Trump Reverses Payroll Tax Cut Stance as Recession Talk Continues: 'We Don't Need It'

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President Trump speaks to the press outside the White House on Wednesday. Photo Credit: SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
August 21, 2019

President Trump on Wednesday reversed his position on cutting payroll taxes to spur economic growth, telling reporters on the White House lawn that "we don't need it."

The reversal comes after days of mixed messages from the administration. The White House had first denied that it was considering a cut to payroll taxes since the economy, top officials claimed, was sound. However, on Tuesday, Trump said "payroll tax is something that we think about and a lot of people would like to see that."

In another about-face on Wednesday, Trump announced that he is "not looking at a tax cut now." The remarks follow a growing number of economists who have publicly warned that a recession in the U.S. is on the horizon.

"I don't think [Trump] is particularly concerned if what he says one day disagrees with what his advisors said the day before," said Brian Brenberg, the chair of the Program in Business and Finance at The King's College. "It's classic message testing by the president" to see how the media and markets react.

Recession concerns largely emerged last week after the U.S. Treasury's yield curve inverted; in other words, short-term investments in government bonds are now expected to pay more than long-term ones. The inversion — the first since the economic collapse of 2007-2008 — sent the markets plummeting.

A survey released this week by the National Association for Business Economics also found that 74 percent of U.S. economists believe the country will go into a recession by 2021.

"We don't need [a payroll tax cut]. We have a strong economy," Trump said Wednesday.

Payroll taxes, which apply to both employers and employees, are ubiquitous in the U.S. economy and fund major federal programs like social security and medicare. The taxes were lowered as part of the economic stimulus package following the Great Recession a decade ago, and the cut was extended by President Obama in 2012. Republicans initially opposed the cut at the time, citing concern over the federal deficit.

Yet today, many economists caution against cutting payroll taxes given the country's historically low unemployment, the current strain on social security spending, and the government's growing deficit, which has ballooned under Trump following policies like the 2017 tax cuts.

"Payroll taxes are a significant source of government revenue, and payroll tax cuts have been found to have little to no impact on long-term economic growth," the Tax Foundation said on Twitter.

On Wednesday, moreover, the Congressional Budget Office said that the federal budget deficit is accelerating faster than expected. The agency updated its deficit forecast to $960 billion in 2019 and over $1 trillion in 2020.

Cutting payroll taxes, experts say, will also not address the core concerns of investors: tariffs and trade.

"Most investors are unified in believing the only thing that's really going to meaningfully change the conversation around recession is doing something on trade," Brenberg said, noting that Trump's remarks on Tuesday did little to boost the markets.

Adam Michel, a tax policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that "high tariffs and trade uncertainty" were the main impediments to economic progress. "If the administration wants to boost the economy, they should start there," he said.

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