Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tax Loafers? Maybe Not

Conservative media continues to repeat the infantile and laughably incomplete argument that roughly half of Americans don't pay taxes, the implication of which is that rich guys are bearing the burden and that millions of Americans are loafing off the hard work of others.

There is a lot to this Republican morality play, except maybe for facts. I will set aside the political psychology of conservative morality for the moment, except to say that it drives all conservative attitudes; not facts, not empiricism, not logic.

The federal income tax burden may be low for many of us, but payroll taxes disproportionately hit the working poor and the middle class. The tax-free argument really falls apart when we include all taxes. Republicans either don't notice, or hope you don't notice, these numerous other taxes; they are much more regressive, and they hit lower income people much harder. These include sales taxes, especially those on food and other basic needs, and indirect or semi-hidden taxes, such as those on phone bills, or those with a tax already built into the price, such as gasoline.

Here is David Leonhart of the New York Times, explaining why the conservative spin is so misleading:
The reason is that poor families generally pay more in payroll taxes than they receive through benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s not just poor families for whom the payroll tax is a big deal, either. About three-quarters of all American households pay more in payroll taxes, which go toward Medicare and Social Security, than in income taxes.

Focusing on the statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of households, as ranked by income — underlines this point. Households in this group made $35,400 to $52,100 in 2006, the last year for which the Congressional Budget Office has released data. That would describe a household with one full-time worker earning about $17 to $25 an hour. Such hourly pay is typical for firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent. A good number of people, in fact, paid no net income taxes. They are among the alleged free riders.

But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family’s total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.

If anything, the government numbers I’m using here exaggerate how much of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. These numbers fail to account for the income that is hidden from tax collectors — a practice, research shows, that is more common among affluent families. “Because higher-income people are understating their income,” Joel Slemrod, a tax scholar at the University of Michigan, says, “We’ve been overstating their average tax rates.”

State and local taxes, meanwhile, may actually be regressive. That is, middle-class and poor families may face higher tax rates than the wealthy. As Kim Rueben of the Tax Policy Center notes, state and local income taxes and property taxes are less progressive than federal taxes, while sales taxes end up being regressive. The typical family pays a lot of state and local taxes, too — almost half as much as in federal taxes.

There is no question that the wealthy pay a higher overall tax rate than any other group. That is an American tradition. But there is also no question that their tax rates have fallen more than any other group’s over the last three decades. The only reason they are paying more taxes than in the past is that their pretax incomes have risen so rapidly — which hardly seems a great rationale for a further tax cut.
I have slightly edited the original due to length. Go here to read the whole article.

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