Thursday, August 31, 2017 1:40 pm
Fact-checking President Trump's speech on his tax plan
GLENN KESSLER and MICHELLE YE HEE LEE | Washington Post
President Donald Trump on Wednesday delivered an address on his "principles" for a tax plan in Springfield, Missouri, though he provided few details. He also shifted from extolling how well the economy is doing to language that suggested the United States was suffering terribly.
As usual, some of the president's facts and figures were a bit fishy, so here's a roundup of 10 of his claims:
1. "In the last 10 years, our economy has grown at only around 2 percent a year."
This is misleading. By going back 10 years, Trump includes the worst recession since the Great Depression, which brings down the 10-year average. The quarterly average since the recession was well above 2 percent, even hitting 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014. The GDP growth rate for the United States averaged 3.22 percent from 1947 to 2017.
2. "We just announced that we hit 3 percent in GDP. Just came out. And on a yearly basis, as you know, the last administration, during an eight-year period, never hit 3 percent."
Trump plays some sleight-of-hand with the numbers. He first cites an annualized quarterly figure -- 3 percent GDP growth in the second quarter of 2017 -- and then compares it to what appears to be calendar-year figures for former president Barack Obama.
The economy grew better than 3 percent in eight quarters during Obama's presidency, most recently in the third quarter of 2016. (Technically, this is known as "annualized quarterly change" or SAAR -- seasonally adjusted at annual rate.) Trump gets his terminology wrong, using the phrase "yearly basis," which could mean from the third quarter of 2015 to the third quarter of 2016, in which case Obama easily exceeded 3 percent numerous times. On an annual basis, Obama's best year was 2015, when annual growth was 2.6 percent.
3. "If we achieve sustained 3 percent growth, that means 12 million new jobs and $10 trillion of new economic activity over the next decade. That's some numbers."
With this statement, Trump downgrades promises he made during the 2016 campaign -- he said he would achieve 4 percent GDP growth and 25 million jobs during 10 years.
4. "In 1935, the basic 1040 form that most people file had two simple pages of instruction. Today, that basic form has 100 pages of instructions, and it's pretty complex stuff."
Trump is correct that in 1935, the basic 1040 individual income tax form had two pages of instructions, but this claim needs historical context.
There are many reasons the instructions were so simple back then -- including that just about 4 percent of the population paid the federal individual income tax. In 1935, the individual income tax largely was a tax on the wealthy. In fact, the top rate in 1935 was 63 percent -- and President Franklin D. Roosevelt raised it to 75 percent later that year.
This changed with World War II. "Driven by staggering revenue needs, lawmakers in both parties agreed to raise taxes on everyone: rich, poor, and -- especially -- the middle class," wrote John Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project.
5. "The tax code is so complicated that more than 90 percent of Americans need professional help to do their own taxes."
This is misleading. The 90 percent figure he is referring to includes people using tax software, such as Turbo Tax, which helps people file their taxes on their own. According to the National Taxpayer Advocate's 2016 report, 54 percent of individual taxpayers pay preparers and about 40 percent of individual taxpayers use software that costs about $50 or more.
Yet later during the speech, he made it sound as though the "professional help" is only referring to hired accountants: "That is why tax reform must dramatically simplify the tax code . . . and allow the vast majority of our citizens to file their taxes on a single, simple page without having to hire an accountant."
6. "Our last major tax rewrite was 31 years ago. It eliminated dozens of loopholes and special interest tax breaks, reduced the number of tax brackets from 15 to two, and lowered tax rates for both individuals and businesses. At the time it was really something special . . . In 1986, Ronald Reagan led the world by cutting our corporate tax rate to 34 percent. That was below the average rate for developed countries at the time. Everybody thought that was a monumental thing that happened. But then, under this pro-America system, our economy boomed. It just went beautifully right through the roof. The middle class thrived, and median family income increased."
Trump heaped praise on Reagan's Tax Reform Act of 1986, which simplified tax brackets and eliminated tax shelters; it also lowered the top individual tax rate to 28 percent but raised the capital gains rate to the same level, giving them parity. But this is a rather strange flip-flop because Trump always has been a fierce critic of the bill, blaming it repeatedly for the savings and loan crisis, a decline in real estate investing and the 1990-91 recession.
"This tax act was just an absolute catastrophe for the country, for the real estate industry, and I really hope that something can be done," Trump told Congress in 1991. In a TV interview with Joan Rivers, he said: "What caused the savings and loan crisis was the 1986 tax law change. It was a disaster. It took all of the incentives away from investors."
Trump also frequently attacked one of the Democratic sponsors of the bill, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., such as in a Wall Street Journal commentary in 1999. "Mr. Bradley's last big idea to be enacted into legislation was also one of the worst ideas in recent history," Trump wrote, saying Bradley was responsible for the elimination of a tax shelter for real estate investments. (He said the good parts of the bill could be attributed to Reagan.)
7. "We lost the jobs. We lost the taxes. They closed the buildings. They closed the plants and factories. We got nothing but unemployment. We got nothing."
As Trump frequently notes, the unemployment rate in July was 4.3 percent -- the lowest level in 16 years. So this overwrought language seems misplaced.
8. "We have gone from a tax rate that is lower than our economic competitors, to one that is more than 60 percent higher. . . . In other words, foreign companies have more than a 60 percent tax advantage over American companies."
The United States certainly has one of the highest statutory corporate tax rates in the world, currently pegged as high as 39.1 percent when including state taxes. (The federal rate is 35 percent.) Trump says it is 60 percent higher than "our economic competitors," comparing 39.1 percent to the average rate for the other members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is 25.5 percent when not weighted for GDP. (It is 29.6 percent when weighted for GDP.)
But the official rate does not necessarily tell the whole story. What also matters is the actual tax a company pays after deductions and tax benefits. That is known as the effective tax rate, which can be calculated differently depending on the survey. According to the Congressional Research Service, the effective rate for the United States is 27.1 percent, compared to an effective GDP-weighted average of 27.7 percent for the OECD. "Although the U.S. statutory tax rate is higher, the average effective rate is about the same, and the marginal rate on new investment is only slightly higher," the CRS says.
The Congressional Budget Office, when it examined the issue, said the U.S. effective tax rate was 18.6 percent, which it said was among the highest of the biggest economic powers, the Group of 20.
Trump, naturally, used the numbers that suggest the difference is really huge.
9. "Today, we are still taxing our businesses at 35 percent, and it's way more than that. And think of it, in some cases, way above 40 percent when you include state and local taxes in various states. The United States is now behind France, behind Germany, behind Canada, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and many other nations."
As we noted, the statutory federal corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, making the United States the highest among G-20 countries, including the countries Trump listed. But the effective corporate tax rate in the United States in 2012 was 18.6 percent, making it the fourth highest among G-20 countries, behind Argentina, Japan and Britain, according to the CBO.
10. "Because of our high tax rate and horrible, outdated, bureaucratic rules, large companies that do business overseas will often park their profits offshore to avoid paying a high United States tax if the money is brought back home. So they leave the money over there. The amount of money we're talking about is anywhere from $3 trillion to $5 trillion."
There are no official, current numbers on the profits held overseas by U.S. companies, just estimates. The White House would not respond to a query on where Trump is getting these numbers, but his high-end figure appears to be an exaggeration. The Internal Revenue Service in 2012 said the figure was $2.3 trillion, and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that it had risen to $2.6 trillion in 2015. There are other estimates as well, but none top $2.8 trillion, according to PolitiFact.