Donald Trump’s tax plan seems to mark a new chapter in his presidency, from floundering around with strange and sometimes scary policies (bombings, border closings, saber rattling) to focusing on what actually matters and what can actually make the difference for the American people and the American economy.
Under Trump’s plan, taxes on corporate profits go from 35% to 15%. They should be zero (like the Bahamas), but this is a good start. Taxes on capital gains go from 23.8% to 20%. Again, it should be zero (as with New Zealand), but it is a start. Rates for all individuals are lowered to three: 10%, 25%, and 35%. The standard deduction for individuals is doubled (politically brilliant). The estate tax and the alternative minimum tax is gone. Popular deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest are preserved. The hare-brained idea of a “border adjustment tax” is toast.
All of this is wonderful, but the shining light of this plan is the dramatic reduction in taxes on corporate profits. The economics of this are based on a simple but profoundly true insight. Economic growth is the key to a good society. This is where good jobs come from. This is how technology improves. This is what gives everyone a brighter outlook on life. If you can imagine that your tomorrow will be more prosperous and flourishing than today, your life seems to be on track.
Tax Capital, Wreck Prosperity
Where does economic growth come from? For decades dating back perhaps a hundred-plus years, people imagined that it could come from government programs and policy manipulation. Surely there are some levers somewhere in the center of power that can cause this thing we call economic growth. We just need solid experts with power, resources, and intelligence to manage the system.
This turns out to be entirely wrong. It hasn’t worked. Since 2008, government has tried to mastermind an economic recovery. It has floundered. We are coming up on a full decade of this nonsense with economic growth barely crawling along. We are surviving, not thriving, and income growth, capital formation, and entrepreneurial opportunity restricted and punished at every turn.
The Trump tax plan is rooted in a much better idea. Economic growth must come from the private sector. It must come from investment in private capital. The owners of this capital who are doing well and earn profits should be allowed to keep them and invest them. This creates new job opportunities. It allows for more complex production strategies. It expands the division of labor.
The crucial institution here is capital. Sorry, anti-capitalists. It’s just true. Capital can be defined as the produced goods for production, not consumption. It is making things for the purpose of making other things. Think about it. Without capital, you can still have markets, creativity, hard work, enterprise. But so long as you have an absence of capital, you are forever floundering around just working to make and sell things for consumption. This is called living hand to mouth.
Without capital, and the private ownership of capital, and security over your property rights, you can’t have economic growth. You can’t have complex production. You can’t raise wages. You can’t live a better life. Every tax on capital, capital formation, capital accumulation, and business profit reduces the security of property rights over capital. This is a sure way to attack economic growth at its source.
And this is precisely what American policy has done. The rest of the world has been wising up about this, reducing taxes on capital for the last 15 years. But the US has languished in the mythology of the past, regarding capital not as a font of prosperity but rather a fund of stagnant resources to be pillaged by planners in government. It is not surprising that this strategy results in slow growth and even permanent recession.