Trump’s au­da­cious tax plan

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

— One of the chief pol­icy mys­ter­ies of Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign plat­form is how he in­tends to achieve the arith­meti­cally im­pos­si­ble: re­duce taxes by tril­lions of dol­lars; shield So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care ben­e­fits from any cuts; “re­build” the mil­i­tary and in­fra­struc­ture; and — de­pend­ing on what day Trump is talk­ing — start to pay off the na­tional debt, if not elim­i­nate it by the end of his sec­ond term.

Per­haps, I thought, Sam Clo­vis, Trump’s na­tional co-chair and chief pol­icy ad­viser, could ex­plain. Clo­vis, an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at Morn­ing­side Col­lege in Sioux City, Iowa, was the Trump cam­paign’s emis­sary to a sum­mit on fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity Wed­nes­day spon­sored by the Peter G. Peter­son Foun­da­tion.

To say the ses­sion was uned­i­fy­ing fails to con­vey its in­co­her­ence. It was alarm­ing. “I un­der­stand less about Trump’s bud­get plan af­ter lis­ten­ing to Clo­vis than I did be­fore,” tweeted David Wes­sel of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

In­deed. In­ter­viewed by CNBC’s John Har­wood, Clo­vis started by mis­stat­ing the cost of Trump’s tax plan and pro­ceeded down­hill from there.

Har­wood noted that the Tax Foun­da­tion, a group that Clo­vis him­self de­scribed as a “highly cred­i­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion,” had es­ti­mated the price tag of the Trump tax plan at $10 trillion over 10 years — even un­der what is known as dy­namic scor­ing, giv­ing the plan credit for spurring eco­nomic growth.

Clo­vis: “That’s not en­tirely true, be­cause the Tax Foun­da­tion model is a static model. It’s not a dy­namic model.”

Har­wood: “They do it both ways, but I be­lieve that their $10 trillion fig­ure that they came up with was in their dy­namic model.”

Clo­vis: “Well, that’s what they told me, and I sat across the ta­ble from them just like this, John.”

Ad­van­tage, Har­wood. The Tax Foun­da­tion puts the “dy­namic” cost of the Trump plan at $10.1 trillion. The “static” score is $11.9 trillion. No big­gie. A trillion here, a trillion there.

Clo­vis’ fis­cal in­sou­ciance was breath­tak­ing. “Our pro­pos­als, what we think will hap­pen, will lead us in fact to about a $4.5 to $7 trillion sur­plus at the end of 10 years, if all of our ini­tia­tives are put in place,” he said.

Pause for a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate the au­dac­ity of this claim. The Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mates that deficits will to­tal another $9.4 trillion dur­ing this pe­riod. So Trump is pur­port­ing to pay for his $10 trillion tax cut, plus elim­i­nate that ad­di­tional deficit, plus amass a sur­plus amount­ing to sev­eral trillion more? Out­landish is too kind a word for this.

And then there was Clo­vis’ puz­zling an­swer to Har­wood’s ques­tions about whether Trump — who has vowed not to cut en­ti­tle­ment ben­e­fits — might be will­ing to back away from that pledge once in of­fice.

Ac­tu­ally, Clo­vis said, once the Trump-gen­er­ated eco­nomic growth has taken off, “we’ll take a hard look at those to start see­ing what we can do in a bi­par­ti­san way.”

Still, Clo­vis said, “Right now, we’re not go­ing to touch any­thing be­cause we can’t pre­dict the growth. If we don’t have that growth, then I think that who­ever [is] the next pres­i­dent is go­ing to have a hor­ri­ble time in deal­ing with this, be­cause those en­ti­tle­ments will race to the front of all the eco­nomic is­sues we have in this coun­try.”

If Trump is open to en­ti­tle­ment re­form, that’s good news, from my point of view. But who can tell what Trump po­si­tion is real and what is il­lu­sory, what can be re­lied on only for the fleet­ing mo­ment and what con­sti­tutes a mat­ter of deep con­vic­tion?

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­


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