Carpe Diem (Mark Perry) reports on a new CBO study showing that nearly all net federal taxes (taxes net of transfer payments received) are paid by households in the highest income quintile. The fourth quintile pays a small, positive amount of net taxes, but the lowest 60% of households pay negative net taxes, with average tax rates on market income plus transfers ranging from -13.7% for the middle income quintile to -35% for the lowest quintile. From Perry:
“The second-highest income quintile basically just barely covers its transfer payments, so it’s really the top 20% of “net payer” households that are financing transfer payments to the entire bottom 60% AND financing the non-financed operations of the entire federal government.”
A heavy concentration of taxes at one end of the income distribution is not a healthy development for a democracy when it comes to fiscal responsibility.
In a second post, Perry uses the same study to show that adjusting market income for net taxes reduces income inequality by almost 50%. Advocates for greater income equality always focus on market income alone because it tends to show a more dramatic gap between rich and poor. This distortion understates the extent to which policies already in place reduce income inequality and amplifies the unabating contention that more must be done. In addition, standard measures of income inequality tend to distort trends, as SCC has noted in the past.
At the same time, OECD data reveal that the U.S. has the most progressive tax system in the industrialized world. The author of the OECD post cited the data in testifying before the Senate Budget Committee:
“This prompted one Senator to point out that if the richest 10% of taxpayers earn the most of any OECD country, shouldn’t it make sense that they bear the largest tax burden of any country?”
The Senator’s premise was false, as there are countries with higher or similar income shares earned by the top decile, but the tax burden on that decile in the U.S. is the highest. In addition, the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, a point on which SCC has posted before.
The ongoing debate over inequality is counterproductive. Calls for higher taxes will certainly do nothing to encourage economic growth and job creation. Quite the opposite. And inequality, in principle, is not in any way synonymous with decreasing standards of living. However, I certainly agree that inequality can be harmful when it is induced by rent-seeking activity and cronyism, which become a way of life with growth in the public sector.