I spent some time Monday playing around with the excellent tax calculator that Alvin Chang and the Tax Policy Center built. The tool lets you estimate what the tax plans released by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz would mean for your tax bill — but, more than that, it offers a window into the fundamental ways in which the four candidates are very, very different from one another.
Let's take a family making $100,000 — a hefty income, to be sure, but a useful one for illustration. Trump would give you a $6,040 tax cut. Cruz would give you a $3,290 tax cut. Clinton would raise your taxes by $70. Sanders would raise your taxes by $14,130. But that's the beginning, not the end, of the story.
The calculator: How much does each candidate's tax plan affect you?
What you see here is that Clinton is the candidate of something close to the status quo — she raises taxes on the rich by a bit, and cuts taxes on the poor by a bit, but the change is modest in both directions. The federal government under a Clinton administration would look much like it does under the Obama administration. The other candidates, however, are not candidates of the status quo.
Cruz and Trump are offering tax cuts of extraordinary size — and they haven't said a word about how they'll pay for them. The Tax Policy Center estimates Cruz's tax cut at more than $8 trillion and Trump's at more than $9 trillion. Trump's tax cut, amazingly, is equal to 45 percent of projected income tax revenue in the United States.
In a sense, both GOP candidates are gaming the calculator: They've proposed tremendous cuts, but without knowing who will pay for those cuts, it's hard to know who will truly be helped and who will be badly hurt. But if you assume those cuts would be paid for, then you have to assume fundamental change to the structure of the American state. (And if you assume they won't be paid for, then you have to assume everything Republicans have said about the dangers of deficits in recent years was a lie.)
To pay for his tax cut, Cruz would have to do something on the order of eliminating Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, all federal education spending (including Pell Grants, K-12 subsidies, Head Start, etc.), all federal spending on justice (including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal court system, etc.), all international spending (close all embassies, zero out aid to Israel), all federal transportation systems, and all veterans spending. To pay for his tax cut, Trump would have to do everything Cruz did and then find another trillion dollars in savings.
So the three options, when evaluating Crux and Trump, is to believe they are lying about their tax plans, lying about their commitment to fiscal responsibility, or planning changes to the federal government that dwarf anything we've seen in memory. This is why the calculator is so useful — the radicalism of their agendas is obscured by the absence of details but revealed by the size of their tax cuts.
Sanders, meanwhile, proposes to raise taxes by more than Trump proposes to cut them. But it's wrong, I think, to view Sanders's plan as primarily a change to America's tax code. The huge tax increases are a byproduct of Sanders's plans to nationalize major sectors of American life.
In that way, Sanders is doing what Cruz and Trump are doing in reverse. Their tax plans reveal that they are dissolving massive swaths of the state into tax cuts; Sanders's plans speak to the fact that he's absorbing massive swaths of the private sector into the state. Unlike Cruz and Trump, of course, Sanders has been specific about his ideas — the biggest driver here by far is Sanders's single-payer health care plan, which would cost more than $10 trillion but which would be replacing an equal (and, if the plan succeeded in saving money, greater) amount being spent on private health care.
Sanders would also make huge investments in subsidizing public college tuition, upgrading America's infrastructure, expanding Social Security, and more. (Head here for a helpful list of Sanders's proposed programs and their pay-fors.)
As a rule, government spending is more progressive than the tax code that funds it. And so Cruz and Trump's tax and spending cuts would end up a regressive redistribution of money and services, while Sanders's tax and spending increases would be a sharply progressive redistribution of money.
But the price tags here clarify the reality of this election. The Republicans are down to two candidates who have a radically different vision of what the government should do; the Democrats are down to two candidates, one of whom has a radically different of vision of what the government should do, and another of whom offers broad continuity with what the government is doing now.