The tax cuts were supposed to lead to an investment boom, which would increase productivity in the economy, which would then in turn provide a boost to real wages for most workers. That essentially didn’t happen of course, and it was simple enough to predict that with an economy already so rigged for the richest at the expense of everyone else.
It’s a bit less than a year since Congress passed the Trump tax cut, but we are far enough along that we can be fairly confident about its impact on the economy. There are three main lessons we can learn:
- The tax cut is to not leading to the promised investment boom;
- The additional demand generated by the tax cut is spurring growth and reducing the unemployment rate;
- The Federal Reserve Board’s interest rate hikes are slowing the economy in a way that is unnecessary given current inflation risks.
The Investment Boom: Just Like Jared Kushner’s Hidden Genius, No One Can See It
Taking these in turn, it is pretty clear at this point that we will not see the investment boom promised by proponents of the tax cut. This point really has to be front and center in any discussion of the benefits of the tax cut. By far, the largest chunk of the tax cut was the reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, along with various other measures lowering corporate taxes.
The immediate impact of a corporate tax cut is to give more money to the richest people in the country since stock ownership is highly skewed towards the top 10 percent of the income distribution and especially the top one percent.
The data for the first three quarters of 2018 indicate that this is not likely to happen. Investment is up modestly, but we’re clearly not seeing the promised boom. In the first three-quarters of 2018 investment was 6.7 percent higher than in the same period last year. By comparison, investment rose by 6.9 percent in 2014 and increased at a 9.1 percent annual rate from 2010 to 2012.
Much of the growth we have seen this year is not from tax cuts, but higher world energy prices spurring a boom in oil and gas drilling. If we pull out energy-related sectors, the rise in investment would be even less.
There is also no evidence of the promised investment boom in any of the various surveys showing business plans for the future. For example, the Commerce Department reported last week that new orders for non-defense capital goods, the largest component of investment, were up by less than 1.0 percent from their year-ago levels.
In short, at this point, it certainly looks like the skeptics were right. Cuts in corporate tax rates are not an effective way to boost investment, they are an effective way to give more money to rich people.
Larger Budget Deficits Can Boost Growth and Employment
The second point is that the tax cuts did boost demand. This meant more growth and more jobs than we would have otherwise. This is a very good story; the 3.7 percent unemployment rate is the lowest we have seen in almost 50 years. The Congressional Budget Office is projecting the unemployment rate will bottom out at 3.2 percent next year. Its pre-tax cut forecast had the unemployment rate at 4.2 percent in 2019.
When we get to low levels of unemployment the people who are getting jobs are overwhelmingly workers who are disadvantaged in the labor market, blacks, Hispanics, people with disabilities, and people with criminal records. The chance to get a foot in the labor market can make an enormous difference in their lives. We don’t have any social programs that can make as much difference for these people as say, lowering the unemployment rate from 4.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
In addition to giving people jobs, the tighter labor market also gives workers in the middle and bottom of the wage distribution the bargaining power to achieve real wage gains. While the rate of real wage growth has been disappointing given the low levels of unemployment, workers at the middle and bottom have been seeing real wage gains the last four years in contrast to earlier in the recovery when their wages were stagnant or declining. It is likely that the rate of real wage growth will pick up if the unemployment remains this low or goes lower.
While boosting growth with a larger deficit offers clear and substantial benefits, tax breaks to the rich were hardly the best way to do it. If we had spent the money on infrastructure, education, or even tax breaks to low and moderate income households, it would have boosted demand by even more. And, we would have seen a longer-term dividend of a more productive economy if we spent the money on infrastructure and education.
Obviously, the Republicans’ priority was giving more money to rich people and, given their control of the White House and Congress, it was inevitable that a tax cut for the rich would be the outcome. The Republican Congress blocked efforts by Obama to have any stimulus in his second term, but he really did not push the case. Many of Obama’s top economic advisers were fearful of deficits and were not anxious to see additional spending that was not offset with either tax increases or spending cuts in other areas.
We see from the economy’s response to the tax cut — increased growth, lower unemployment, and no evidence of accelerating inflation — that the economy could benefit from a larger budget deficit. It is unfortunate that we were only able to get this boost by giving still more money to rich people.