In Trump USA, America could become a land of self-employed

Much of America’s economy is built on the relationship between businesses and their employees, with corporations providing protections such as health insurance and job stability in exchange for the worker’s loyalty and time.

Under Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s tax plan, however, that foundation might crumble, given a proposal that would provide a huge tax break to self-employed workers. Under his plan, tax rates for high-income earners could decline by more than half, providing an incentive for them to quit their jobs and join the “gig” economy.

Trump’s plan would place a flat 15 percent income tax are on all businesses, which would provide an incentive for workers to cut their payments to Uncle Sam by becoming contractors, according to a study released this week by the Tax Policy Center. The current top individual income tax rate is 39.6 percent, although even middle-class Americans could see a benefit if they shifted to contract work under Trump’s plan. Even though Trump is proposing to lower the top individual income tax rate to 33 percent, it would still make more financial sense for a high-earning worker to quit and take the 15 percent rate as a contractor.

“The 18 percentage point differential between the top rate on pass-through business income and wages would create a strong incentive for many wage earners to form a pass-through entity that provides labor services to their current employer instead of taking compensation in the form of wages,” the Tax Policy Center said in its report on Trump’s plan.

It added that Trump’s plan doesn’t provide rules or “enforcement mechanisms that might limit the number of employees who would redefine themselves as sole proprietors” to take advantage of the 15 percent flat rate.

Of course, it could be argued that America is already shifting toward becoming a nation of self-employed workers. Many have turned to companies like Uber or Etsy to make extra money on the side, while layoffs in the wake of the recession forced millions to reconsider the traditional work contract between employer and employee.

Yet it’s nevertheless difficult to count how many Americans are working in the gig economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its most recent estimate of independent workers -- such as freelancers or people working for temp agencies -- stems from a decade ago, when it estimated between 2 percent to 4 percent of all workers fit into this category.

That’s certainly grown in the last decade, given the upheaval of the recession and slow recovery. A recent report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that as much as 30 percent of the working-age population are involved in some sort of independent work, although it might not be their main source of income. 

Many of them are what McKinsey calls “free agents,” or about 49 million people in the U.S. and Europe who are freelancing by choice. They tend to be happier with their work than those who were forced into the gig economy because of financial straights or from necessity, it found.

While Trump’s 15 percent rate for businesses may seem like a small tweak, it would have a significant impact over the next decade, the report found. Federal tax revenue would decline by $2.35 trillion over the first decade due to lower taxes paid by businesses. American individuals who shifted from earning wages to the lower-taxed business income would result in a loss of $689 billion in revenue during the first decade.

Throw in Trump’s other tax proposals -- such as cutting taxes for high-income households -- and the end result would be a plunge of $6.2 trillion in federal tax revenue during the first 10 years. Federal debt would rise by $7.2 trillion over the decade, the report noted.

The Tax Policy Center also assessed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s tax proposals, which include boosting taxes on high-income households while increasing the child tax credit. Overall, the center estimated her plan would increase tax revenue by $1.4 trillion over a decade, with most of that borne by the top 1 percent of income earners.