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How the Republican tax cuts are failing workers, in one chart

Republicans said corporate tax cuts would boost wages. They’re not.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) visits the New Balance shoe factory at which he discussed tax reform on July 20, 2017 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
House Speaker Paul Ryan visits the New Balance shoe factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at which he discussed tax reform on July 20, 2017.
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

When Republicans delivered $1.5 trillion in tax cuts last December and slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, they said it would come with a big wage boost for American workers. Except it hasn’t.

Over the weekend, this chart from Bloomberg showing private data from PayScale’s wage index swept across Twitter. It shows a drop in wages in the second quarter of the year. While wages have risen by 12.9 percent overall since 2006, wages adjusted for inflation (so-called “real wages”) have actually fallen by 9.3 percent.

And between the first and second quarters of 2018 — after the tax cuts were enacted — real wages fell by 1.8 percent.

As Noah Smith, the Bloomberg writer who highlighted the PayScale data in a story on the tax bill’s benefits for workers — or, rather, lack thereof — points out, official Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the second quarter isn’t available yet. Two quarters might be too early to gauge the tax bill’s effects on wages.

Still, the data out there is discouraging: According to the BLS, wages and salaries increased by about 2.7 percent year over year in the first three months of 2018. That’s pretty much in line with inflation. And even as unemployment levels are historically low, worker pay isn’t rising.

It’s not that corporations don’t have more money — it’s that they have no particular reason to give that money to workers.

The Republican tax bill has been a major windfall for corporations and the wealthy.

According to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the top fifth of earners get 70 percent of the bill’s benefits, and the top 1 percent get 34 percent. The new tax treatment for “pass-through” entities — companies organized as sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, or S corporations — will mean an estimated $17 billion in tax savings for millionaires in 2018. American corporations are showering their shareholders with stock buybacks, thanks in part to their tax savings, and have returned nearly $700 billion to investors this year.

When the tax bill was passed, a number of corporations announced bonuses and investments. Some of those were recycled news, and regardless, while a $1,000 one-time payout is a nice boost, it is not a sustained benefit to workers in the same way a wage increase is.

Some Republicans have even admitted that the tax cuts aren’t the boost to workers they promised. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) this spring said there is “no evidence whatsoever that money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.” President Donald Trump has already started talking about a new tax bill that would reduce the corporate tax rate even more and make temporary tax cuts for families and individuals permanent.

Further complicating the matter for the GOP: Trump’s trade war, which could wipe out the benefits of the tax bill altogether, including any potential boosts to wages. Former top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn said in a June interview that the White House’s tariff battle could increase inflation and consumer debt and erase any positives from the tax cuts.

The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation estimates that Trump’s enacted and proposed tariffs completely reverse the tax bill’s positive effects on the labor force. It estimates the tariffs enacted so far will reduce wages by 0.04 percent and eliminate more than 48,000 jobs. If the White House enacts every tariff it’s threatened, it would reduce wages by 0.26 percent and slash 277,000 jobs.

In an appearance on CNBC last week, Trump bragged that the United States was essentially “playing with the bank’s money” in launching a trade war because the stock market is up so high. American workers who aren’t seeing their wages rise would likely disagree.