Donald Trump’s tax cuts benefit foreign investors more than the US middle class

The president and the king.
The president and the king.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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“America First” is taking on a whole new twist as Republicans in Washington develop a $1.5 trillion tax cut that will benefit foreign investors more than middling US earners.

A new analysis by Steve Rosenthal of the Tax Policy Center finds that tax cuts benefitting foreigners who own stock in US companies will total about $70 billion a year. In contrast, middle-income households in the US will only see $23 billion in savings, according to his organization’s preliminary estimates.

The analysis is based on the Unified Framework proposed by president Donald Trump and his allies in Congress, who have decided to move ahead on a tax plan without Democratic votes. The final plan to overhaul the entire tax code has yet to be shared in full with the public and could change, though Republican leaders say they expect the House to approve it before the end of November.

Rosenthal’s analysis is fairly straightforward: US capital flow statistics suggest that 35% of US equity is held by foreign investors; that’s more than is owned by US taxable shareholders, 401ks, pension plans, or American foundations. If the corporate tax is cut by more than 40%, Rosenthal estimates that their annual benefit will be about $70 billion, at current valuations.

The Tax Policy Center has examined the way the entire tax plan would affect American incomes. The average middle class household can expect their taxes lowered by about $660 annually, for a total savings of $23 billion. This only represents about a one percent increase in annual income, compared to a 2.4% increase expected for the top 20% of earners and a 5.7% increase in income for the top 1% of all earners.

Politically fraught economic outcomes—like a tax plan that benefits the very wealthy most of all—are difficult to avoid when simply cutting tax rates. But a plan that benefits the foreign wealthy more than American middle class is a relatively new wrinkle; the last time the US overhauled its corporate tax system in 1986, foreign investors owned a relatively small amount of American equities. That has changed dramatically in the last thirty years, adding an unexpected challenge to a president elected on an explicit platform of advancing US interests at the expense of outsiders.

Last week, we saw a preview of how the White House would fight this battle. The Council of Economic Advisers released a report arguing that the corporate tax cuts would increase average US wages by $4,000. However, these estimates rely on disputed estimates of how corporate tax cuts affect wages that far exceed those used by most forecasters.

There’s no question that cutting corporate taxes should deliver some benefits to workers, but the method by which those benefits will reach them is by no means straightforward. As tax expert Howard Gleckman writes, ”lower US corporate tax rates must attract lots of new investment capital. Corporations must use the money to purchase a lot of new equipment for their US businesses. All that new investment must make US workers much more productive. And, finally, that productivity growth must translate into far higher wages.”

That will take time; how much time, no one knows. And that’s what makes this sale so tricky for Republicans; they must convince American workers that a windfall to foreign investors now is worth a potential raise at some indefinite time in the future.