Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category
This is what I mean when I say that those academics and other public intellectuals on the right view this whole thing as a game. It’s not about doing what’s right and it’s not even about doing what you believe to be true. It’s about confusing the issue so that your masters can do what they want.
But it’s not a game. Allowing hedge fund managers to pay 15% in federal income taxes instead of 35% robs the Treasury of much needed revenue, putting a burden on current and future tax payers. It also increases inequality in a way that simply didn’t happen fifty years ago.
The CBO very thoughtfully made what I believe is the main point of the OWS protesters. The main income growth over the last 30 years has gone to only the top 1 percent of the income distribution, leaving everybody else only marginally better off than we were three decades ago.
The growth in (after-tax!) income by quintile is striking:
Growth in Real After-Tax Income from 1979 to 2007
Source: Congressional Budget Office
The first four quintiles have seen less than 50% growth over 30 years, or less than 1.4% per year. And as you can see that’s much smaller for the bottom 40% who have seen income grow less than 1% per year. Meanwhile the top 1% has seen after tax income grow by 270% over the same time period, or 3.6% per year.
That means that every group except the 1% have seen their slice of the American pie shrink between 1979 and 2007.
Shares of Market Income, 1979 and 2007
Source: Congressional Budget Office
I’m just glad that the 99% is finally waking up and demanding that we do something about it. So while I’m no protester (I’m much to soft and squishy), here are a few suggestions:
- Increase the marginal tax rates, especially on the top 1% (my next post will expand on this).
- Put a Tobin tax on financial transactions, say $0.05-$0.10 per share (or the equivalent).
- Pass a constitutional amendment that says all federal elections are to be financed with only public funds.
Growth in GDP per capita comes from the entire economy. It comes from businesses competing for your dollar and coming up with new products and better ways to make old products. It can be strong when the top marginal tax rate is 90% (as it was in the 1950s) or when it is 39% (as it was in the 1990s). It can come when the top 1% is getting 7% of the national income and when it is getting 15% of the national income. We simply have to choose which world we want to live in.
I believe the three suggestions above will slow the growth of the top 1 percent’s income, reduce the size of the financial sector, and make the government more accountable to voters rather than those who donate. That’s the world I want to live in.
Eric Schoenberg has an article at the HuffPo about how little he paid in federal taxes for 2010. Out of his income of $207,415 he was able to deduct $155,466 plus another $14,600, leaving him with only $37,349 in taxable income. His federal taxes then amounted to $2,173 for a tax rate of 1.0%. His take: Thanks a lot, but this is insane. Under my proposal he would have paid $43,147 in taxes, for a tax rate of 20.8%. Now, if that were the case he might be writing a different article (Why Are My Taxes so High?), but at least we would be paying the bills.
Now, there are a few problems with my tax proposal. The main one I’ve been thinking about, is that doesn’t take state (or local) income taxes into account which can lead to a higher marginal tax rate. Ideally, the maximum marginal rate would be 50% (half for me, half for the society once you get above a fairly high threshold), so maybe I should reduce the top rates somewhat. Of course, perhaps simply allowing the deduction for state and local income taxes takes care of that.
However, the more I think about deductions, the less sense they make, especially from a libertarian point of view. A deduction (outside of deductions for other taxes) is basically the government saying, “I approve of how you spent this money so you don’t have to pay income on it.” You bought a house? Great, don’t pay taxes on the interest. You pay for someone to take care of your young child? No tax on that. You spend a lot on medical bills? Let me just reduce your taxes for you. Why should the government have any business telling us (or at least influencing us on) how to spend our money? It doesn’t make sense.
I wouldn’t normally describe myself as a libertarian. I believe in the glue and benefits that society provides. In order to make it a society in which I want to live, a society that takes care of its poor, elderly, and unlucky, I’m willing to pay taxes and make my fellow citizens pay them as well. But I’m still an economist. I still believe that people should, for the most part, be able to decide to spend their money how they would like to.
But in order to do that we need to make sure that our higher income people, like Eric Schoenberg, pay their fair share. I’m glad he was willing and able to use his own example to show that the rich often don’t pay their fair share.
The New York Magazine has a long piece on Paul Krugman’s lonely voice from the left. I’m a big fan of PK. While I don’t always think his political prognostications are correct (would HRC really have been better than BHO? I doubt it), his economic pronouncements are almost always right. With the left without a leader, should we start draftpaulkrugman2012.com? Probably not. I doubt he would make a good politician (and might not even make a good chairman of the CEA), despite the fact that he’s a better thinker on economic/social issues than anybody else currently around.
Recently I’ve been thinking about what the country does need in order to move farther left to a world with universal healthcare, stronger unions, a higher minimum wage, and publicly-financed campaigns. Many of us on the left felt that we were getting just the kind of politician that we wanted in Obama, only to be disappointed by his desire to lead by compromise, to be the grownup in the conversation.
- You want a $1.2 trillion spending stimulus? How about we ask for $850 billion and then compromise by reducing that and making half of it ineffectual tax cuts.
- You want to close Guantanamo Bay? Well, let’s release some of them, maybe try to get a trial in Federal court, and then back down and just keep the status quo.
- You want to nationalize the banks that caused this financial panic in order to protect the taxpayers? Let’s just funnel them billions of dollars, reduce the industry’s competitiveness, and hope they can recapitalize through profits.
- You want to worry about the unemployed and create some sort of temporary jobs program? Well, maybe I can get another year of extended unemployment benefits by agreeing to keep taxes on the rich at low levels.
The list goes on and on. I can sympathize with the President. I understand all too well the impulse to compromise somewhere in the middle when a decision has to be made. It makes you look reasonable, it allows you to avoid more overt confrontation, and it allows you to move to the next problem. But there are at least two large problems with this style of leadership.
First, the Republicans are better at this game. Like an intelligent child, they see that if you want to compromise as a way of resolving conflicts, they should ask for two hours of TV instead of one. They should suggest cutting the top marginal tax rate to 25% instead of 35%. Democrats, on the other hand, seem much more likely to actually propose what they want. When we have a compromiser-in-chief, we end up a lot farther right than we ever expected to.
The second problem with this kind of leadership is that it simply isn’t leadership. The platoon leader doesn’t say, “Ok, the captain says we need to take this hill, but Robinson here has some serious misgivings. I’ve decided we’re going to go halfway up and ask the enemy for a truce.” The parent
doesn’t shouldn’t say, “If you don’t want to eat your broccoli you at least have to eat a piece of bread.” The CEO doesn’t say–well, you get the point.
The leader must lead. She must say, “This is the right way. Follow me.” If she runs into obstacles, she must fight through them. If she runs into a roadblock, she must scream and batter it until it is lifted or it crumbles. She may not always seem to accomplish as much as someone willing to compromise, but she will do more of what she believes is right.
And this is the type of president that Americans admire. FDR was a leader. So was LBJ. Carter was not a leader. Reagan (in his own wifty way) was a leader. George W. Bush (in his demented way) was a leader in a way his father was not. Eisenhower was perhaps the best leader we’ve had, even though he did it in a fairly quiet, unassuming way. I think one of the problems for Obama is that Bill Clinton was fairly successful as a compromiser. As he is the only Democratic president we’ve had in the last 30 years, there are not a lot of other role models.
But I can’t help but think that Clinton was fairly lucky. The economy was getting a fairly big productivity shock from the introduction of information technologies into more and more industries. That allowed him to cut back on spending and (modestly) raise taxes without any economic problems. Obama seems to want to take that blueprint and apply it to the current economic situation which, unfortunately, is completely different. We had a huge financial crisis followed by a very deep recession and an incredibly slow recovery. If he needs a role model, he should look to FDR.
Don’t get me wrong, FDR made as many mistakes as he had successes. But he lead the country through the Depression. He showed the people that he was on their side, that he was fighting for them, and that he would try anything that might work to get the country back on its feet. When conservative judges dismantled his New Deal legislation, he tried to pack the court. Sure, that was a mistake and didn’t work, but at least it showed he was serious. His one major mistake was compromising in 1937 and pulling back on his stimulus programs, pushing the economy back into recession.
Is there anyone on the left who can lead? I don’t see anyone. Our smartest and most successful politicians (on the left) seem to be compromising technocrats. And those farther left (Waxman, Kucinich, etc.) just seem a little too odd to appeal to the majority of Americans. Obama the candidate could lead. Obama the president does not seem able to.
Jonathan Cohn has a nice post about the benefits of taxes. He points out all of the nice things that taxes buy and that U.S. taxes are fairly low when compared to other OECD countries.
One of the bugaboos of the right is that higher taxes will lead to lower economic growth. There is no evidence of this, either in our own country’s history, or in the international data. In fact, a simple (quadratic) regression on U.S. post-WWII data suggests that a marginal income tax rate on the top 1% (those earning over $900k) of between 40-45% would maximize growth. If you look at the top 0.01% (those earning over $17 million) that growth-maximizing marginal tax rate is over 70%. In an earlier post I showed that we could eliminate the corporate income tax by raising top rates to only 50% (maybe a bit higher to actually balance the budget).
There may or may not be a causal relationship between higher taxes on the rich and higher GDP growth, but it is certainly possible. Higher taxes allow the government to spend more on infrastructure and education, both important for economic growth. Currently, higher taxes would allow the government to provide health insurance for all. This should increase the health, especially of the working lower middle class (who are the ones most often without insurance), and benefit economic growth.
The rich, very rich, and wannabe rich on the right have certainly stepped up their rhetoric over the last decade and seem to have convinced most politicians that higher taxes are evil things. But this is clearly not always the case. My total health insurance premium is about $19,000 a year for an excellent family coverage plan. That amounts to about 25% of my gross salary. If we put in a Medicare-for-all plan, I would bet those costs would fall fairly substantially (with only a small drop in coverage, after all, all providers would be in the network). I would gladly pay an extra 15-20% in taxes for such a plan, assuming that my salary is increased by the amount of my current coverage. The economic (and social) benefits of covering everybody, I would bet, would be significant.
It’s that time of year again. Time to gather up our W-2s, 1099s, fire up TurboTax®, and hope for a refund. But don’t sweat it, more likely than not, you’re paying less of the tax bill now than you did 30 years ago. If the Democrats have the courage to suggest it, we could dramatically simplify our income tax structure, make it more representative of the current income distribution, and eliminate the corporate income tax, immediately making the U.S. much more competitive in the global market.
The Tax Foundation shows that the bottom half of all taxpayers paid less than 3% of federal income tax, down from almost 7.5% in Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. The story is the same for the bottom 90%. Meanwhile we are saddling the top with an ever larger piece of the tax pie. The top one percent paid almost two-fifths of all income taxes in 2008, more than double what they paid the year after we elected the Gipper to office. How could that be?
Back in 1981 the bottom half of workers were earning almost (but not quite) one dollar out of every five of taxable income. That number is now down to one dollar out of eight. According to the Census, the inflation-adjusted median family income has grown at a rate at which it will take a century to double. In 2081 our grandchildren will be living large.
According to tax data analyzed by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the income of the bottom 90% has fallen from almost two-thirds of total income in 1981 to just over half in 2008, hitting a low in 2007. It hasn’t been that low since 1928. Meanwhile the income share of the top 1% has more than doubled, as has their tax share.
But the top 0.01%, representing just 1 in 10,000 taxpayers, a little over 15,000 families in total, now receives over 5% of all income, one dollar out of every twenty, up from less than 1.4% in 1981 (how did they get by?). To get into the rarified air of that top 0.01% (and don’t we all really want to?), you have to earn over $9 million a year. But the top marginal tax rate begins at an income level of less than $400,000, about what would put you into only the top 1%. Should the merely rich be paying the same rate as the super-, hyper-, mega-rich? It simply doesn’t seem fair.
Table 1: Income Shares, 1981 and 2008 (Including capital gains)
|Percentile||Share of Income – 1981||Share of Income – 2008|
We can make the tax structure both fairer and simpler while dramatically improving the competitiveness of the United States. I propose that those in the bottom 90% pay a flat marginal tax rate of 10% (with perhaps an exemption on the first $15,000 or a continuation of the earned-income tax credit to help out the poorest families). The next tax bracket, at 25%, would not begin until the household earned more than about $110,000 per year. The marginal tax rate would then increase by 5% increments at the 95th percentile, 99th, 99.5th, 99.9th, and top out at 50% for the top 0.01 percent.
Table 2: Proposed Marginal Tax Rates
|Percentile||Threshold Income||Maximum Income||Average Income||Share of Income||Marginal Tax Rate||Average Tax Rate||Percent of Taxes|
The numbers here (courtesy of Emmanuel Saez’s website) include capital income, which is generally taxed at a lower rate. I believe we should tax capital income at the full rate, but do away with the double-taxation of corporate income by eliminating all corporate income taxes. As we saw in the New York Times recently, big companies like General Electric don’t pay their taxes anyway. This would automatically make the United States one of the most competitive places to place a business and eliminate the incentive for our multi-national firms to set up elaborate tax dodges.
The benefit of this proposal is that it should raise almost enough revenue (if my calculations are correct) to cover the revenue of both the personal and corporate income tax. Of course, we will need to either raise taxes or cut spending in the not too distant future if we are ever to balance the federal budget. We would have to raise the rates in Table 2 by approximately 3 percentage points at each level to bring total income tax receipts to the same percent of GDP as during the last four years of the Clinton administration, the last time we had a balanced budget.
So how does this compare with current tax rates? In the table below I’ve listed the marginal and average tax rates for a number of income levels for both the current system and my proposal. As you can see, at each income level until you get above $1 million, the marginal and average tax rates would be lower than under the current system. In practice this proposal may result in higher taxes at the low end of the spectrum and I would certainly support the continuation and possible expansion of the earned income tax credit.
Table 3: Comparison with Current Tax Rates
|Adjusted Gross Income||Current Rates||Proposed Rates|
|Marginal Tax Rate||Average Tax Rate||Tax Bill||Marginal Tax Rate||Average Tax Rate||Tax Bill|
Would taxes actually be lower in practice? I’m not sure (how do we get the CBO to score this?), mainly because this proposal would get rid of all deductions. No mortgage interest deduction, no child deduction, no educational expense deductions, no health insurance deduction, no standard deduction. So a family earning $200,000 but only paying income tax on $150,000 after deductions would probably see only a small change (positive or negative) in their tax bill. But this should get rid of some of the most complicated portions of the tax code while making it more representative of how income is actually distributed. As you can see from Table 4, my proposal relies heavily on the hyper-rich paying their fair share.
Table 4: Income and Tax Shares
|Income Group||2008 Share of Income||2008 Share of Taxes||Proposed Share of Taxes|
And that’s the catch. How can we keep the same or lower taxes for almost everybody while raising more revenue? It depends on whether or not the stinking rich will actually pay. While some economists will argue that we shouldn’t increase taxes on the rich because it will make them work less, the probable result is just the opposite. The most likely outcome of my proposal is that it will make the super-rich work more – at avoiding taxes. It will make it more likely that they will try to engage in tax schemes and dodges that allow them to hide their income from the IRS to avoid paying 50% of all their income over $9 million to the Feds. I have two suggestions that might help avoid that.
The first has already been made. Simplify the tax code as much as possible so that there are no places to hide that income. Don’t allow the mega-rich to hide their income as corporation profits. Don’t let them set up tax shelters overseas. Increase the likelihood of an audit for those top 150,000 earners and increase the penalties for avoidance. If they earn it here, they pay taxes here. End of story.
My second suggestion would be the carrot to that stick. Make it a point of pride for those top taxpayers to support the government. They’re paying for our national defense and veterans benefits, research supported by the NIH and NSF, and everything else the federal government does. Publish their names (if they’d like), give them a medal, invite them to meet the President or members of Congress. They can feel proud that they are paying the taxes with which we can “buy civilization.”
And when the mega-rich complain about the share of taxes they must pay, there can be but one answer: The rest of us will gladly pay more taxes when we receive more income.