President Obama's rhetoric in favor of tax increases is heavy on claims that the rich fail to pay their share, light on facts. Most of it is put in terms of claims about the federal income tax. Which is strange, since the federal income tax is paid almost entirely by high income taxpayers.
For details, see the figures
provided by the Congressional Budget Office. For 2007, the latest year they cover, the bottom 60% of the income distribution paid about 1% of federal individual income taxes, the top 20% paid about 86% of the total and the top 1% almost 40%—the opposite of what Obama's rhetoric implies.
These figures are, however, misleading in two different ways. The federal individual tax is heavily weighted towards high income taxpayers, but it only produces about 40% of federal tax revenue. Payroll taxes produce about the same amount and, because they are paid only up to a maximum, the top 20% of the income distribution pays a lower share of its income in that form than the quintile below it, making the combined effect considerably less graduated than the figures on the income tax alone suggest.
The second problem should be obvious to an economist but seems to be invisible to almost everyone else. It's natural to think of the size of the check I write to the IRS on April 15th as the measure of the cost to me of the income tax—natural but wrong.
To see why, suppose that the demand for high wage workers—top surgeons, lawyers, executives—is very inelastic. High taxes on such workers reduce the number of suitably talented people willing to enter the field, with the result that customers in need of their services bid up their wages. In the limiting case of perfectly inelastic demand, the result is to transfer all of the cost of taxation from those who hand over the money to the consumers of their services.
The same issue arises for other taxpayers as well. Payroll taxes take the form of a tax "paid by" the employee and another tax "paid by" the employer, but both are actually a tax on the same transaction—hiring labor. If an employer owes a thousand dollars in wages to an employee, it is of no economic significance whether the fraction that goes to payroll taxes is taken out by the employer before he hands over the money or by the employee after.
Who bears the actual burden of taxes depends on elasticity of supply and demand. If the labor supply is elastic, if the number of people willing to work is not very sensitive to wages, the burden ends up on the employees. If the only way of getting more workers is to pay them more and employers are willing to pay whatever it takes, on the other hand, wages rise by about the amount of the tax and the burden is born by the consumers of what the workers produce.
Similar problems arise if one tries to estimate the real effect of other sources of revenue, such as the corporate income tax. Corporations are legal people but not actual people, so taxes they "pay" end up reducing the consumption of customers, employees, or stockholders. Who bears how much is again a hard question.
The CBO attempts to take account of such issues in its calculations; its conclusion, again for 2007, is that the bottom 40% of the income distribution bears about 5% of the burden of federal taxes, the top 20% almost 70%. It finds the lowest quintile bearing a tax burden of about 4% of its income, with the rate rising quintile to quintile to about 25% for the highest and almost 30% for the top 1%.
Whether the CBO estimates are correct, I do not know, and I doubt they do. Whether they imply that high income tax payers bear more or less of the burden than they should depends on how you believe the burden should be distributed. But the CBO estimates, at least, do not support rhetoric implying that executives pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.
And I haven't even mentioned state and local taxes... .
Obama presumably understands all of this; if not, he surely has people working for him who can explain it to him. Explaining it to the public in the form of sound bites designed to support the policies he favors is a harder problem, but not an insoluble one.
If the truth is too complicated ...
Labels: Obama taxes rich poor federal income