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Platform Check: Breaking Down The Presidential Candidates' Tax Plans


The presidential race is a story of polls, debates, ads and accusations. It is also a story about policy. What will these people actually do as president? Over the next few weeks, we're going to explore the differences between candidates on a bunch of different issues. This is our first Platform Check.


TED CRUZ: We need a president who understands the national security interests of this country.


HILLARY CLINTON: About Afghanistan, about Israel, about counterterrorism.


DONALD TRUMP: Illegal immigration is going to stop. It's dangerous.


JOHN KASICH: We want to have free trade, but fair trade.


BERNIE SANDERS: That the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes.

SHAPIRO: And speaking of taxes, today we're asking what the candidates want to change about how much we pay in taxes. Robert Williams is from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: And I understand you frame this as a difference between the status quo and radical change, and the status quo camp has one member.

WILLIAMS: Hillary Clinton. She's the one who would not change the taxes very much. She'll raise a little bit here and a little bit there to do some of the things she wants to do and raise taxes particularly on the high-income folks.

SHAPIRO: And in the radical-change camp, on the one hand, you have Bernie Sanders.

WILLIAMS: Bernie Sanders would raise taxes across the board. Everybody would pay more, and the rich would pay a lot more.

SHAPIRO: And on the other hand, you have the Republicans - Trump, Cruz, Kasich.

WILLIAMS: We don't know much about Kasich, but certainly Trump and Cruz would cut people's taxes a lot, particularly for the rich. Their taxes would go down by 20, 30 percent.

SHAPIRO: What's the difference between the Trump tax plan and the Cruz tax plan - the two Republicans who've fully fleshed out their proposals?

WILLIAMS: Trump basically stays with our current income tax. He would expand benefits. He would cut rates a lot, particularly for high-income people, but within the current system. In contrast, Ted Cruz would get rid of a lot of the taxes we've already got and change what we're doing to collect revenue. He would get rid of the payroll taxes. He would get rid of the estate tax. He would impose a much lower income tax - a 10 percent tax on everybody. And then, he would impose a 16 percent tax on businesses that essentially is a consumption tax.

SHAPIRO: On your online comparison chart, it looks at the impact over the next 10 years of the various plans. It says the impact of the Clinton plan is about a trillion dollars over 10 years. The impact of the Sanders plan is about $15 trillion over 10 years. That's a pretty substantial difference.

WILLIAMS: That's a huge difference. And the tax increase is the largest increase we'd ever have. We had something comparable to it during all of World War II. But since then, no tax increase has been anywhere close to what Sanders is proposing. Now, he is proposing to reduce costs for people in other ways. He would provide Medicare for all, which would mean you don't have to spend anything on health care. Instead, your tax bill would go up. He would provide free college education for everybody. And the big part of the bill will go to the high-income people. He would raise the top tax rate to 52 percent and even higher if you count some of the other taxes he would impose.

SHAPIRO: What are the value and belief systems that lead to these different tax policies?

WILLIAMS: Well certainly the Republican view is small government is better - do less at the federal level and then collect less money to pay for that. In contrast, the Democratic view is the state is there to provide things they can't otherwise provide for themselves. We need to pay for that, and the way we're going to pay for that is have higher taxes, particularly on those who can most afford it, which means high-income people.

SHAPIRO: They also have very different views on what the economic impact of that would be, which I would imagine makes it really hard to compare, you know, in 10 years, what effect will this have - because Republicans say, well, if you cut taxes, it'll spur economic growth and the economy will boom. Democrats say, if you raise taxes, you'll have more government spending and the economy will boom. I mean, it's a black-and-white, complete opposite view of the world. How do you compare those two?

WILLIAMS: They aren't too different in terms of their saying there will be an effect on the economy. The views are different in terms of what the levers are that are going to push things. The Republicans are probably right. If you cut taxes, all else the same, there will be more investment, and the economy will grow a little faster. The problem is, all else isn't the same because when you cut taxes, you've got to figure out - how do you balance the budget, and how you do that is going to affect whether there's big growth, little growth or no growth. On the Democratic side, raising taxes is going to mean money pulled away from the private sector. There will be less investment, smaller growth. But if the government's spending money, people are going to have to provide those needs. There'll be more growth for that. How it plays out is so dependent on the details of each plan. It's impossible to predict.

SHAPIRO: That's Roberton Williams of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Thanks a lot.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.