How to twist taxes to your (political) advantage
A positive development in our politics is that attention is finally turning to the debt and the annual deficit. In case you aren’t aware of the raw numbers, the deficit for the past two years has ballooned to more than an aggregated $3 trillion. That has raised the national debt to more than $14 trillion – or, about $123,000 for every household in the United States. I give President Obama credit for finally listening to the nation and recognizing the seriousness of the problem. It marks a dramatic turn for him, seeing as how he spent more in his first two years in office than his predecessor did in eight.
In his speech last week, the President didn’t mince words: he expects the “wealthy” to pay substantially more than they currently do while he continues to spend like a drunken sailor on things only a drunken politician would consider necessary. Lo, the blogosphere and networks have focused on the President’s new Medicare proposal (more on that tomorrow) and how yes, the “rich” should pay more. After all, the argument goes, the middle class is paying higher rates than the wealthy and that is just unfair. It certainly seems a winning political argument; after all, who isn’t for soaking the rich?
This makes for good sound bites and good politics, but bad policy. I realize that in some regions the Democrats definition of “wealthy” (a family earning $250,000/year) might make sense. But in others, $250,000 per year is simply middle class. Upper middle class, to be sure, but hardly wealthy. In the New York metro area, a family easily achieves a combined $250,000 in income with two public sector workers. It is even easier to reach if one person sells cars and the other works in the local bodega. The same holds true for San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major metro areas around the country. This is really a call to arms in class warfare, the destructive political game played by Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, with disastrous effects for the nation – though those effects weren’t felt until decades later. Even liberal icon FDR understood the dangers of the game and generally shied away from playing it.
Fortunately, the IRS keeps records on the truly wealthy and the rest of us. The latest data they have is from 2007; but since the one tax policy liberals love to hate – the “Bush Tax Cuts” were already in effect – it makes a good statistical reference point. You can find it here. In it, the IRS keeps tabs on the 400 wealthiest taxpayers in the country and compares their rates to the rest of the taxpaying public. They began tracking the data in 1992, so we have a 15 year window in the way tax policy evolved through both the Bush and Clinton eras.
At first blush, it seems as though liberals may be on to something. The IRS calculated the effective tax rate on the top 400 earners as 26.38% in 1992, rising to a high of 29.93% by 1995, and then steadily dropping to 16.62% by 2007. But statistics are wonderful things; anyone can quote a number out of context to prove an argument and this is exactly what the liberal media is doing.
First, I give credit to the IRS for doing what nobody to the left of center has bothered doing in their arguments. Their numbers reflect 1990 dollars ,thereby accounting for inflation (in mathematical terms, they normalized values). So, if the truly wealthy were paying lower effective rates, then the government should have been taking in less money from them, right? Not so fast: in 1992, the IRS collected about $4.5 trillion; by 2007 that figure rose to $14.5 trillion. Why? Well, in 1992 not a single one of those 400 returns reflected an effective tax rate over 31%. By 2007, even with the hated “Bush Tax Cuts”, 55% of the top 400 had an effective tax rate of at least 35%. The lower overall tax rate for these taxpayers is reflected in the fact that 35 of them paid no tax – an effective rate of 0%.
Overall, the truly wealthy combined to pay 2.05% of the taxes in 2007, nearly double the 1.04% they contributed in 1992. In actual dollars, they contributed nearly $23 billion of the government’s total tax take of $1.1 trillion. Those who make up this class are certainly already paying their share and the administrations attempts to paint them as sore winners can only result in flat out class warfare.
We do have a revenue problem, since we’re spending more than 4 times what the government is taking in. A better focus would be on the 45% of Americans who currently do not pay any income tax. Certainly, if you’re gross income is below the poverty line for your region, you shouldn’t be expected to pay, but I doubt 45% of Americans are living in poverty. That certainly seems much fairer and also guarantees that those currently benefiting from living here also gain equity in the system.
However, I doubt we’re going to find $1.6 trillion in revenue by asking everyone to pay their taxes. We still need deep spending cuts just to get the 2012 budget balanced. Tune in as I tackle those issues throughout the week.