A Closer Look at Income Tax and the Rich

by: Matthew Rafat

The WSJ published an article on taxes I somehow missed. Here's an interesting statement from the article:

Taxes paid by millionaire households more than doubled to $274 billion in 2006 from $136 billion in 2003. No President has ever plied more money from the rich than George W. Bush did with his 2003 tax cuts.

To that I say, "Pfffff." If you bring in an extra billion but increase spending by two billion, I am not patting you on the back.

Unfortunately, the article's failure to incorporate Pres. Bush's expenditures reduces the impact of its more stunning statistics:

1. In 2006, the top 1% of Americans (making $388,806+) paid 40% of all income taxes; and

2. The top 10% (making $108,904+) paid 71%. That means 90% of all Americans only paid 29% of all income taxes, indicating their income tax burden is relatively low (compared to the affluent).

The article states that "Americans with an income below the median paid a record low 2.9% of all income taxes" in 2006. Some argue such a *relatively* low tax burden creates a moral hazard, because poor and low income residents receive as many benefits as the rich--police and fire protection, schools, access to courts, FDA protection (food and drugs), FAA protection (air travel), and so on--but pay almost nothing for it. One might reasonably argue the lower income brackets should be taxed more to create a more fair understanding of the high costs of government and public services.

My opinions on this issue of "fair taxation" is evolving, but I support Obama's stated plan to raise the payroll tax threshold. While the poor don't get taxed much on their income, their income is still taxed relatively high if you factor in the the payroll tax. The payroll tax is used to finance Social Security and other social programs, but it taxes income only up to a certain amount of wages/salary. In 2007, if you made more than $95,000, you paid the same amount in payroll taxes as the hedge fund manager who made $1 billion. And if you made $1 billion, your wages were deducted the same percentage in payroll taxes as the person who made $30,000. That scenario doesn't appear equitable when the Social Security program is underfunded.

One bipartisan solution would be to increase the payroll tax threshold (thereby saving Social Security) while also instituting a national sales tax (which would affect poor and rich alike). This way, current income tax rates would be maintained, and the poor would have an incentive to spend less, perhaps saving more of their money and moving up. I remember telling a friend who protested the sales tax because it hurt the poor, "Get the tap water (pointing to my free glass of water), not the Coke." In other words, at least the sales tax is a tax I can avoid most of the time. I realize this makes me sound like Marie Antoinette, but I don't see a better compromise. It would be helpful if all taxes collected actually went into a "lockbox" the government couldn't tap for anything other than benefit payments.

Still, reading an article like this inspires me to try harder to think of a more equitable and effective scenario (Thanks to creditslips.org for the tip).

It's no secret that the poor and middle class spend their money, while the rich save it and try to live off their interest and dividends, which are taxed at a lower rate (now 15%). As a result, any decent economist is going to want to try to get as much money into the hands of the poor and middle class as possible.

At the same time, as a Californian, I want more people outside the state to pay their fair share. It is not unusual in Santa Clara County to see people making 109,000 dollars or more (top 10% income bracket). It's incredible to think Californians pay so much in federal taxes, basically subsidizing Middle America, and yet are looked down upon by so many of our compatriots. For example, Texas took money from (robbed?) California through Enron. New Yorkers consider Californians soft. Dan Gable, from Iowa, reportedly refused to enroll California wrestlers because they were lazy. I dislike the status quo, which breeds resentment among the states and pits classes against one another while government spending runs amok. There has to be a better way.

More below on taxation.

McCain on Social Security (from http://www.csmonitor.com):

Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed.

An Example re: What Happens When You Tax One Group Too Much (taken from internet comment board):

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for tea and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

  • The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
  • The fifth would pay $1.
  • The sixth would pay $3.
  • The seventh would pay $7.
  • The eighth would pay $12.
  • The ninth would pay $18.
  • The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that’s what they decided to do. The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. ‘Since you are all such good customers, he said, ‘I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily tea by $20. Drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. What happens to the other six men - the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’ They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his tea. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

  • The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
  • The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% savings).
  • The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28% savings).
  • The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
  • The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
  • The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

‘I only got a dollar out of the $20,’ declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, ‘But he got $10!’

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ exclaimed the fifth man. ‘I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!’

‘That’s true!!’ shouted the seventh man. ‘Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!’

‘Wait a minute,’ yelled the first four men in unison. ‘We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!’

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had tea without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.