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For Americans, the first 16 years of the 21st century have unfortunately been a time of sluggish economic growth, exploding national debt, falling marriage rates, and stagnant or declining real incomes. The tax code has contributed to each of these problems.
Ideally, tax reform would ease and equalize the tax burden, simplify the code, end the marriage penalty, and spur growth to such an extent that, while cutting taxes, it would actually increase revenues over time—in other words, it would pay for itself. The Main Street Tax Plan would do all of these things. Designed to improve the lives of everyday citizens, it is pro-growth, pro-American worker, and pro-fiscal responsibility.1
In order to spur growth and ease the tax burden without undermining fiscal solvency, this tax plan features the following key provisions: Eliminate the Medicare payroll tax (to streamline the tax code and provide relief to all taxpayers, especially the working poor and lower-middle-class); cut the first quarter of the 25-percent tax bracket to 20 percent (to provide tax relief for middle-class workers); lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and allow full expensing of all capital investments (to generate growth); reduce the top individual income-tax rate to 33 percent (to spur small-business growth); eliminate the business tax deduction for interest paid (to end the preference for debt-financing); adjust tax brackets, filing statuses, and income-based phase-outs (to end the marriage penalty); and cut the child tax credit in half (to $500) while adding a child tax deduction (of $2,000 per child) (to help equalize the tax treatment of those with and without children).
Scoring by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation finds that, within a decade, the effects of this tax plan alone would increase the size of the United States economy by 7.6 percent, or $2.1 trillion. That’s in addition to the growth that would otherwise have occurred. The Tax Foundation’s Stephen Entin says 7.6 percent growth is only a “little less” than the extraordinary growth generated by the 1981 Reagan-Kemp tax cut and is “roughly comparable” to the growth generated by the Kennedy tax cuts of the early 1960s.2
Great Bang for the Buck
Not only would this tax cut spur growth; it would raise revenues. The Tax Foundation’s scoring finds that, by spurring vibrant growth in an efficient way, this tax cut would actually increase revenues over a decade by $679 billion, thereby helping to reduce the national debt.
In addition to scoring the Main Street Tax Plan, the Tax Foundation has recently scored the tax proposals of (in alphabetical order) former Governor Jeb Bush, then-House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, Senator Ben Cardin, presidential candidate Ben Carson, former Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Bobby Jindal, President Barack Obama, Senator Rand Paul, Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, Senator Bernie Sanders, former Senator Rick Santorum, and presidential candidate Donald Trump. Of these fourteen, the Main Street Tax Plan and Paul’s proposal are the only ones that were scored as both cutting taxes and raising revenues. In other words, they are the only ones whose tax cuts would more than pay for themselves—by generating enough revenues from taxes on the increased growth to offset the lost revenues from the tax cuts themselves.
Of the other twelve proposals (apart from Paul’s and the Main Street Tax Plan), two were scored as tax increases that would raise revenues. Clinton’s proposal, a $498 billion tax increase, was scored as decreasing economic growth by 1 percent and increasing revenues by $191 billion. Sanders’s proposal, a $13.6 trillion tax increase—27 times as large as Clinton’s—was scored as reducing growth by 9.5 percent and increasing revenues by $9.8 trillion (while reducing the typical American’s income by about a sixth).3
The remaining ten proposals were all scored as decreasing revenues. Obama’s proposal, a $100 billion tax increase, was scored as reducing economic growth by 3.0 percent and thus decreasing revenues by $12 billion. Camp’s, a very minor ($30 billion) tax cut, was scored as increasing growth by just 0.2 percent and decreasing revenues by $21 billion. The other eight proposals—all major tax cuts--were each scored as reducing revenues by more than $750 billion, after taking into account the increased economic growth they would generate. In other words, when it comes to effects on revenues—and hence on the debt—the Main Street Tax Plan would come out more than $1.4 trillion ahead of any of these other big tax cuts (aside from Paul’s).4
Not only would this tax cut spur growth; it would raise revenues.
Paul’s plan—the only other proposal that would raise revenues—calls for a radical overhaul of the existing tax code. His plan (like Cruz’s) would abolish the corporate income tax, eliminate all payroll taxes, and institute a type of value-added tax.5 In Paul’s own words, it would “repeal the entire IRS tax code.” The Main Street Tax Plan, in contrast, aims for political viability—offering reforms that could be made within the structure of the current tax code.
Importantly, these reforms would benefit Americans across the income spectrum. In fact, of all the tax cuts listed above, only the Main Street Tax Plan was scored by the Tax Foundation as benefitting the typical American more than it would benefit the top one percent of income-earners.6
This plan would increase economic growth in three main ways: by reducing the corporate tax rate to 25 percent (from a top rate of 35 percent today); allowing the full expensing of all capital investments; and lowering most Americans’ marginal tax rates. The highest marginal income-tax rate would be cut to 33 percent, both to generate growth and because no one should have to pay more than a third of his or her earnings in federal income taxes alone (in addition to having to pay federal payroll taxes, state and local income taxes, state and local sales taxes, and local property taxes). It would also cut the estate tax to 20 percent, matching the highest tax rate (apart from the Obamacare surtax) for long-term capital gains.7
Providing Middle-Class Tax Relief
The Main Street Tax Plan is focused on boosting the economic prospects of everyday Americans. Among those struggling the most under the current tax code are those who are just beginning to hit their financial stride and then see their marginal tax rate abruptly jump from 15 to 25 percent—the biggest marginal-rate increase in the entire tax code. This hefty tax-increase kicks in right when people are starting to get ahead, at incomes of about $48,000 for singles and twice that for married couples. Just as they are beginning to feel more financially secure—and perhaps starting to think about getting married or having children—they get hit with a big tax increase.
The Main Street Tax Plan would convert the first quarter of the 25-percent tax bracket into a 20-percent tax bracket, thereby smoothing over this abrupt tax-increase and providing a tax break for millions of middle-class Americans. For example, for the 2015 tax year (the year used for all tax figures in this publication), a single person who makes $60,000 and doesn’t itemize would save $613 in taxes from this provision alone—and $2,153 overall from this plan (a 22 percent reduction8). Most of those who do itemize would see their taxes cut as well. For example, a family of four (a married couple with two kids) who itemizes, earns $130,000, pays $1,500 a month in mortgage interest, gives $3,000 a year to charity, and pays 5 percent in state taxes (assuming that the state allows the same deductions and exemptions as the federal government, except for the deduction for state taxes), and who currently has no other deductions, would save $673 in taxes from this provision alone—and $4,312 overall from this plan (a 26 percent reduction9).10
Streamlining the Tax Code
Politicians and pundits often maintain that reducing the number of tax brackets simplifies the tax code. In truth, however, what makes the tax code so maddeningly complex has almost nothing to do with the number of tax brackets. Indeed, reducing the number of brackets would have little effect other than to make the tax code less smooth. Take the prospect of taxpayers having to pay, say, a 15-percent tax rate up to a certain point and then having to pay, say, a 35-percent tax rate on any additional money earned. Such a situation is basically the opposite of a flat tax—instead of facing a level field of taxation, or even a relatively smooth incline, the taxpayer abruptly slams into a tax wall upon reaching a certain income level.
What truly would simplify the tax code, however, and make it more transparent, is reducing the number of different taxes people must pay. Right now, at the federal level, Americans have to pay income tax, Social Security payroll tax, and Medicare payroll tax. The Main Street Tax Plan would eliminate the Medicare payroll tax. Doing so would particularly ease the tax burden of the working poor, many of whom pay more in Medicare tax than in income tax. (In addition, this plan would simplify the tax code by ending most income-based phaseouts and eliminating most deductions, credits, or exemptions in the individual tax code—including the deduction for state and local taxes11—while preserving the mortgage interest deduction (for one home) and the charitable deduction.)
The Main Street Tax Plan does not touch the Social Security payroll tax or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), because they both function very differently from regular income tax and should be regarded as distinct entities. Social Security is largely a pay-in-for-yourself program (imperfectly so, to be sure—but still essentially so). The EITC, meanwhile, was designed to offset the adverse work-disincentives caused by (other) federal welfare programs. Whatever their merits, the reason for both the Social Security tax and the EITC is clear.
Only the Main Street Tax Plan was scored by the Tax Foundation as benefitting the typical American more than the top one percent.
In contrast, there is no real justification for the Medicare payroll tax—and whatever rationale there might once have been is becoming less compelling by the day. Unlike Social Security, Medicare is not a pay-in-for-yourself program—not remotely. Whereas people stop paying into Social Security after they earn $118,500 in income—because they have then paid in for themselves—under Medicare, they pay in perpetually, with richer people also paying in at a higher tax rate than poorer people. The Medicare payroll tax, then, is like a mini income tax. The Main Street Tax Plan would simplify the tax code by getting rid of this needless de facto second income tax.
Moreover (and, again, unlike Social Security), Medicare isn’t remotely self-funded. According to the Medicare Trustees Report, a larger portion of Medicare funding comes from general revenues—mostly funded through income taxes—than from the Medicare payroll tax. In fact, the Medicare payroll tax covered only 37 percent of Medicare’s costs in 201412—and is projected to cover less than a third by 2023, and even less from that point forward.13
Unlike the Social Security payroll tax, the Medicare payroll tax is a needless de facto second income tax.
In this light, either of two options make sense: The Medicare payroll tax should be roughly tripled, so as to make Medicare a truly self-funded program. Or the Medicare payroll tax should be eliminated, and Medicare should be financed like every other non-self-funded, non-pay-in-for-yourself program: through general revenues.
The current halfway house, of having a little over a third of Medicare be funded through a separate tax, needlessly complicates the tax code and helps mask both Americans’ tax burdens and Medicare’s financial woes. What’s more, reducing the Medicare payroll tax without eliminating it, as some have proposed, would be the worst of all worlds—as it would maintain the fiscal fiction that Medicare is a self-funded program while simultaneously making it even less self-funded than it is today. Medicare should either become genuinely self-financed or should be financed out of general revenues.
The Main Street Tax Plan chooses the latter course, which would be far better for low-income workers. In fact, freed from the Medicare payroll-tax burden, any married couple (without children) who doesn’t itemize their taxes would get a tax cut under this plan, as would any single person (without children) who doesn’t itemize. (Most of those who do itemize, and most of those with children, would get tax cuts as well.)
Moreover, under this plan, there wouldn’t be less money available for Medicare but more. According to the Tax Foundation’s scoring, $679 billion in additional revenues would be available over a decade to be spent on Medicare or whatever else—whereas under current law, that money either wouldn’t be available or would have to be borrowed. To be clear, the hope here would be that this $679 billion would go toward deficit reduction, leaving the same amount of money to be spent on Medicare and other federal programs as under current law. Still, the point remains: This tax plan’s elimination of the Medicare payroll tax, combined with its other pro-growth provisions, would leave more money available to be spent on Medicare, not less.
Giving Citizens Skin in the Game
One of the central notions on which the Main Street Tax Plan is based is that nearly everyone should be paying something in income tax, however small, and Americans shouldn’t regard April 15 as a payday. Accordingly, under this plan, no one’s regular income-tax rate could go negative. People could still get a refundable tax credit in the form of the EITC or the new health insurance and HSA tax credits proposed in “An Alternative to Obamacare,” but their regular income-tax rate could not go below zero. In other words, all tax credits not involving the EITC or health care would be made non-refundable.14
Some commentators argue that if people are paying payroll taxes, that’s sufficient. But those who are not paying income tax are not helping to fund national defense, national parks, or any of the regular costs of government. Because they are not contribut-ing, they perhaps have less incentive to consider the cost of federal programs. This tax plan would broaden the income-tax base by reducing the standard deduction by $1,000 per person and $2,000 per couple, thereby giving more citizens skin in the game. (Anyone who would be added to the income-tax rolls under this provision would still get an overall federal tax cut, due to the elimination of the Medicare payroll tax.)15
Ending the Marriage Penalty
The current tax code often penalizes marriage.16 Take, for example, two single people making $75,000 a year, with one of them having two children. Under current law (assuming they don’t itemize their taxes but instead claim the standard deduction), the person with children pays $7,935 in federal taxes (apart from Social Security tax), while the person without children pays $14,144; so, together they pay $22,079. If they were to get married (and their incomes didn’t change), they would instead have to pay $26,288—for a marriage penalty of $4,209 in that year alone, with similar marriage penalties in the years to follow.
Nearly everyone should be paying something in income tax, however small, and Americans shouldn’t regard April 15 as a payday.
Under the Main Street Tax Plan, meanwhile, they would collectively pay $19,106 if they were not married and $19,105 if they were—for a marriage bonus of $1 (the dollar being the result of a rounding error). To eliminate the marriage penalty, three main things must be done, and this plan would do all three: eliminate the head-of-household filing status; make the married tax brackets double the size of the single tax brackets; and stop income-testing the child tax credit.17 Most tax plans don’t do all three of these things—so while they may reduce the marriage penalty, they don’t actually eliminate it (see the chart on pp. 16-17).18
Neither Rewarding nor Punishing Americans for Having Children
It is important that the tax code not discourage Americans from having children. At the same time, everyone—singles, couples, families with children— should be taxed on the basis of their financial well-being, rather than being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their family size.
The Marco Rubio-Mike Lee tax plan claims that the current tax code contains a “parent tax penalty.”19 In truth, however, this “parent tax penalty” doesn’t exist—at least not for most taxpayers. Indeed, the reverse is closer to the truth, at least for the working class and the center of the middle class. Parents in that income-range get a better deal from the tax code than do single people or married couples without children.
Everyone should be taxed on the basis of their financial well-being, rather than being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their family size.
To better gauge financial well-being in light of family size, this author has developed a measure called Modified Percent of Poverty, or MPP (see the right-hand column of the chart on pp. 16-17). MPP starts with the federal government’s own percent-of-poverty figure. It then modifies it to reflect the fact that, if it costs about $4,000 to raise a child at the poverty level (as the government says), that doesn’t mean that a couple whose income is 100 times the poverty level, or about $1.6 million, needs another $400,000 in income to maintain their same standard of living if they have a child. That is, as income rises, the cost of raising a child rises along with it, but not proportionally. (For more on MPP, see the appendix at the end of this publication.) MPP shouldn’t be treated as gospel, but it is a useful tool for gauging financial well-being.
Using this measure, one can see that for most working-class or middle-class Americans, the tax code is already disproportionately generous to those (whether married or single) with children. For example, a married couple who makes $25,000 and has no children, and whose MPP is 157 percent, pays a federal tax rate of 4.6 percent.20 Meanwhile, a family of four (a married couple with two children) who makes $50,000, and whose MPP is 222 percent, pays a federal tax rate of just 3.4 percent. This family is better off financially than this married couple, yet the family pays just three-quarters of the couple’s tax rate. (The assumption in all of these examples is that the taxpayers don’t itemize.)
Moreover, one need not rely on MPP to come to this conclusion. Even just based on the federal government’s own (unmodified) percent-of-poverty tallies,21 the income of the family in question is about twice the poverty level (206 percent), while the couple’s income is only about one-and-a-half times the poverty level (157 percent—the same as under MPP); yet the family pays a lower tax rate.
Likewise, a single person (with no children) making $25,000, whose MPP is 212 percent, pays a federal tax rate of 9.7 percent. In comparison, a single parent who makes $70,000 and has two children, and whose MPP is 415 percent, actually pays a lower rate: 9.4 percent. Even based on the federal government’s own (unmodified) percent-of-poverty tallies, the income of this single person without kids is barely over twice the poverty level (212 percent—the same as under MPP), while the income of this single-parent family is nearly three-and-a-half times the poverty level (348 percent). Indeed, the government’s own tallies suggest that this single-parent family would still be better off than this single person even if the family’s income were just $45,000 (in which case the family would pay a tax rate of only 4.8 percent—half of what the single person pays). Far from a “parent tax penalty,” the current tax code—at least in this income-range—offers a parent tax bonus.
The situation changes, however, for the upper-middle-class. For many upper-middle-class families, the tax code arguably does disincentivize having children—a policy that would seem ill-advised. For example, a family of five (with married parents) who makes $140,000, and whose MPP is 621 percent, pays a federal tax rate of 14.8 percent. Meanwhile, a married couple who makes $100,000 and has no kids, and whose MPP is slightly higher—at 628 percent—pays a lower federal tax rate: 14.1 percent. If the family of five instead paid a tax rate of 14.0 percent—more in keeping with their financial well-being in relation to the couple, according to MPP—it would drop their tax burden by more than $1,000.
The Main Street Tax Plan would address all of these concerns by cutting the existing child tax credit in half (from $1,000 to $500 per child), no longer income-testing it, and adding a child tax deduction of $2,000 per child. (As noted above, this change would have the added benefit of being a key element in eliminating the marriage penalty, which partly results from income-testing the child tax credit.) The combination of these three things would cause people’s tax rates to line up much better with their actual financial well-being (as the chart on pp. 16-17 helps demonstrate).
This plan would convert the first quarter of the 25-percent tax bracket into a 20-percent tax bracket.
This tax plan would take an additional step toward tax equity and simplification, moreover, by changing and streamlining how the tax code handles child-care expenses. Parents who rely on child care often have a large share of their earnings eaten up by child-care payments; yet, apart from a child-care tax credit that usually works out to $600 per child and is capped at two children, they are taxed on their full income, even though their “net” income, after their child-care payments are subtracted, may be much lower. This tax plan would provide tax relief for a great many working parents by converting the relatively complicated child-care tax credit into a simple child-care tax deduction, making it available to people of all incomes, and allowing half of all child-care expenses up to $10,000 per child to be deducted. In other words, working parents would be able to deduct up to $5,000 per child for child care. Right now, a single mother who makes $58,000 and pays $27,000 in total for her three children’s child care gets a child-care tax credit of $1,200, thereby reducing her tax burden by that same $1,200. Under this proposal, she would instead be able to deduct $13,500 from her taxable income (half of $27,000), which, given her marginal tax rate of 15 percent, would reduce her tax burden by $2,025—or $825 more than under current law.
The combination of these reforms would go a long way toward providing equal tax treatment for those with and without children.
Reforming Business Taxation
In addition to lowering the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and allowing the full expensing of all capital investments, this tax plan would end the preference for debt-financing by eliminating the business tax deduction for interest paid. For international business, this plan would adopt a two-thirds “territorial,” one-third “worldwide” tax system. That is, because it makes little sense to have a system that incentivizes American companies to keep money abroad—as the current tax code does—this plan would end deferrals and tax foreign profits at one-third of the difference between U.S. and foreign corporate income-tax rates (if the U.S. rate is higher). In the short term, this plan would create a deemed repatriation of previously deferred profits, taxing them at half of the difference between current U.S. and foreign income-tax rates (payable over a decade).22
A Comparison of Tax Plans
The chart on pp. 16-17 highlights how various taxpayers would be affected by each of five different tax plans: the Main Street Tax Plan; the Marco Rubio plan; the Ted Cruz plan; the Jeb Bush plan; and a hypothetical 20-percent flat tax (which is designed to be relatively politically viable, in part by eliminating the Medicare payroll tax—a reform that would disproportionally help lower-income tax-payers, who wouldn’t generally benefit from a flat tax.)
Four representative examples (each highlighted on the chart in yellow)—a typical single person, a typical large family, a typical upper-middle-class family, and a well-off single person—help demonstrate the real-world impact these respective tax plans would have on taxpayers of various family compositions and income levels.
The first example is a single person making $30,000 a year, who (if not itemizing, which is the assumption in all of these examples) pays $3,364 (or 11.1 percent) in federal taxes under current law (apart from Social Security tax and EITC, which—for reasons explained above—are not included in any of these tallies, and including both the employee and employer share of the Medicare payroll tax). This person’s taxes would increase by 0.2 percent under Rubio, and they would decrease by 13 percent under the flat tax, 20 percent under Cruz, 21 percent under the Main Street Tax Plan, and 30 percent under Bush.
It makes little sense to have a system that incentivizes American companies to keep money abroad.
The second example is a family of six, with married parents, making $100,000 a year and paying $7,488 (or 7.4 percent) in federal taxes under current law. This family’s taxes would increase by 20 percent under the flat tax, and they would decrease by 24 percent under the Main Street Tax Plan, 31 percent under Cruz, 43 percent under Bush, and 101 percent under Rubio (going negative).
In the third example, a family of five with married parents making $140,000 a year23 pays $20,998 (or 14.8 percent) in federal taxes under current law. This family’s taxes would decrease under all four plans—by 13 percent under the flat tax, 18 percent under Bush, 23 percent under Cruz, 30 percent under the Main Street Tax Plan, and 43 percent under Rubio.
The fourth and final example is a single person making $250,000 a year, who pays $70,407 (or 27.8 percent) in federal taxes under current law. This person’s taxes would increase by 3 percent under Rubio, and they would decrease by 5 percent under the Main Street Tax Plan, 6 percent under Bush, 31 percent under Cruz, and 33 percent under the flat tax.
In short, the flat tax would be great for the single person making $250,000 and bad for the family of six making $100,000. The opposite would be true under the Rubio plan, with the family of five making $140,000 also benefitting greatly. The Bush plan would reduce taxes in each of the four examples by between 6 and 43 percent but—based on the Tax Foundation’s scoring—at a cost of $1.6 trillion in lost revenues (still far less than the $2.4 billion in projected lost revenues under Rubio). The Cruz plan would reduce taxes in each of the four examples by between 20 and 31 percent, but at the cost of introducing a VAT and reducing revenues by more than $750 billion. And for all but the single person making a quarter of a million dollars (whose taxes would be lowered by 5 percent), the Main Street Tax Plan would reduce taxes by between 21 and 30 percent—while raising revenues.
Finally, the Main Street Tax Plan and the flat tax would each end the marriage penalty, while the Bush, Cruz, and Rubio plans would reduce it but not eliminate it. As the example at the bottom of the chart on pp. 16-17 shows, if two single people, one with a child, make $70,000 apiece, they now face a collective federal tax bill of $21,289 a year (apart from the Social Security payroll tax). If they were to get married and their incomes were to stay the same, their federal tax bill would rise to $24,498—for a marriage penalty of $3,209. Worse, they would have to pay that penalty, or something close to it, every year. Under the Main Street Tax Plan, the marriage penalty for this couple would be essentially $0 (-$1, to be exact); under the flat tax, it would be $0; under Cruz and Rubio, it would be $1,000; and under Bush, it would $1,857.24
The Main Street Tax Plan would cut Americans’ taxes, make the tax code simpler and fairer, end the marriage penalty, increase the size of the U.S. economy by an estimated $2 trillion, and raise revenues by an estimated $679 billion. It would follow in the footsteps of the Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts—each of which spurred a decade or so of prosperity—while also emphasizing fiscal responsibility. In sum, it would improve the lives of everyday Americans and strengthen the nation’s financial well-being.
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