one of the most important parts of the reform: the reduction in corporate tax rates. Prior to the reform, this country had a top corporate income tax rate of 35 percent, one of the highest in the world. Economists from across the political spectrum realized that we had become uncompetitive in the international competition for invested capital. The Obama administration, for example, recommended lowering the rate to 28 percent. The Republican reform lowered it to 21 percent.
Who gains when you lower corporate taxes? Economists arent entirely sure, but a body of evidence suggests that it is the workers. More capital means improved productivity and that makes workers more valuable to employers. Studies show that countries with low corporate taxes attract capital and that leads to higher wages.
With funding from the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research, Prof. Kotlikoff has updated the earlier study to take account of the change in corporate taxes. He finds that the tax reform bill in its entirety is worth about $39,000 to the average Georgia family.
That implies that corporate tax reform alone is worth about $16,000 over the course of a lifetime for Georgia households. In the middle of the economic problems created by the coronavirus it may be hard to focus on this fact. But we will conquer the virus and a larger, more prosperous economy lies in our future.
At the time of its passage, opponents claimed tax reform would only benefit the rich, and some Democrats urged repeal of the bill. However, Kotlikoff and his colleagues found that all income groups are benefiting from the legislationroughly in the same proportion.
President-elect Joe Biden is proposing to undo half of the 2017 corporate tax cuts, raising the top rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. During the Democratic primary, Bidens running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, proposed to repeal the corporate tax cuts entirelypushing the top rate back to its original 35 percent.
The Biden economic plan also creates a new, 12.4 percent Social Security tax on all wages above $400,000. However, that income threshold is not indexed for inflation. Eventually, it will hit all families, even if they have had no increase in real income.
Take a two-earner 20-year-old couple earning $100,000. With a 2% inflation rate and 2% productivity growth, that couple will be paying the Biden payroll tax sometime in their 50s.
The Biden plan also restores the previous income tax rates for high-income households. For the top 1 percent of taxpayers, all the Biden taxes combined will create a lifetime marginal tax rate of 62 percent. Blue state residents with high state income tax rates could face up to a 70 percent rate.
We would be in danger of returning to the tax-shelter environment of the 60s and 70swhen people were encouraged to spend time and energy avoiding taxes instead of producing goods and services. This is the very thing presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan wanted to stop.
On the positive side, the Kotlikoff study shows that many Georgians would be better off in the short run if the Biden economic plan were adopted in full. Thats because of Bidens proposal for a more generous child tax credit and more generous benefits for low-income seniors. There are long-run costs, however. When todays children become adults, their wages will be lower and the economy will be less prosperous because of the way those benefits are funded.
There is a tendency in elections to focus on a great many things about the candidates that dont matter. Lets hope that between now and January 5, Georgia voters ask the candidates their position on issues that really do matter.
Tax policy should be high on that list.