Friday, April 10, 2009

The Undertaxed American Middle Class

In the Forbes column we quoted in the previous post ("Undertaxed America"), Bruce Bartlett referred to OECD data in making his case. Clive Crook referred to OECD data as well in a post on taxes in his Atlantic blog earlier this week ("America's widening fiscal gap"):

Mr Obama intends to squeeze the rich, but the scope for this may be more limited than US liberals would wish. Few Americans seem aware that the US income tax code, as a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study showed, is already one of the most progressive.* Even before the rise in top marginal rates promised by Mr Obama, the US income tax collects 45 per cent of its revenues from the highest-income decile. Compare that with Britain at 39 per cent, Canada at 36 per cent, France at 28 per cent, Sweden at 27 per cent and an OECD average of 32 per cent.

This difference is only partly explained by the less-equal US income distribution. The fact that the US has no broadly based national sales tax - value added taxes make Europe's overall tax codes less progressive still - only underlines the point. The US tax system raises comparatively little revenue; what little it raises already comes disproportionately, by international standards, from the rich.

I have previously argued that the US will need a VAT [value added tax]. Even before Mr Obama unveiled his ambitions for healthcare reform, wage subsidies to help the working poor, better education and the rest, the US middle class was seriously undertaxed. The government's promises, on present plans, will be unaffordable. If they are honoured regardless, the only question is which comes first: broadly based tax increases or fiscal collapse.

I have wondered if there might be a simpler way to tax Americans' consumption than to implement a value added tax. Since income taxes in the U.S. are highly progressive, and IRAs and 401(k)s don't offer deductions for payroll taxes, there is little incentive for Americans in lower income quintiles to save instead of consume. For example, according to CBO data, effective income tax rates for Americans in the bottom two income quintiles were negative in 2005 (i.e., these Americans received more in transfer payments than they paid in income taxes). So why not just increase the payroll tax by some amount and then allow workers to deduct up to that entire additional amount if they make an equivalent contribution to an IRA or 401(k)? Those who contribute less than that additional payroll tax amount to their retirement accounts will be paying a de facto consumption tax.

The image above accompanied the Financial Times column from which Clive Crook quoted himself in his Atlantic post.

1 comment:

Ari Fleischer said...

Everyone Should Pay Income Taxes

It's bad for our democracy to exempt half the country.

From NY Times April 13, 2009

If you thought Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme was bad, wait until you hear about the inverted pyramid scheme the federal government is working on. While Mr. Madoff preyed on people who trusted him with their money, the federal government has everyone's money, and the implications of its actions are worse.

David GothardPicture an upside-down pyramid with its narrow tip at the bottom and its base on top. The only way the pyramid can stand is by spinning fast enough or by having a wide enough tip so it won't fall down. The federal version of this spinning top is the tax code; the government collects its money almost entirely from the people at the narrow tip and then gives it to the people at the wider side. So long as the pyramid spins, the system can work. If it slows down enough, it falls.

It's also what's called redistribution of income, and it is getting out of hand.

A very small number of taxpayers -- the 10% of the country that makes more than $92,400 a year -- pay 72.4% of the nation's income taxes. They're the tip of the triangle that's supporting virtually everyone and everything. Their burden keeps getting heavier.

As a result of the 2001 tax cuts enacted by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, the share of taxes paid by the top 10% increased to 72.8% in 2005 from 67.8% in 2001, according to the latest data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Contrary to the myth that Mr. Bush cut taxes only for the wealthy, the 2001 tax cut reduced taxes for every income-tax payer in the country. He reduced the bottom tax rate to 10% from 15% and increased the refundable child tax credit to $1,000 from $500 per child, both cuts that President Barack Obama says we should keep. In so doing, millions of lower income taxpayers were removed from the tax rolls, shifting the remaining burden to those at the top, even after their taxes were cut.

According to the CBO, those who made less than $44,300 in 2001 -- 60% of the country -- paid a paltry 3.3% of all income taxes. By 2005, almost all of them were excused from paying any income tax. They paid less than 1% of the income tax burden. Their share shrank even when taking into account the payroll tax. In 2001, the bottom 60% paid 16.3% of all taxes; by 2005 their share was down to 14.3%. All the while, this large group of voters made 25.8% of the nation's income.

When you make almost 26% of the income and you pay only 0.6% of the income tax, that's a good deal, courtesy of those who do pay income taxes. For the bottom 40%, the redistribution deal is even better. In 2001, these 43 million Americans, who earn less than $30,500, made 13.5% of the nation's income but paid no income tax. Instead, they received checks from their taxpaying neighbors worth $16.3 billion. By 2005, those checks totaled $33.3 billion.

Today, Mr. Obama and many congressional Democrats want the "wealthy" to pay even more so there is more money for them to redistribute. The president says he wants the wealthy to pay their "fair share." Who can argue with that? But he never defines what that means. Is it fair for 10% to pay 70% of the income tax? Does he believe they should pay 75%, or 95%, or does fairness mean they should pay it all? It's clever politics to speak like that, but it is risky policy.

Mr. Obama is adding to this trend with his "Make Work Pay" tax cut that means almost 50% of the country will no longer pay any income taxes, up from a little over 40% today. A certain amount of income redistribution in a capitalistic society is healthy, but this goes too far. The economic and moral problem is that when 50% of the country gets benefits without paying for them and an increasingly smaller number of taxpayers foot the bill, the spinning triangle will no longer be able to support itself. Eventually, it will spin so slowly that it falls down, especially when the economy is contracting and the number of wealthy taxpayers is in sharp decline.

In addition to exempting almost 50% of the country from income taxes, today nearly every other social cause is given a loophole -- or a preference -- in the tax code. Want to buy a hybrid vehicle? You get a tax break. Do you own a solar water heater? You get a credit. Want to give to charity? You get a deduction. Own a house? There's another tax deduction for you. How about college savings, certain medical costs, and retirement savings? Yes, yes, and of course yes. Did you move, pay alimony, or "provide housing to a Midwestern displaced individual"? More deductions, credits and exemptions there too, if you qualify.

Everyone now has a sacred cow in the tax code. For my money, the most sacred thing of all is our country and its growth, but the sacred cows have turned into a pack of wolves. On both the spending and the tax side, the wolves are devouring our children's future.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) wants to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the president's budget, but that's small potatoes given the size of the deficit. The debt problem is so big and hopeless, Congress's normal nips and tucks won't work. Something more fundamental needs to happen.

It's time to create an Economic Growth Code whose purpose is to fix and grow the economy, not redistribute massive amounts of wealth. A new tax code that creates growth and reforms our entitlement system is the only way to dig our way out of the hole we're in.

Under an Economic Growth Code, everyone in American would pay income taxes -- everyone. Such a system would be designed to foster broad-based growth for all, in contrast to the loophole-ridden system we have today. Not only is the current code flawed from top to bottom, it is used by politicians to divide the public along class lines and fails to promote prosperity.

Growth is the key to keeping the pyramid spinning, and to keep spinning the pyramid's tip needs to be broadened. Otherwise a country that was raised to believe that national bankruptcy happened elsewhere may have to think again. Given the state of the economy and trillion-dollar deficits projected as far as the eye can see, we need to return to an era of more conservative, fiscal discipline.

Congress should start by refusing to go along with Mr. Obama's promise to cut taxes for 95% of the country. With the government running an almost $2 trillion deficit, no one should have their taxes cut -- no one. Given the size of the deficit, fiscal responsibility demands nothing less.

Republicans in Congress need to develop their own version of an Economic Growth Code, an alternative tax code that directly targets the current mess and helps us to grow our way out of it. Republicans should not doodle in the margins -- they should use their minority status to launch the next big movement in policy and politics. Nothing creates revenue like growth and that's where Republicans should make their mark.

I favor the abolition of all Social Security, Medicare and estate taxes. In their place, we should create a simple income tax system that has no deductions or credits at all. The result would be a progressive, multitiered income tax in which everyone pays. The bottom 50% won't be excused from paying the cost of government and top earners will no longer have the loopholes they're used to. The middle-class, whose wages have stagnated, will benefit from economic growth. Social Security and Medicare will be funded from income taxes, ending the myth that these programs are supported through government trust funds and payroll taxes. The tax base will broaden dramatically, allowing rates to fall and helping to foster what's most important -- economic growth.

I'd also create a mechanism so tax rates go up or down for everyone -- no more dividing the country by lowering taxes for some or raising them only for others. A revenue system whose purpose is to pay the government's bills should apply fairly to one and all. If Congress wants to raise or cut taxes, it should do so for everyone.

Another benefit is that such a system will create an environment in which spending programs receive the scrutiny they deserve. It's funny what happens when everyone pays the bills; Americans may want less spending so they can pay fewer bills.

Mr. Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, is president of Ari Fleischer Communications.