The Trump Administration has finally released a more detailed version of proposed tax legislation. It is detailed enough for the lobbying process to begin in earnest.
The goal of the next few articles in this series is to focus on the distinct parts of the US Tax Code and explain their relevance to the everyday concerns of business. It is easy to get lost; easy to outsource understanding to a paid cadre of experts whose living depends on first obfuscating and then explaining by the billable hour.
A proper understanding of taxation in the US requires a brief discussion of the Sixteenth Amendment. It was ratified in 1913 and has provided the equivalent of crack cocaine for politicians ever since.
Income tax was not without precedent before this. The Revenue Acts of 1861 and 1862 had introduced taxes to fund the Civil War. These taxes expired in 1872 but had proven to be extremely popular and had drawn around 60% of the total funding from the Northeastern, industrialized states of New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
When politicians saw the possibilities of taxation to help fund government and the efforts of those who ran it, they worked tirelessly to bring it back. It was needed to help the central government keep pace with the military ambitions of Europe and Japan and defend the American fleet. The primary means of revenue raising until then – tariffs – was considered regressive and, with inflation increasing, an income tax was believed to be fairer.
The Democrats ran the Senate, Congress and the White House in 1912 and the country was in a left-leaning mood. Three-quarters of the states ratified the 16th Amendment and, eight months later, on October 3, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Revenue Act 1913 into law. The addiction has continued ever since.
Grasping the Big Picture
Before looking at what the Tax Code says, it is worth a short detour to understand the scope of what it comprises. In 1913, the Revenue Act comprised 27 pages. During its first year, the Code and associated regulations grew to 400 pages. It now exceeds 73,000 pages. During this golden age of governmental growth, the administration of the system of taxation has developed a robust infrastructure of tax accountants, tax lawyers and even a specialized court called the Tax Court.
The U.S. Code is the collection of laws that comprise the rule of law in the United States. The U.S. Code is divided into Titles. Title 26 relates to taxes. It contains eleven Subtitles, A-K, comprising almost ten thousand (9,834) Code Sections. Subtitle A, Income Taxes, has 1,564 sections; Estate and Gift Taxes has 800 sections; Miscellaneous Excise Taxes almost 900; Procedure and Administration has 1,874 (more than Income Taxes); Trust Fund Code has 102; and the balance, just over 120, are split between The Joint Committee on Taxation, the Financing of Presidential Election Campaigns, Coal Industry Health Benefits and Group Health Plan Requirements. The list is exhausting to think about.
Just Income Taxes
Subtitle A encompasses six chapters of which Chapter 1 – Normal Taxes and Surtaxes – comprises 1400 of the 1564 tax-related sections.
Chapter 1 is divided into Subchapters – A through Y – of which the most frequently referred to are Subchapter C relating to corporate taxation; Subchapter K relating to partnerships; Subchapter S, a hybrid of corporation and partnership and Subchapter M relating to regulated investment vehicles (mutual funds, REITs).
Tax professionals tend to refer to the Code in shorthand: Sub C, Sub K, Sub M, Sub S. The above taxonomy will help decode this. Subsequent articles will refer to this article for context.
What This Adds Up To
The Bureau of Economic Affairs calculates tax statistics going back to 1929. In 1929 total tax receipts were $3.8bn and expenditures were $2.9bn. In 2016, total receipts were $3.5trn and total expenditures were $4.2trn. Since 1929, the government has relied increasingly on borrowing. Expenditures have not been covered by receipts since 1960.
Although taxes have grown strongly since 1913, they have still not caught up, as a percentage of GDP, with the OECD average or, to give a more specific example, with the United Kingdom. Tax revenue sits at around 26% of GDP versus an OECD average of nearly 35% and only a little less in the United Kingdom.
Taxation has now been enshrined as part of the Holy Trinity of Things Certain – alongside birth and death. To the words of Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” “I was born here and I’ll die here – against my will”, one might easily add “and pay taxes here”.
Taxation is a key tool in ensuring financial incentives are properly aligned with the efficient allocation of capital and, accordingly, with productive economic behaviour. Meaningful change is tough and needs careful planning. That rarely happens because taxation, like most legislation, is the misshapen creation of many compromises. Businesses right now crave the reduction in corporate tax rates as a primary means of increasing profits and economic growth. They are less enthusiastic about losing some tax breaks such as interest deductibility.
Individuals are no different. Lowering the personal tax rate and having fewer bands of taxation is attractive. People, especially in the high rent districts of the two coasts, are less enthusiastic about losing the ability to deduct property taxes against their Federal taxable income
Taxation, of course, is highly political. It is no accident that the loss of the property tax deduction would have its greatest impact in two strongly Democratic states – New York and California. That is precisely the target of a Republican President, a Republican Senate and a Republican Congress.
Whether or not the recent proposal on tax reform from the Trump Administration is passed, the funding gap between tax receipts collected and government outlays is not easy to close by reducing receipts.