Tax The Rich

As the political season begins to heat up for 2020, we have seen an increasing number of proposals to provide free education, free healthcare, a universal guarantee of a living wage, etc. With a historic level of public debt topping $21 trillion and a deficit of nearly $1 trillion and projected to climb even more in 2019, the logical question is how will the advocates for all those free programs pay for their suggestions, some of which have been priced out in the neighborhood of $30 trillion? The almost universal response is to raise tax rates on the wealthy so that they can “pay their fair share.” Let’s look at some facts.

First, who is paying what? The following table is from the most recently available data from the IRS for 2015, showing federal individual shares of adjusted gross income, share of taxes paid, and average tax rates by income class. The top 1% had 20.65% of AGI and paid nearly 40% of the taxes.

Federal individual shares of adjusted gross income, share of taxes paid, and average tax rates by income class

Similarly, the top 25% earned just under 70% of the income and paid 86% of the taxes. By comparison, the bottom 50% of the income distribution earned only 11% of the income and paid 2.8% of the taxes. Data reflecting tax structure changes taking effect for 2018 is, of course, not yet available.

The argument is that it is necessary to raise the marginal tax rates on the higher-income groups so that they can pay their “fair share.” But what is a “fair share” and who gets to decide what is “fair?” Clearly, those already bearing the bulk of the tax burden are going to argue that they already are paying more than their “fair share,” while those with pet projects they want to fund will argue to increase the tax burden on the rich.

Further, would raising the marginal tax rate on the wealthy actually generate the river of additional revenue the “70 percenters” envision? Just how realistic are the proposals to raise the highest marginal tax rates to 70% or more? Historical evidence suggests that such proposals are, at best, naïve, and will not succeed. Proponents simply assume, without any understanding of history or how taxes affect behavior, that their proposals will be the magic solution. It turns out that the US has a rich history and multiple experiments with widely varying marginal tax rates, dating back to the Great Depression.

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Disclaimer: The preceding was provided by Cumberland Advisors, Home Office: One Sarasota Tower, 2 N. Tamiami Trail, Suite 303, Sarasota, FL 34236; New Jersey Office: 614 Landis Ave, Vineland, NJ ...

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