Our Unfair Tax System

The great Benjamin Franklin once said that there are few things inevitable in life than death and taxes. Nonetheless, like many things in American life, the tax system is also rigged. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the richest Americans pay less of their income in taxes than the rest of us. Not to mention, rich people are also known to take advantage of various loopholes in the tax code they take advantage of since we’ve all heard about the Panama Papers. But often we don’t realize how screwed up the American tax system could be, especially in recent years.

Over the past 8 years, budget cuts have crippled the IRS. As a result, enforcement staff has dropped by a third and audits have declined across the board. Now since everyone dislikes paying taxes, you may not see much of a problem with it. But when government agencies suffer from lack of funding long enough, you realize how much the American public needs them to adequately do their jobs. The IRS is no different. Without enough staff, it has slashed even basic functions. It has drastically pulled back from pursuing people who don’t bother filing their tax returns. Since 2011, new “non-filer” investigations dropped from 2.4 million to 362,000 in 2017. Since tracking down these people and businesses down, determining what they owe, and reviewing what they submit in response can be time consuming. According to the IRS inspector general, this results in at least $3 million in lost revenue each year. Collections from people who do file but don’t pay have also plummeted. Since tax obligations expire after 10 years should the IRS not pursue them. Before the budget cuts began, such expirations were relatively infrequent. In 2010, only $482 million in expirations lapsed. In 2017, the number was $8.3 billion, which is 17 times as much. While the IRS’s ability to investigate criminals has been stymied as well. All in all, these IRS budget cuts have cost an estimate of $18 billion a year, but the true cost can run tens of billions more. So much that many current and former IRS employees fear that the United States could be on the verge of an era of brazen tax cheating from which it can’t recover. By any objective this is catastrophic of law enforcement that deprives an already cash-strapped government of hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year.

What’s worse is that the IRS faces a structural political problem. After all, it’s never been a popular agency since nobody likes paying taxes to support vital government services that benefit the American people. On one side are the anti-tax Republicans who are perfectly happy with passing tax-cuts for the rich and has been very anti-IRS since the 1990s. In fact, decades of Republican attacks and budget cuts have left the IRS a shell of its former self. On the other side are Democrats afraid of publicly supporting the taxman since nobody likes paying taxes. Not to mention, not all rich tax evaders are Republican donors either.

For rich people and corporations, it means less thorough audits on their assets should the IRS stop by and more leeway to send their money in an overseas tax shelter. After all, they’re the biggest beneficiaries of the IRS’s decay since it takes specialized well-trained personnel to audit a business or billionaire or to uncover a tax scheme. Those IRS employees are leaving in droves and are taking their expertise with them, often to the private sector. Auditing taxpayers with accounts in tax havens is difficult. Revenue agents have to investigate the cheating’s scope to and figure out whether it’s intentional. Tracking down necessary documents from foreign countries can add frustrating delays. Thus, the average time for an offshore audit is usually 3 years. For the country’s largest corporations, the danger of being hit with a billion-dollar tax bill has greatly diminished. Since the rich evade taxes the most simply because they have the resources to do so, the IRS has become less of a force to be feared. For studies have shown that audits have made people less likely to dodge taxes in the future. Take away the enforcement, evaders are emboldened and grow in number.

For the poor who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, it may mean less audits. Yet, the audits are much more punishing. For someone living month-to-month, such exams can be devastating. That when ETIC recipients are audited, they’re less likely to claim the credit in the future. And because of a 2015 EITC law, EITC recipients are more likely to have their refund held. In 2017, ETIC recipients were audited at twice the rate of taxpayers making between $200,000 and $500,000 a year. Only those making more than $1 million were examined at significantly higher rates. In 2018, the IRS audited 381,000 ETIC recipients, which was among 36% of all audits the agency conducted that year, up from 33% in 2011 when the budget cuts began.

Now the Earned Income Tax Credit has had bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans alike since the 1970s. Conceived as a “work bonus” and welfare alternative, the program has grown over the subsequent decades. These days, the average credit is about $2,500 but the amount can exceed $6,000 for larger families. While the US Census Bureau has estimated that the EITC and the child tax credit together boost millions of children out of poverty every year more than any other government program. But unlike food stamps and Social Security, the EITC has no application process. Instead, taxpayers simply claim the credit on their tax returns. According to IRS estimates, millions of people get it wrong in both directions. Since about a fifth of US taxpayers don’t seek EITC while almost a quarter of the $74 billion paid out was “improperly” issued. And it’s that $17 billion estimate of “improper payments” is why the IRS focus on the EITC so much. However, some experts, including the IRS’s Tax Advocate Service, think this estimate is way too high. While one reason is it’s based on the outcome of audits. Since low-income taxpayers are much less likely to have competent representation to dispute the IRS’s conclusions.

Regardless of the precise error rate, the IRS acknowledges the problem’s primary cause isn’t fraud but the law itself. Since the law is too complex that it’s too easy for someone to think themselves eligible for EITC when they’re not. For instance, the same child might be a “dependent” but not a qualifying child under the EITC. While the IRS’s instructions to claiming credit run to 41 pages. As Washington and Lee law professor Michelle Lyon Drumbl told ProPublica, “My third-year law students, they sit down and study this material, and sometimes they still don’t get it.” And if third-year law students can’t determine who qualifies for EITC, then we shouldn’t hold low-income taxpayers’ improper claims against them.

In addition, since the 1990s, congressional Republicans have focused on these major problems and harshly criticized the IRS for failing to stop them. Despite that their rich donors’ overseas tax shelters pose a much larger problem than improper IRS refund payments to poor people. In 2015 congressional Republicans passed and President Barack Obama signed a bill requiring the IRS to hold EITC refunds until February 15 each year. The law’s purpose was to give the IRS more time to match tax returns with the corresponding W-2s to avoid misstatements of income. But it also meant that people to be audited are more likely to see their refund held instead of receiving the credit then undergoing the audit. For low-income taxpayers, that’s a crucial difference.

Furthermore, the IRS has a difficult task in auditing taxpayers claiming EITC because low-income families are often complicated. They’re more likely to be more multi-generational than more affluent filers as well as more likely to add or subtract household members from year to year. According to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, only about 48% of low-income households with children were married couples, while it was 75% for other households.

IRS computers choose who to audit. Should those taxpayers respond, someone must review the documents. According to attorneys from the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program, fewer employees to do that result in delays mounting in an already arduous process. Thus, it regularly takes more than a year to release a taxpayer’s refund, even if they have representation. As Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Mandi Matlock told Pro Publica, “If the service doesn’t have the personnel to evaluate evidence submitted in a timely manner, then they should not be initiating the exams in the first place.” The IRS makes the situation needlessly worse by conducting virtually all EITC audits by correspondence, which are automated as with most Americans’ interaction with the IRS. And the computer-generated letters are far from simple that a survey by the Taxpayer Advocate Service found that more than a quarter of audited EITC recipients didn’t understand why the IRS put them under a microscope.

Generally, in regards to taxes, we generally accept the notion that the more money you make, the more likely you’ll get audited. EITC recipients who normally make less than $20,000 a year have long been the major exception and are already under more scrutiny compared to other taxpayers. Why? Many people claim the credit in error. And due to consistent pressure by congressional Republicans, the IRS has kept the audit rates higher. Because God forbid that poor people shouldn’t be carefully scrutinized any time they receive help staying alive. This is how you get the EITC audits along with drug tests and work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid just to make the poor ashamed of their poverty that’s out of their control. At the same time, there hasn’t been similar pressure to address more costly problem areas like tax evasion by business owners and rich people. Despite that they’re more likely to evade taxes and the IRS receives more revenue from auditing them. Besides, even if they owe money, rich people are way less likely to experience any financial hardship. Yet, as far as the GOP is concerned, rich people and corporations should do whatever they want like dodge taxes, engage in insider trading, and take advantage of ordinary workers.

Budget cuts and staff losses make this distortion starker. Despite that the richest taxpayers get audited at higher rates than the poorest, the gap’s been closing. Former deputy IRS Commissioner John Darlrymple told ProPublica “What happens is you have people at the very top being prioritized and people at the very bottom being prioritized, and everyone else is sort of squeezed out.” In other words, as the IRS has shrunk in size and capability, audits of the poor have accounted for more of what it does. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden told ProPublica, “Those struggling to make ends meet are being unfairly audited while the fortunate few dodge taxes without consequence. The IRS needs more manpower to go after tax cheats of all sizes, and working Americans need a simpler way of obtaining a tax credit they’ve earned.” Thus, the more the IRS focuses on auditing poor tax cheats who are trying to get by, the rich ones are increasingly more able to dodge their taxes without consequence. It’s kind of like how a business executive who steals millions of dollars in insider trading get a short jail sentence at a minimum security facility while the desperately poor kid gets at least 5 years in prison for armed robbery at a convenience store. Sure, neither are right to do what they did, but the rich guy’s crimes inflict far more damage to society than the convenience store robber ever could. While the convenience store robber receives a disproportionately harsh sentence.

Taxpayers of all kinds cheat since cheating is part of human nature. While no social class has a monopoly on moral values. Yet, despite the scrutiny, IRS studies found that EITC recipients aren’t the worst offenders. For instance, in regards for certain kinds of business income, people pay only 37% of what they owe because they simply don’t report the income. As a result, hundreds of billions in government revenue is lost, which is way more than even the highest improper EITC payment estimates. But people owning business are audited by the IRS at the same rate as EITC recipients. National taxpayer advocate Nina Olson told ProPublica that the IRS disproportionate focus on stopping “improper payments” to EITC recipients is misguided. She asked, “What’s the difference between an erroneous EITC dollar being sent out and a dollar attributed to unreported self-employment income not collected?” Since she noted that unreported business income is “where the real money is.”

When EITC cheating does occur, tax preparers are usually the culprits. According to the National Consumer Law Center’s Chi Chi Wu, “They know the system, they game the system and ultimately the taxpayer ends up on the hook if there’s an audit.” While undercover NCLC and Government Accountability Office investigations found multiple preparers advising taxpayers to file bogus EITC claims. Using a tax preparer to figure out your taxes isn’t unusual in the US since 60% of American taxpayers use one. But commercial tax preparers have a dubious reputation as a predatory industry targeting the poor. And when EITC recipients are audited in the future, they’re less likely to claim credit in the future. But most states don’t require tax preparers to be licensed and the IRS has limited ability to oversee them. In fact, after launching a program certifying preparers and subjecting them to regular compliance checks, a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that the IRS doesn’t have that power. Congress could pass a bill to confer that authority to the agency and should. But despite some bipartisan support for the idea, it hasn’t.

In any case, as soon as Donald Trump and his cronies lose the vestiges of political power, we must reform the tax system. While most Americans see tax evasion as illegal and morally wrong, the wealthy and powerful abide by a different set of rules than the rest of us. Not only does the tax system enable the wealthy to take advantage of tax loopholes, it also lets them to blur the line between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion with little consequence. We must reform the tax system to close the loopholes rich people use to dodge taxes and substantially increase funding to the IRS to ensure that the laws we do enact are strongly enforced.

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Born in a Golden Cradle

We all know full well how Donald Trump repeatedly paints his start in business as an up-by-the bootstraps, riches-to-slightly-more-riches tale. He’s cast himself as a New York real estate Oliver Twist with only his name and a $1 million loan from his dear old dad to keep him company. Only to become a self-made billionaire real estate mogul. Trump not only used this description to promote his image as a skilled businessman, but also portray himself as a “self-made man” during his presidential candidacy.

Despite the image Donald Trump projects to his base at his ego boosting rallies, he has actually spent 5 decades pretending not only that his father never rescued him from financial dire straits, but played a minimal role in his business success. When he said that Fred only gave him a $1 million loan, Trump glossed over how central his dad was to his career. When Trump entered the Manhattan real estate business in the mid-1970s, Fred cosigned bank loans for tens of millions of dollars. These loans made it possible for Trump to develop early projects like the Grand Hyatt hotel. When he targeted Atlantic City’s casino market, Fred loaned him about $7.5 million to get started. When he floundered there during the 1990s, Fred sent a lawyer to a Trump casino to buy $3.5 million in chips so his son can use the funds for a bond payment and avoid filing for corporate bankruptcy. In other words, Trump’s wealth has always been “deeply intertwined with, and dependent on” on his father’s wealth.

On Tuesday, October 2, 2018, the New York Times published investigation results into Donald Trump’s wealth and tax practices. They revealed a pattern of tax evasion and business practices that allowed him to receive at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father. According to the report, Trump and his siblings got hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money from their dad’s real estate empire, starting from their childhoods. As they write:

“Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.”

In sum, Donald Trump’s parents transferred more than $1 billion to their children and paid about $52.2 million in taxes. Given the relevant tax rates on gifts and inheritances, they should’ve paid $550 million, which is 10 times more. The IRS didn’t really notice it. While the Times didn’t see Trump’s own tax returns, their reporting was based on documents, records, and interviews pertaining to Fred Trump’s financial empire. These included, “tens of thousands of pages of confidential records — bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and canceled checks” along with more than 200 tax returns from Fred and various companies and trusts he set up. Even though he can’t be prosecuted for them due to statute of limitations expiration, evidence suggests that Donald’s actions on paying taxes weren’t always above the fray.

When Donald Trump’s finances were “crumbling” during the 1980s and 1990s, Fred Trump’s companies increased distributions to him and his siblings. From 1989-1992, Fred created 4 entities paying Donald $8.3 million in today’s money. When Donald’s finances were at their worst in 1990, Fred’s income shot up $49,638,928 and earned him a $12.2 million tax bill. According to the New York Times report, there are indications Fred, “wanted plenty of cash on hand to bail out his son if need be.” A former Trump Organization told Tim O’Brien in 2005, “We would have literally closed down. The key would have been in the door and there would have been no more Donald Trump. The family saved him.” Of course, it wasn’t really Trump’s family who saved him from personal bankruptcy, it was his dad. On another occasion, Trump allegedly gave his dad a $15.5 million share of the Trump Palace condo skyscraper in New York to square off some debts with his loans. But Fred then sold the shares back to his son for $10,000, making the whole exchange of $15.49 a taxable gift. Fred never declared it as such.
But it wasn’t always rich dad bailing out his son. Fred and Donald Trump worked together. As the elder man aged, his kids had to continue the tax schemes their parents put in place. In 1997, Donald and his siblings gained control of most of their dad’s empire. They significantly undervalued the properties, claiming they were worth $41.4 million and selling them off for 16 times the amount.

Nonetheless, the wealth transfer between Fred Trump and Donald Trump (along with his siblings) was a lifetime affair. As the New York Times notes:

“By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.”

As the Times writes, there’s a fine line between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Rich people employ all kinds of tricks to lower their taxes all the time. But since Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, these journalistic investigations raise questions of what he’s hiding in his finances. For what the publication doesn’t have is what the American people have become accustomed to getting from their presidents like recent tax returns. Instead, the Times gave close scrutiny Fred Trump’s businesses which reveal the range of apparent illegal activity. Yet, everything the Times has is fairly old since Fred passed nearly 20 years ago while his years in business ended before that. So they no longer reflect the current state of Trump’s financial affairs. Furthermore, any illegal activity the Times sources revealed in this article can’t be prosecuted due to statute of limitations expiration.

The New York Times’ investigation is exhaustive and, to some extent, defies summary. But it’s worth recounting the most egregious thing they found as an illustrative example of the scope of crimes that serious forensic accounting can reveal. Basically, this was a 2-scams-for-the-price-of-one-caper, in which Fred Trump formed a shell company his children secretly owned. The company pretended to perform useful services for rent-stabilized buildings Fred owned, allowing to gift money to his children without paying a gift tax. Then, its bogus accounting was used to justify rent increases to regulators. As the Times wrote:

“The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.”
This is a particularly shocking crime because of the way it was used to defraud thousands of tenants as well as tax authorities. But this wasn’t the only time Fred cheated the public. After all, he got his start in profiteering in millions from programs to help returning GIs receive housing, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to throw a fit. In 1954, he was called before the Senate to testify about how he overcharged the federal government by inflating costs associated with a taxpayer-subsidized housing development in Brooklyn. As a result, Fred was banned from bidding on federal housing contracts. So he focused on state-subsidized projects. However, in 1966, Fred was called before a state investigations board to sit through embarrassing public hearings exploring how he overbilled New York State for equipment and other costs. These hearings essentially marked the end of Fred’s career as a major developer in public subsidized housing. Donald Trump would say that the government essentially reached in and took his dad’s business away from him. But this explanation ignores the fact that Fred’s business wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without government subsidies in the first place.

However, in terms of Donald Trump cheating on his taxes, it’s far from unique. In 1983, he’s admitted to sales tax fraud. He’s lost 2 income tax civil fraud trials. Hell, his own tax lawyer testified that Trump’s 1984 tax return was fraudulent. More strikingly, even before the Times’ investigation, we had numerous examples of Trump operating as a habitual criminal. While Trump would like to American people to forget about this, he got his start as a celebrity after the New York Times published an article detailing federal housing discrimination charges brought against him and his father. Ultimately, the charges were settled without admission of fault, which would be a pattern for Trump over the years. Even so, the fact his first foray into the real estate business involved criminal acts didn’t stop him from continuing in that business. When Trump branched out into casinos, he got caught accepting an illegal loan from his dad to stay afloat and got off with a slap on the wrist. He was even allowed to continue with the business as well.

From empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos, racial discrimination in his apartments, Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases, and Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Donald Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed. Caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss? Paid a fine. There was no sense this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law (despite being caught before in a housing discrimination case by the federal government). Nor there was certainly any desire to take a closer look at Trump’s various personal and professional connections to the Mafia. In New York, Trump Tower’s construction employed hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants, paid them laughably low wages, and worked them beyond legal limits. Though Trump denied knowledge of the situation, a judge said his testimony wasn’t credible. Court records show that Trump and his children misled investors in failed condo projects in Baja California and Florida. Even as late as the post-election transition, Trump was allowed to settle a lawsuit about defrauding customers at his fake university for $25 million rather than truly face the music like a potential prison term. But he still insisted he did nothing wrong despite evidence to the contrary.

One of Donald Trump’s real insights in life was to see a bug in the system. When it comes to these white-collar crimes, it’s typically the government officials’ interest to agree to a settlement giving them positive headlines, raise some cash, and move on to the next investigation. But while these decisions can make sense individually, they let serial offenders repeat their crimes over and over again. After all, you wouldn’t want police to solve other crimes this way. Meanwhile, throughout the decades of Trump’s rise, the legal climate has only gotten more permissive.

The fact that Donald Trump appears to have been involved in serious financial crimes in the past is the most likely reason for his unprecedented lack of transparency. He didn’t magically stop committing them in the mid-1990s. Rather he’s just been getting away with it in an era of reduced law enforcement and fears his documents wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a candidate, Trump promised to release his tax returns. Now that he’s in office, he has refused to do so. In response to the Times’ investigation, the White House released a statement full of bluster about the “wonderful” things Trump has achieved as president. But it didn’t deny any of the alleged facts. Instead, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders merely observed that “many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions.”

It’s not entirely clear if the IRS reviewed all of these transactions. But it’s unquestionably true that Donald Trump got away with it. Because lots of people get away with a lot of crimes and that doesn’t make it okay. The IRS is no more perfect in its work than any other law enforcement agency. To make matters worse, the IRS has been starved of resources, making it even harder to catch rich tax cheats. To be clear, this wasn’t caused by austerity by budgetary necessity. Based on macroeconomic estimates, the IRS believes that business owners like Donald Trump underpay their taxes by $125 million a year. Investing more in catching these tax cheats would pay off easily. But congressional Republicans haven’t wanted to do it because they think it’s good that rich business owners can get away with cheating on their taxes. Yet, this also gives tax-cheating businesses a very good reason to fear transparency and disclosure. While the IRS is relatively unlikely to get a hard, rigorous look at any particularly rich person’s complicated tax submissions. But since Trump is president, he’d find Congress and the press heavily scrutinizing his finances. Trump got away with tax evasion during an era of generally more rigorous enforcement. It’s very unlikely that he simply stopped doing it during the more recent years when enforcement got laxer. If he disclosed his tax returns, we’d find out about the scams he’s running. Because that’s why Trump doesn’t want us to see them. And why we absolutely need to. We won’t really know why Donald Trump hides his tax returns until he stops concealing them. But the New York Times’ investigation sends a clear message that he’s got a track record of doing illegal stuff with his taxes.

However, though Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns as president, Congress can make him. But congressional Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so. Nonetheless, the American people have a right to know whether or not the man in the White House is a crook. Though the case for oversight became stronger once Trump became president, Republicans who once distanced themselves from him became uniformly devoted to covering up for him. In addition, Republicans have totally resisted Democratic efforts to force disclosure.

While congressional Republicans may tell themselves these returns are no big deal, they have no idea how serious the crimes are they’re helping Donald Trump hide. Mostly because Republicans decided it’s good when rich people cheat on their taxes despite that it’s not. In fact, cheating on taxes contributes to inequality, higher interest rates, weaker public services, and a range of social news. And despite the Republicans’ best efforts, it’s still illegal. Though the tax code currently has minimal taxes on inheritances and gifts as well as large loopholes for the wealthiest of the wealthy. The New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth demonstrates how wealthy families wiggle out of taxes through licit and illicit means. Thus, starving the government of tax revenue, making the tax code less progressive than it’s designed to be, and effectively increasing the tax burden on low-income families and their businesses. The richer the family, the more likely they engage in tax evasion. In fact, one study shows that the richest .01% were shown to evade 25% of taxes, several times the rate seen among the general public. Because Trump is president, we need to know if he’s been breaking the law. All we need to do is have a congressional committee vote. But to get it, we need a new Congress.

Of course, since I’ve conducted extensive research on Donald Trump since he ran for president, the fact he’s not the self-made man he portrays himself to be doesn’t surprise me. I long knew that he never would’ve become what he is today if he hadn’t been born into wealth and privilege. And I knew about his dad vouching for him on his early projects and helping him out of his financial problems. Yet, millions of Americans still believe Trump as a modern Midas who’d lift them out of hard times as the super-rich flourish while everyone else’s incomes remain mostly flat. But the truth is that the man in the Oval Office isn’t the wealth-building entrepreneur he claims to be. In fact, he’s a financial vampire extracting cash from enterprises while leaving behind unpaid workers, vendors, and governments. And if you want to know what that will lead to, just take a visit to Atlantic City.

The Great American Tax Swindle

Last week, the United States House of Representatives passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which seeks to dramatically cut corporate taxes and consolidate benefits for individuals. In addition, the legislation eliminates the alternative minimum tax and estate tax as well as pare back certain individual deduction. This bill would also offer a new tax rate for owners of “pass through” businesses like LLCs and partnerships whose income from their businesses is taxed as personal income. It’s very clear that the House Republican tax bill will disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans, who’d more likely profit from corporate tax cuts more than non-wealthy Americans and likely exploit the pass-through rate by setting up dummy corporations. According to the Tax Policy Center, the absolute richest Americans such as the top 0.1% earning at least $5 million a year, would receive an average income tax cut of 3% which can translate into $320,640. The middle fifth of taxpayers earning between $54,700 to $93,200 a year would get a 0.5% income boost which will only consist of $360. Nearly half the cut will go to the 1%. Though 61.4% of Americans would receive a tax cut by 2027, 24.2% will see their taxes rise by an average of $2,080. Nevertheless, this bill will almost certainly not become law in its current form since the current version will certainly increase the budget deficit by trillions over 10 years and beyond. But it nevertheless, reflects the Republican Party’s values and priorities which don’t translate into the kind of tax reform America needs as well as disproportionately punishes hardworking Americans and the poor for no reason. Because this isn’t a tax reform bill with ordinary Americans in mind, but major Republican donors and corporations.

Who Wins:

Corporations– Since they’re the main focus on most of the tax cuts. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% (like this bill does), costs nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years. They also gain new, more favorable treatment of income earned abroad, which either isn’t taxed or taxed at an even lower rate than 20%.

The Wealthy, Particularly the Ultrarich– Because they tend to earn a disproportionate share of their income from capital (like stock sales and dividends) and thus benefit from cuts to the corporate tax, which is largely a tax on capital. Should the corporate tax also reduce wages (as some conservative economists allege), corporate tax cuts still disproportionately help the wealthy as huge wage shares go to high earners, not low or median-wage earners. In addition, the pass-through cut could lead some wealthy people who either own pass-throughs or create new ones to shelter some of their income from high rates. Both Tax Policy Center analysis and the Joint Committee on Taxation confirm that the richest Americans will receive the biggest cuts as a percentage of their income.

People Making Mid-to High Six-Figure Incomes– They should arguably count as wealthy or rich, too. By raising the threshold for the 39.6% rate on individual income to $1 million for couples, up from $470,000 today, those with incomes in the $600,000 to $700,000 range will receive a sizeable reduction alongside to the low-end tax cut they get because the new 12% bracket will apply to income now taxed between 15% or 25%. The Tax Policy Center finds that once you reach the 95th percentile like earning $304,600 a year or more, over 70% of them get tax cuts in 2027, with the average change amounting to 1.4-3% of their income.

Pass-Through Companies– Companies like the Trump Organization get a new very low rate. Though the bill includes some provisions meant to prevent rich individuals from using this tax break to shelter income, it only limits the benefit in many cases. Overwhelmingly rich owners of these pass-throughs will still come out ahead. We know this because Kansas entirely eliminated state taxes on pass-through companies which mainly resulted in people to simply reclassify their income to dodge taxes while not actually starting any new businesses.

Heirs and Heiresses– Because this bill first reduces the estate tax (through increasing exemption and applying it to even smaller sliver of the ultrarich) and then eliminates it entirely. Keep in mind this is on those who earn at least $5 million anyway.

Who Loses:

Blue State Residents– Since they will pay higher taxes since this legislation eliminates state and local income/sales tax deductions while somewhat curtails those for property taxes. Wealthy people benefitting from these deductions will likely see this tax hike offset by the other tax cuts in the package. Though this may leave a silver lining when you realize that many blue states are home to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, major media organizations, Hollywood, many large corporations, and high earning Americans like Donald Trump.

The Housing Sector– Since it faces a new limit on mortgage interest deduction. Though the rate cuts largely make up for this in regards to some individual taxpayers, it reduces the incentive to build and buy homes, which could affect lenders, construction workers, real estate firms, etc.

Poor Families– Though they were rumored to receive a tax cut due to change in the refundability formula for the child tax credit, that measure didn’t make it in the bill. Because that credit only goes to families with $3,000 in earnings or more and phases in slowly. Though some in Congress did push to lower the threshold to $0, they didn’t succeed. Instead, the bill includes a provision denying the child tax credit to American citizen children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. Because Republicans don’t want undocumented immigrants having anchor babies to take advantage of that tax credit. Despite that fear of deportation keeps more undocumented immigrants from seeking benefits their citizen children could desperately use. Furthermore, fees extracted by tax preparers standing between the low-income and earned income tax credit aren’t deductible under this plan.

Higher Education– The House bill eliminates student loan tax exemptions and treats graduate tuition reimbursements as income. The Senate bill contains an excise tax on earnings of big university endowments. This will increase the cost of college for many students, result in more borrowers struggling to pay their loans, grad and doctoral students in terrible financial situations, as well as hit colleges and universities hard. Not to mention, such measures will dramatically hurt the economy in the long run by undermining human capital developments and creating a less educated workforce. In addition, it might even cost lives by impeding biomedical research.

Workers– The Republican tax plan treats union dues as taxable income. Poor and middle class people will also see their taxes increase across the board, especially if they earn between $40,000 and $75,000 a year. In addition, it taxes contributions to 401 (k) plans.

Healthcare– The House bill proposes eliminating medical deduction exemptions which will devastate many middle-class families with an illness. Republican Senators are proposing to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate which will result in 13 million people uninsured, hurt enrollment in Medicaid and Obamacare exchanges, increase premiums on those who purchase insurance, and increase preventable deaths by 15,600 people per year. Not to mention, the Senate bill cuts alcohol taxes which are effective at reducing drink driving, violent crime, and liver cirrhosis while increasing them saves thousands of lives per year. Add to that cuts to Medicaid by $18 billion by 2021 and Obamacare subsidies. All this will only make the healthcare markets worse, not better.

The Deficit– As the Joint Committee on Taxation has reportedly determined that the House Republican tax bill will cost $1.51 trillion over 10 years, which is what the House/Senate allocated for the bill. But it’s still a sizeable increase in public debt.

As you can see, this Republican tax reform effort reflects the conservative allergic reaction to progressive taxation and goes beyond undoing the most progressive gains achieved during the Obama and Clinton administrations. 3 changes stand out in this legislation. First, these taxes are far more focused on owners than workers, even by Republican standards. Second, they take advantage of the ambiguity on what counts as income. Third, it weaponizes that vagueness to help their friends and hurt their enemies. Though to be fair, I’m not sure who counts as which in this scheme. After years of pushing for a safety net that works through the tax code and keep more social democratic forms at bay, Republicans now seem willing to even demolish even those modest protections, some of which benefit many of their voters. And they make it clear that a welfare state based on tax credits and refunds, rather than universal commitments, is all too vulnerable.

The House “reform” bill illustrates that Republicans understand how the economic game’s rules are shifting toward capital and away from labor (even from the rich’s labor). Since 2000, income growth among the 1% has accrued people making their money from owning money, stock, and other financial instruments, rather than to people making money via skills and labor. As a result, corporate profits have skyrocketed since then and increased faster during the Great Recession. However, such growth hasn’t trickled down to ordinary Americans. Wages have been flat since 2000 and recession recovery featured the weakest business investment of the postwar period. This marks a genuine shift in the economy’s organization which economists still struggle to understand. But the Republican tax plan supercharges these changes which are about benefiting not just the well-off, but those well-off because they own capital.

But why? Because the Republican tax plans mainly focus on corporate income tax reductions which will largely benefit concentrated owners of stock, passive owners of pass-through businesses who don’t actively work for the firm, and those inheriting their money. We should also understand that foreigners hold about a third of US-based stock, meaning there will be a significant amount of benefits not going to US citizens. In fact, the Institute of Tax and Economic Policy estimates that foreign investors would receive benefits roughly equal to those going to the bottom 3/5 of Americans.

Much of the Republican tax plan involves changing the definition of “income” in various ways. Now most people usually think of income as whatever their salary is. But it’s more complicated than that. And Republicans are redefining different kinds of income to benefit their friends as well as harming their enemies. Under the plan, Passive owners of pass-through entities get their income redefined in a way that minimizes taxation. Those inheriting money get their inheritance redefined to hide it from taxation. And those wanting to stuff money away to send their kiddies to private school, get that savings defined as non-income, too. All these are payouts to key Republican constituencies.

But Republicans are also defining income in other ways to punish their opponents. State and local tax deductions Republicans want to repeal primarily benefits those in blue states where those taxes are higher. They also want to treat graduate education tuition reimbursements as income, hitting higher education (which is home to climate scientists and the “politically correct” anti-right) hard. Union dues would suddenly become taxable income. And fees extracted by tax preparers who stand between low-income people and the earned income tax credit aren’t deductible under their plan.

Yet, it’s not just their opponents they want to punish either. House Republicans also propose eliminating all of the medical deduction exemption which would be devastating for middle class households with an illness. And the latest Senate tax bill calls for eliminating the individual mandate which could result in 13 million uninsured. In short, not only are Republicans are using the tax code to swipe at the Affordable Care Act, they also want to do away with their own tools for making medical expenses more bearable. In the past conservatives have explicitly stated that they hoped the growing use of tax-deferred 401(k) savings plans would weaken support and possibly replace Social Security. But today’s GOP almost reduced the cap for 401(k) contributions. What about the Adoption Tax Credit that was part of the 1994 Republican Contract with America? Well, the House tax plan got rid of that, too. And what about students investing in their own educations through student loans? The bill also puts student loan tax exemptions on the chopping block. Tax exemptions, deductions, and benefits are usually considered regressive, poorly targeted, and too reliant on the market. But they do form a coherent social insurance system for middle-class and upper-middle class families. Many of them number among Republican voters. Yet, it’s this very safety net via tax code that Republicans have declared war on in their new tax bill. They could’ve crafted these various deductions into a more coherent system, they’re axing them to cut taxes on the rich. Republicans are so indebted to capital owners that they’d destroy their system in order to appease them. Even if it means proposing a tax plan whose benefit are permanent for owners yet expire for everyone else. They’ve taken the worst trends in the American economy and hit the accelerator.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Trickle down economics has been implemented in US tax policy time and time again since the 1980s and has been shown not to work. When you cut taxes for the rich, you don’t create jobs nor raise wages. If anything, the rich just become richer while corporations make higher profits. Meanwhile, wages remain stagnant while ordinary Americans increasingly find themselves less able to adequately support themselves thank to inflation and rising costs of living. But according to free market purists, market competition should ensure low prices. Except that it doesn’t, especially if it results in large corporations expanding that they either become monopolies or conglomerates. Corporate increases in profits and size don’t translate into higher wages, more jobs, or lower prices. Nor will it benefit the economy or solve any of its problems. The Republican tax plan’s regressive nature is reason enough to oppose it. Should the United States run a deficit, then it shouldn’t be to reduce taxes paid by those at the top. Given recent economic developments, it’s especially irresponsible. Corporations are flush with cash thanks to large profits and aggressively low interest rates. But they’re not investing. Thus, these large tax cuts for corporations will have very little effect on the economy and only amplify the deleterious trends we’re still trying to comprehend.

I don’t doubt that the United States needs to reform its tax code. Wealthy Americans and corporations shouldn’t be the main beneficiaries in tax legislation. If anything, the rich should be made to pay more taxes as well as be held accountable for tax evasion and other financial shenanigans like everyone else. Should we need to eliminate deductions or benefits, let it be rich stuff like any measures pertaining to private jets. After all, if you could afford a private jet, you don’t need subsidies or tax breaks. In addition, we need to tax capital gains from which the wealthy primarily earn their money. The American people deserve better than an egregious tax scam that only benefits the few at the expense of the rest.