I’m a regular reader of David Leonhardt, the New York Times’ Economic Scene columnist. He frequently combats a lot of ignorance about economics generally, and the impact of economic policy, specifically. So I was anxious to read his column this week --Yes, 47% of Households Owe No Taxes. Look Closer.
I was disappointed.
In trying to put the 47% figure into context, Leonhardt instead took us further away from fully understanding the meaning and consequences of a U.S. system that disproportionately distributes the U.S. federal income tax burden.
In fact, Leonhardt is categorically wrong on the two “ideas” he attempts to debunk. Here’s what he wrote:
With Tax Day coming on Thursday, 47 percent has become shorthand for the notion that the wealthy face a much higher tax burden than they once did while growing numbers of Americans are effectively on the dole.
Neither one of those ideas is true. They rely on a cleverly selective reading of the facts. So does the 47 percent number.
Well, not quite. If we’re referring to the top 5% of incomes as “the wealthy” Leonhardt is demonstrably wrong. And while I won’t use his “on the dole” or “free rider” language, if Leonhardt is trying to knock down the “idea” that the top 50% is subsidizes (in part) the bottom 50%, he’s wrong again. And it doesn’t require any clever selection or reading of the facts. Let’s take them one-by-one.
“Wealthy face a much higher tax burden than they once did”. Leonhardt writes: “Over the last 30 years, rates have fallen more for the wealthy, and especially the very wealthy, than for any other group In fact.” This is undoubtedly true. It’s also misleading and without meaning. President Kennedy lowered the top rate from 90% to 71%.
Did high income earners actually fork over 90% of their income to Uncle Sam? No. In fact, over the decades the income tax rate has come down substantially as the federal government removed significant offsets used to shield certain types of income and expenditures from taxation. The lowered rate was a trade-off for exposing more income to taxation. That’s what the 1986 tax reform effort was all about.
At any rate, Leonhardt also appropriately refers to the tax burden, and in tax policy when we refer to the tax burden, we mean the relative share of taxes paid by certain income groups. By this measure, “the wealthy” clearly pay a substantially larger share of the income tax burden than they have in the past.
According to IRS data, in 1987 the top 5% of earners paid 43.26% of all federal income taxes; today, that group pays more than 60% of the tax burden. By contrast, the share of taxes paid by the bottom 50% of taxpayers has continually fallen to now be well under 3% of all income tax revenue today.
Percentages can be mind-numbing, so for reference, let’s talk cash: using round numbers, the top 50% of earners pay more than a $1 trillion dollars in federal income taxes; the bottom 50% pay about $35 billion.