The debate over "tax reform" has, by design, a kind of bloodless technocratic sound to it. But lurking behind the euphemism and the sometimes-arcane details is a big debate about inequality, political power, and the nature of economic growth.
It's no accident that by 2016 the richest 1 percent of the population had earned 24 percent of the income and held 39 percent of wealth or that household incomes at the middle are flat and living standards for the poor or falling. A new wave of research builds a persuasive case that tax cuts passed in the 1980s and 2000s were key drivers of this disparity.
Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are promising another round of similar policies and they want to get it done soon. They firmly believe that tax cuts for the very rich will be a boon to the whole economy. They also know cutting taxes on the rich is unpopular, so they've cloaked their case in descriptions of "simplicity," "fairness" and denying the premise outright.
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But a tax agenda focused on corporate rate cuts, special tax breaks for businesses owners, estate tax repeal, and a reduction in the top marginal rate can't help but make the rich richer — and a new breed of economic research, spurred by Thomas Piketty's work but now joined by many collaborators, challenges the premises of the tax cutting drive, arguing that this kind of policymaking exacerbates pretax inequality while doing nothing for economic growth.
Democrats have grown more critical of inequality in recent years with Barack Obama proclaiming economic inequality to be the "defining challenge of our time." Energy in the party shifted even-further-left and fueled an unexpected level of support for Bernie Sanders and an unprecedented level of skepticism about the basic fundraising model of American politics.
Even more surprisingly, in the GOP camp Donald Trump ran hard to the right on culture war issues while also promising a more egalitarian form of economics — promising to be a champion of working class interests.
But in office, while Trump has continued to obsessively feed the culture war maw, he is pushing a policy agenda that would add enormous fuel to the fire of inequality — enormous, regressive rate cuts flying under the banner of "tax reform."