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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
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Friday, April 20, 2018

Desai: Tax Reform, Round One

Mihir A. Desai (Harvard), Tax Reform, Round One:

The Trump Administration's successful efforts at tax legislation stand out as the primary achievement of its first year. But the hurried, largely furtive drafting, and rush to passage at the end of 2017, have helped obscure the new tax regime’s real impact. Much of the reporting and debate has focused on the politicking that went into passing the bill, and the purported effect on the federal budget deficit. That has diverted attention from the true significance of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Instead of simply changing rates and addressing loopholes, the TCJA represents a structural change to the income tax and, consequently, will lead to major changes in behavior. Teasing out those details reveals that the new law is likely to generate different incentives for economic growth than commonly claimed, unwanted complexities that invite still further gaming of the tax code (which the reforms themselves were intended to minimize), and larger deficits than forecast. If the past is a guide, and we can hope it is, the TCJA will be a precursor to further reforms that correct these shortcomings and address important distributional and fiscal concerns.

In the context of other legislation during the past 40 years, the magnitude of this tax reform is unremarkable when framed relative to gross domestic product. Indeed, the 1981 tax bill reduced federal revenue by an amount equaling more than twice the share of the estimated reduction in the Trump edition. But no reform during the last four decades approximates the scope and depth of the TCJA’s changes to the overall structure of the tax system.

Harvard 1

The unwieldy legislation is best understood by separately considering its impact on corporations, pass-through entities (businesses that are taxed not as entities, but rather at the individual or proprietor level, to whom income is “passed through”), and individuals.

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