Given the discussion about President Obama’s desire to raise taxes on “the rich” — i.e., families earning more than $250,000 a year — it’s rather convenient that the Congressional Budget Office yesterday published its latest look at earnings and taxes paid by income level. It tells us a couple of worthwhile things.
First, as I mentioned in a comment yesterday evening, it tells us the U.S. tax code is already rather progressive. Here are the numbers I posted yesterday in chart form; note that “federal taxes paid” includes not only income taxes but social-insurance taxes, corporate taxes (which, after all, are ultimately paid by individuals) and excise taxes for 2009, the most recent year the CBO has examined:
So, even when we include the payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, which disproportionately hit lower-income workers, the U.S. tax code is already sharply progressive. What liberal/progressivists have yet to tell us is exactly how much more progressive they think it should be.
Well, sort of. We do have an idea of what they think it should be, at least for starters, in the form of Obama’s raise-taxes-on-the-rich proposal. Part of his usual argument for raising taxes on the rich is that we’ve been going down the wrong path for the past three decades — which is shorthand for: since Ronald Reagan was elected and sharply lowered marginal income-tax rates.
Conveniently, the CBO’s report includes data going all the way back to 1979. So, how did things change over the course of 30 years?
One of the ways the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (or OECD, the Paris-based club of industrialized nations) measures tax-code progressivity is by calculating the ratio of the tax burden to income earned for each income group. For example, if one quintile earns 20% of the income and pays 10% of the taxes, its ratio would be 10/20, or 0.50. The higher the ratios for the upper-income groups, and the lower the ratios for the lower-income groups, the more progressive the tax code. By this measure, the OECD has determined the U.S. has the most progressive tax code in the industrialized world.
When we compare the 2009 ratios for these income groups to the 1979 ratios, this is what we get:
So, by this measure used by the OECD, the U.S. tax code has gotten significantly more progressive, from top to bottom, since the days of Jimmy Carter.
For another comparison, I looked at 2000 (the peak of the Clinton years) and 2007 (the peak of the Bush years). Despite the Bush tax cuts, the ratios for 2007 were almost identical to those of 2000: just three-thousandths of a point less progressive for the top 1%, and more progressive for all the other income groups.
If there is a problem with income inequality in this country, it’s not the tax code’s fault.
– By Kyle Wingfield