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Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Is Our Tax System Helping Us Create Wealth?"

David Cay Johnston looks at changes in the tax burden for high income and lower income taxpayers since 1961. The bottom line: 90% of the population did not do well over this time period:

Is Our Tax System Helping Us Create Wealth?, by David Cay Johnston, Commentary, Tax Analysts: ...We have data on the 400 highest-income taxpayers only from 1992 to 2006, and then only thanks to Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan and others who had these data analyzed, and the Obama administration, which overturned the George W. Bush policy of treating the data as a state secret.
[B]ecause of a quirk in the Statistics of Income report for [1961, it is] easy to compare those at the very top with the bottom 90 percent of Americans. ...[I]t turns out that in 1961, the top income category [had] 398 taxpayers... So by comparing the average income of the top 398, and the taxes they paid, with 2006 dollars, we can compare how people at the apex of the economy were doing 45 years apart. And then by looking at the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers in 1961 and 2006, we can compare the very top with the rest of taxpayers.
The vast majority of Americans saw their incomes rise only modestly in those 45 years. Measured in 2006 dollars, the average income of the bottom 90 percent grew from $22,366 in 1961 to $31,642 in 2006. That is a real increase of $9,276 in average income. But it was also after 45 years, longer than the careers of most workers. ...

For the vast majority, federal income taxes declined. In 1961 these people paid on average 9.6 percent of their income to the federal government. By 2006 this burden had been cut to 7.2 percent. That tax rate reduction saved each of these taxpayers about $760...

That tiny increase in pay does not represent a real increase in wages, only total income. That is because in the middle of that 45-year era, a profound transformation took place in America. In 1961 most families lived on one income, maybe supplemented by some part-time work by the wife... Now two-income households are the norm. ...

America grew and grew during this era. GDP, adjusted for inflation and increased population, was up 227 percent. But wages and fringe benefits did not grow with the economy. For most workers, they fell. Wages peaked way back in 1972-1973, were on a mostly flat trajectory for more than two decades, rose briefly in the late 1990s, and then fell sharply in the new century. ... Millions are out of work, and the jobs they once held are ... not coming back. And even if the Great Recession is coming to an end, we face years of jobs growing more slowly than the working-age population, which could radically transform America’s culture, work ethic, and sense of progress.
In 2006 families worked on average about 900 more hours than families did in the 1960s and early 1970s. That is a roughly 45 percent increase in hours worked... For many, the reality is that two jobs produce the same or a smaller after-tax income than just one job did three and four decades ago. ...
During the 45 years starting in 1961, payroll taxes have gone from a minor levy to almost a sixth of wages for the bottom 90 percent of American households. This $760 in income tax savings that the average taxpayer enjoyed in 2006 was taken back, and more, by the increased tax rates for Social Security and Medicare. Those rates rose from 3 percent withheld from pay in 1961 to 7.65 percent in 2006. Not all income is from wages, of course, but those higher payroll taxes wiped out the seeming reduction in the income tax and more. ...
And at the top? Now, that’s a different story. The average income for the top 400 taxpayers rose over the 45 years from $13.7 million to $263.3 million. That is 19.3 times more.
The income tax bill went up too, but only 7.8 times as much because tax rates plunged. Income tax rates at the top fell 60 percent, three times the percentage rate drop for the vast majority. And at the top, the savings were not offset by higher payroll taxes, which are insignificant to top taxpayers. ...

[Click on table for larger version]

This combination of explosive growth in income and a 60 percent cut in effective tax rates meant that average after-tax income rose to $210 million in 2006, compared with $7.9 million in 1961. ..

Without a doubt, the much lower tax rates at the top encouraged people to realize more income in the tax system. And if the only measure is that some people made more, then this would be a good. But let’s ask the question that the classical economists would have asked back when they were known as moral philosophers and their leaders spoke of policies that benefited the majority. Let’s go back to a time before Vilfredo Pareto’s observations began what is the overwhelmingly dominant orthodoxy today, neoclassical economics with its focus on gain.
What is the social utility of creating a society whose rules generate a doubling of output per person but provide those at the top with 37 times the gain of the vast majority? ...
Is a ratio of gain of 37 to 1 from the top to the vast majority beneficial? Is it optimal? Does it provide the development, support, and initiative to maximize the nation’s gain? Are we to think that the gains of the top 398 or 400 taxpayers are proportionate to their economic contributions? Does anyone really think that heavily leveraged, offshore hedge fund investments are creating wealth, rather than just exploiting rules to concentrate wealth, while shifting risks to everyone else?
Under the overwhelmingly dominant economic theory of today, this is all good. Pareto argued that if no one was harmed, then all gain was good. Carried to an extreme, neoclassical economics would say that if the bottom 99.9999997 percent had the same income in 1961 and 2006, and all of the gain went to the one other person in America, that would be a good. ...
Is our tax system helping us create wealth and build a stable society? Or is it breeding deep problems by redistributing benefits to the top while maintaining burdens for the rest of Americans?

Think about that in terms of this stunning fact teased from the latest Federal Reserve data by Barry Bosworth and Rosanna Smart for the Brookings Institution: The average net worth of middle-income families with children whose head is age 50 or younger, is smaller today than it was in 1983.

[Note: Tax Notes is a weekly 100-or-so page publication with no ads that is entirely supported by subscribers, as are State Tax Notes and Tax Notes International. It is put out by nonprofit Tax Analysts, to whom we owe a great deal for fighting for almost 40 years to strip away the secrecy behind taxes. David Cay Johnston's column appears every other Monday.]

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