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Analysts: Donald Trump changed his tax plan and made it even more tilted toward the rich

Donald Trump Holds Rally In Wilkes-Barre, PA Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Donald Trump insists that he’s grown up a lot recently. While he might have bragged about sexually assaulting women when he was a young, immature 59-year-old, he’s different now.

As it is with the candidate, so it is with his tax plan. Trump’s first plan was amateur hour: a $11.2 trillion behemoth that would set a top tax rate of 25 percent and send the richest Americans $1.3 million apiece, while offering much less to the poor and middle class.

So upon winning the GOP nomination, Trump came up with a second and then a third plan. The rates would be slightly higher, with a top bracket of 33 percent, just like Paul Ryan has proposed, so that it was less ridiculously costly. Trump's massive expansion of the standard deduction was dialed back. Measures to promote child care were included to show the middle class could benefit too.

Just one problem: The plan is still a massively expensive giveaway to the rich. A new analysis released by the Tax Policy Center on Tuesday reveals that the latest version of Trump's plan would cost $7.2 trillion — less than his first plan, but still an astonishing figure. It more than doubles the size of George W. Bush's tax cuts.

Astonishingly, the new plan is even more tilted toward the rich than Trump's first plan. That plan spent 35 percent of its price tag giving the top 1 percent tax breaks; the new plan spends 47.3 percent of its cost on the top 1 percent. Nearly a quarter of the cost comes from cuts to the top 0.1 percent alone.

Meanwhile, TPC also unveiled a new analysis of Hillary Clinton’s tax plans, showing they’d have nearly the opposite effect: They’d raise $1.4 trillion, cut taxes on the bottom 80 percent of Americans, but sharply increase them for the top 1 and 0.1 percent. It’s practically a mirror image of the Trump proposal.

Why Trump’s plan is still so expensive and regressive

The latest Trump tax plan took a number of steps to cut costs. It bumped up tax rates across the board; whereas the first plan had brackets of 10, 20, and 25 percent, the revised version has 12, 25, and 33. It also sharply reduced the standard deduction expansion Trump was proposing. He initially wanted a deduction of $25,000 for singles and $50,000 for couples; now it's $15,000 and $30,000. It capped the value of itemized deductions at $100,000 ($200,000 for couples).

Initially, it appeared that the campaign was taking another huge step to cut costs by changing how the plan would tax businesses. Trump would cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, and the initial version of his plan applied that rate not only to C corporations — the kind of companies that pay corporate taxes today — but to “pass-through” entities like partnerships, sole proprietorships, and S corporations, which don’t pay corporate taxes and instead distribute their profits to their owners, who then pay normal income taxes on them.

This was a huge, huge tax break for the overwhelmingly rich segment of the population that relies on pass-through income. Rather than pay a top rate of 39.6 percent, or even 33 percent after Trump’s cuts, they’d pay a mere 15 percent. It should probably be noted, at this point, that most of Trump’s own business efforts are organized as pass-through entities. His losses from those companies were what let him evade taxes for several years. He was essentially proposing a big tax cut for the Trump Organization.

When the new plan was announced, the Trump campaign told the right-leaning Tax Foundation that the pass-through cut was a goner. That made sense; it cost around $1 trillion over 10 years and was one of the most deeply regressive parts of Trump’s plan. But at the same time, the campaign was also telling a small-business group, the National Federation of Independent Business, that the pass-through cut was still a go, earning NFIB's endorsement in the process. When the New York Times's Binyamin Appelbaum reached out to the Trump campaign, it was vague but suggested the pass-through cut was there to stay.

Revenue effects of the Trump tax plan.
Revenue effects of the Trump tax plan.
Tax Policy Center

So the Tax Policy Center assumed the pass-through cut was there to stay. Trump tweaked the plan a bit so that it now costs “only” $900 billion, but it’s still a major expense.

It gets worse, though. TPC also estimated what would happen once people realize there’s a huge tax break for pass-throughs. There’d be a major incentive to start fake sole proprietorships and the like to take advantage of that.

For instance, imagine Trump’s plan took effect, and I was paying the 25 percent rate in the middle on my wages from Vox Media. Then I went to Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein and said, “As I’ve explained on the site, Trump gives a massive tax break to pass-throughs. So I propose that instead of working for a wage, I form a sole proprietorship that then contracts with Vox Media to provide content.” The money Vox paid me then would be business income. I’d pay a significantly lower rate on it.

TPC estimates that a lot of people would do that. That costs another $650 billion over 10 years. Over a 20-year horizon, as more and more people shift to doing business that way, the total cost of the pass-through cut is about $3.3 trillion. “The amount of avoidance it could produce is really, really enormous,” TPC’s Jim Rosenberg told reporters. “Trillions of dollars over time.”

The total cost of the plan, including interest payments, is $7.2 trillion over 10 years. That’s about 26.2 percent of GDP by the end of that period. For comparison, George W. Bush's tax cuts were projected to cost 11.1 percent of GDP over 10 years. Trump's plan is nearly twice as costly.

That could have negative economic ramifications. That increase in the debt, all else being equal, should drive up interest rates as lenders start charging the US more to borrow, which in turn will increase interest rates across the whole economy, making it harder for private businesses to borrow. TPC’s Len Burman told reporters that the center is working on a dynamic analysis to see how the plan would affect economic growth, but the interest rate issue means Trump’s tax plan would “almost certainly score as reducing growth” by the end of 10 years.

The distribution of Trump's tax cuts
Trump’s tax cuts are tilted very very heavily toward the ultra rich. Like him.
Tax Policy Center

Keeping that cut — along with the rate cuts, the cut in the hugely progressive corporate income tax, the abolishment of the estate and alternative minimum taxes, etc. — helps ensure that Trump’s plan is still hugely regressive. The richest top 0.1 percent would get a tax cut worth more than 14 percent of their income, on average. That's $1.1 million each, only slightly less than Trump's original plan. The lowest quintile would only get $110 on average. And because Trump eliminates a number of tax benefits for middle-class families, TPC confirms that a sizable minority of taxpayers in the middle will see taxes rise.

During the debate on Sunday, Trump attempted to argue that he’d get tough on the rich by closing the “carried interest” loophole, which lets hedge fund managers pay lower capital gains tax rates rather than normal ones on their income. He further emphasized the point by arguing, falsely, that Hillary Clinton doesn't want to close the loophole (she's proposed closing it for years) and, absurdly, that Clinton should have singlehandedly overcome all GOP opposition to closing the loophole while serving as a junior senator from New York.

But the TPC analysis points out that this is nonsense. Hedge funds, venture capital firms, private equity companies, and others affected by the carried interest loophole are almost always structured as pass-through companies. Currently their managers pay a top rate of 23.8 percent. Trump would not increase that to 33 percent, his top rate for individuals, as he implies. He would cut it to 15 percent, the new low rate he’s set for pass-through companies. He’s vocally insisting that he’s raising taxes on this group of investors, when he’s really cutting them substantially.

Hillary Clinton would cut taxes on most Americans, but raise them on the rich

Clinton's tax plan distribution
Hillary Clinton’s tax plan, in one chart.
Tax Policy Center

Alongside the Trump analysis, TPC also conducted a review of Hillary Clinton’s latest tax proposals, including her plan to expand the child tax credit for poor families and families with young children. That, TPC concludes, would cost about $208.7 billion over 10 years. But that's more than offset by her tax increases on the wealthy: higher estate taxes, a limit on tax expenditures for the wealthy, a 4 percent surtax on income over $5 million, the Buffett Rule, and more.

In total, TPC estimates that Clinton would raise $1.4 trillion over 10 years. Most of that is going to new spending plans, so it's unlikely Clinton would wind up reducing the debt. But other analysts have found that whatever effect she'd have on the deficit is tiny compared with Trump's.

TPC estimates that the bottom 80 percent of Americans would get small tax cuts, on average, under Clinton's plan. But the top 20 percent, and particularly the top 0.1 percent, would see big, big hikes. The richest Americans would pay over $800,000 more a year, on average. Clinton's plan, in other words, is nearly a mirror image of Trump's when it comes to distribution.

Update: The Trump has responded to TPC’s analysis:

For the record, TPC is a bipartisan, widely respected institution, and modeling the static, pre-economic effects consequences of policy proposals is standard practice. TPC is also working on an analysis of the plan’s economic impact but has not released it given some software problems. That seems like what an honest broker does in that situation.