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Who Pays U.S. Income Taxes?

December 4, 2017 Leave a comment

My last post used 2015 tax return data from the IRS to see if “Bernie Care” could be financed using the tax payments of the “rich.”  Using that tax return data, it is also instructive to see just who is paying the income taxes collected in the U.S. The table below is constructed to show how much rich people pay into the income tax system and, obviously, people may differ regarding the definition of a rich person. So I picked out an Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $200K and above as an arbitrary, but not unreasonable, definition of the rich for use in the table. For each class of AGI, entries in the table are the ratio of taxes paid to total taxes collected (called the Tax Share) and the ratio of the number of returns to the total number of returns (called the Return Share). Regarding the return shares, the zero entries mean that, rounding up to two digits, the calculated ratio is much less than one percent.

Adjusted Gross Income Tax Share Return Share
$200,000 under $500,000 0.21 0.036
$500,000 under $1,000,000 0.11 0.01
$1,000,000 under $1,500,000 0.05 0
$1,500,000 under $2,000,000 0.03 0
$2,000,000 under $5,000,000 0.07 0
$5,000,000 under $10,000,000 0.04 0
$10,000,000 or more 0.10 0
Total 0.59 0.05

The table reveals that about 60 percent of the taxes paid are coming from those with an AGI of $200K and above. Only about 5 percent of the returns being filed in 2016 for the 2015 tax year provided this tax revenue. Thus a small number of returns provided more than half of the U.S. income tax revenue on returns filed in 2016 for 2015 AGI.

Since the personal income tax system provides the lion’s share of federal government tax revenue, this table provides one possible basis for the claims, often found in the media, that the rich pay the lion’s share of the funds used to finance the activities of government.

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Can the Rich Pay for “Bernie-Care?”

November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

In an earlier post, I reported the results of an Urban Institute study which attempted to estimate the cost of Medicare-for-All or “Bernie-Care,” the latter name given by some people to a Medicare-for-All system because Senator Bernie Sanders has advocated this plan. The Urban Institute study estimated the cost of such a plan to be between $2.0 Trillion and $2.5 Trillion. Here I ask if the rich, however defined, can pay for such a new medical insurance system.

Before going further, it should be recognized that a definition of the rich is inherently arbitrary and so the only sensible way to address this issue is to report a range of income classes and let the reader decide which one is relevant. That is what I will do in what follows below. The data comes from Table 3 of the IRS tables reporting statistics on the U.S. income tax and I will confine the results to the latest year available from the IRS, 2014. Read more…

Tax-Income Ratios in G7 Countries

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In a previous post, I provided data on the ratio of tax receipts to GDP in the U.S. It was shown that the U.S. ratio fluctuated around 20 percent of GDP since 1960. Here I provide data on the remaining G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom) which illustrates how different the U.S. is from many European economies. Below is a graph of the data drawn from the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) covering 1995 to 2015.

The graph shows that tax-income ratios are much higher in the six G7 countries than they are

in the U.S. In 1995, the tax shares ranged from a low of 27 percent in Japan to a high of 43 percent in France. By 2015,  the tax shares range from 32 percent in Japan to 48 percent in France. In short, none of the six countries has a tax share as low as the U.S.

The Entitlements Crisis

The aging of the U.S. population is increasing the transfer payments made by the U.S. government and the obvious question is how the U.S. will finance these payments. It is unlikely that this can be done by borrowing (it is doubtful that the U.S. can borrow trillions of dollars each year) so this suggests that the tax-income ratios in Europe are what may be imposed in the U.S. as the entitlements crisis unfolds. This is what is meant by the charge that many politicians want to turn the U.S. into a European welfare state. What remains to be seen is if the U.S. taxpayers will agree to such a historically large increase in the tax-income ratio in the U.S.

The U.S. Tax-Income Ratio

August 17, 2017 1 comment

I recently saw a news report about federal government tax receipts and I began to wonder what trends, if any, have been present in the public’s support of government as measured by its tax payments. Most media reports that I have seen focus on the dollar amounts of federal government tax revenue but it is more informative to include state and local governments as well so that we can get a more accurate measure of public tax payments to the government.

But rather than looking at tax payments in dollars, it is more useful to look at tax shares of our incomes. The economy grows over time and so it is more informative to see what fraction of our incomes are paid to the government so that we can adjust for the size of the economy as it changes through time. For this post, I will use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of our incomes and I will use Federal plus State and Local receipts to capture the revenues of all sorts that flow to the government. All of the data was drawn from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank FRED database which is freely available to the public. The data is annual and it covers 1929 through 2016. Read more…

The Government Deficit and the Fed

April 13, 2017 1 comment

The Federal Reserve recently announced an increase in the interest rate which it sets. This has implications for the government deficit which may not be well understood by the average person so I thought that it might make sense to discuss the connection between the Federal Reserve and the government deficit. What this discussion reveals is that the Fed has been helping to finance the government deficit in the U.S.

The Consolidated Government Budget Constraint

There is a relationship between the government and the Fed known as the Consolidated Government Budget Constraint that is written below.

Spending + Interest Payments + Net Transfer Payments =

Tax Receipts + Change in the Stock of Debt + Change in the Monetary Base

The items on the left side of the equal sign are the uses of the government’s funds. Spending refers to the fact that the government buys goods and services, it makes interest payments to the holders of government debt, and it makes transfer payments to individuals in the economy. The right side of the equation is the list of sources for the government’s spending. It receives tax payments, it issues or retires bonds, and the last item reflects bond purchases or sales by the Federal Reserve. It is these last two items that reflect the connection between the Fed and the government deficit. Read more…

Serious Policymaking

June 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Much of the political behavior we see is theater or, even worse, buffoonery.  I simply tune it out because it is almost always a waste of time to observe the latest actions or comments by politicians. There is a notable exception to this unfortunate reality and that is the policy proposals recently generated by Speaker Paul Ryan and others in the House of Representatives.

This program is called “A Better Way” and the proposals cover many issues that need to be addressed. The documents that were prepared are too broad to be completely discussed here but I urge readers to read the documents for themselves because they are worth reading and considering. Here let me just mention their proposals about taxes, called A BetterWay-Tax-Snapshot.

The tax code is a disgrace. It is riddled with carve-outs for favored groups, complicated by political attempts at central planning or social engineering (e.g., we need more people in houses so we give a write-off for mortgage interest), and is full of vagaries that invite abuse by the IRS. I have stated elsewhere that when a tax code is clear regarding what is taxable, there is little room for bureaucrats to grind an axe against individuals or organizations they dislike. One aspect of the Ryan-proposed tax overhaul is a vast simplification of the tax code which I heartily endorse. But there are other aspects of the proposal that have merit.

The press has reported on several so-called “tax inversions” where companies merge in order to cut their tax bills. The response by many politicians has been typical. The politicians create the incentives that cause the mergers to occur, then the politicians complain about the actions they induced. Now it has been reported that a complex set of new regulations are being prepared by the U.S. Treasury designed to stop these mergers. So this provides yet another example of complexity added to an already-complex tax code providing employment for lawyers and accountants. The Ryan proposal reduces the corporate tax rate which reduces the incentives for these mergers to occur. Firms should merge because it increase their efficiency which raises the wealth of the stockholders, not because of tax policies that may actually reduce economic efficiency.

Finally, the proposal cuts personal marginal income tax rates while eliminating many deductions used by taxpayers to cut their tax bills. The marginal tax rate (MTR) is the additional tax incurred when an additional unit of pre-tax income is earned. These tax rates are a crucial part of the incentives faced by the public and there is comprehensive evidence that a lower MTR raises labor supply which will increase economic activity. This should move in the direction of reversing the low labor force participation rates we have seen and increase real GDP or economic growth.

There might be elements of this proposal or the others that have been offered in A Better Way with which I and others might quibble but these are thoughtful proposals that would correct many of the problems faced by the U.S. I hope that these documents will be read and pondered by all serious voters troubled by the state of the U.S.

The Wisdom of a Balanced-Budget Amendment

December 4, 2015 2 comments

I read in the local newspaper today that there is some discussion going on in the Michigan state legislature regarding the federal government deficit. Specifically, there is a coalition of states that has begun to form that would force the federal government to convene a constitutional convention only concerned with the adoption of a balanced-budget requirement imposed on the federal government. Michigan is apparently discussing whether the state should be a part of that coalition. This development is a very good one for reasons that I will sketch below.

By allowing government deficits to exist, there has been a perversion of government policy that may well destroy our country in the future. It is all too often observed that government programs exist mainly to line the pockets of politically-connected groups, thereby enhancing the reelection prospects of the politicians handing out the subsidies. There is an enormous list of these programs. The Export-Import Bank, farm subsidies, ethanol programs, and many more (see a previous post for others) do nothing for the welfare of the country but the recipients of these programs benefit mightily. As the late Milton Friedman said many years ago, the benefits of these programs benefit a few who lobby furiously to get them, but the costs are diffuse, spreading across many people. And so the cost to each person is small and may not even be recognized by the individual bearing these costs. As a result, it is all too easy for the government to borrow to finance yet another vote-buying scheme. All it has to do is borrow to finance any new such spending program since raising tax rates may anger taxpayers.

The problem is that the United States is heading for an explosion of its entitlement costs that has been noted many times by economists (I wrote on this previously here). No economist that I know thinks that the U.S. can finance several trillion dollars in deficits and so, when these occur in the future, what is to be done?

Read more…

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