If a tax falls in a forest and no one notices, does it make a sound?
That’s no idle existential musing. The answer may determine whether President Trump’s tax plan ever becomes non-toxic to the Republican Party.
Right now the public hates, hates, hates the tax bill. It’s less popular than any major piece of legislation of the past several decades, less popular even than tax hikes passed under Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Only about a third of Americans view it favorably, based on an average of nine polls this month.
Republicans are hoping that once the public sees their plan in action, though, everyone will be pleasantly surprised.
After all, most Americans don’t believe they personally will benefit from the law. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 17 percent expect their taxes to go down.
And while it’s true that by 2027, a majority of households will see their tax liabilities increase relative to current law, most people’s taxes will indeed fall in the near term. About 80 percent of households will get a tax cut in 2018, according to estimates from the Tax Policy Center.
Many will start receiving those tax cuts as early as February, when lower paycheck withholding kicks in. Just in time for the 2018 midterms!
“Whatever the polling data is that’s out there today doesn’t recognize just how powerful this bill is going to be to put more money in the pockets of hard-working families,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of this narrative.
The first is that the tax cuts may be too modest and doled out too incrementally for most Americans to notice their existence.
Consider previous tax reductions.
The 2009 Recovery Act — the economic stimulus passed under President Barack Obama, in response to the Great Recession — cut taxes for 96 percent of households, according the Tax Policy Center. Incidentally, it also gave bigger benefits to families in the middle (and also bottom) of the income distribution than the Trump tax law will next year.
And yet, despite the magnitude and near-universality of those Recovery Act tax cuts, virtually no one noticed them.
A year later, just 12 percent of Americans knew that Obama had cut taxes for most people.
The 2001 and 2003 George W. Bush tax cuts tell a similar story. These cuts benefited about three-quarters of households, and also gave a bigger bump in after-tax income to those in the middle quintile than the Trump tax plan will next year.
And yet in 2004, just 19 percent said that Bush had reduced their taxes.
Why is it so hard to recognize a tax cut when you, and almost everyone else, have gotten one?
When it primarily appears in dribs and drabs over the course of the year through paycheck withholding, it’s just not that salient. Especially given all the other variables that can cause one’s take-home pay to fluctuate from year to year or week to week, such as changes in wages, hours and benefits.
Let’s say, though, that Republicans are right, and people do notice their taxes falling in 2018. Even then it’s not clear they’ll sweeten on the Trump plan.
In fact, they may sour on it further.
Despite what Republican legislative priorities suggest, most Americans don’t care all that much if their taxes go down. As Brookings Institution scholar Vanessa Williamson has shown, Americans don’t exactly love paying taxes, but they regard doing so as their civic duty. To the extent they care about the system, they’re primarily mad that others are shirking this duty.
The thing that bothers Americans most about the tax system is “the feeling that some corporations don’t pay their fair share,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. This was followed by the feeling that “some wealthy people are not paying their fair share.” Next, tax-code complexity.
Then, in fourth place, was the amount they personally pay in taxes.
Americans know the Trump tax bill gives the biggest windfall to the rich and corporations. That’s probably why they hate it so much. This hatred will likely grow as clever accountants devise new ways to make the windfall even bigger, thanks to as-yet-undiscovered glitches and drafting errors throughout this hastily written bill.
“Newspapers are going to be full of stories about people creatively minimizing their taxes,” says tax historian Joseph Thorndike.
A fall in other people’s taxes, he says, is what Americans care about — and what, over the coming months, they’ll be looking for.