Analyzing a half century of American income tax

Mark Thoma shares an article written by David Cay Johnston of Tax Analysts that compares 1961 income taxes with what we have now. Johnston's goal is to analyze if our tax system is helping us create wealth.

What do you think the data shows?

That the vast majority of Americans have seen only a modest rise in income in the last 45 years. In a span of years that stretches longer than a traditional career, the average income of the bottom 90% of wage earners has risen almost $9300, from an average of $22,366 in 1961 to $31,642 in 2006.

In the last 45 years, GDP has grown - up 227 percent.

Average income for the top 400 taxpayers has also grown from $13.7 million to $263.3 million. That's nearly 20 percent growth in 45 years.

If you've felt a financial squeeze over the years, there's a big reason why. David Cay Johnston explains:

But wages and fringe benefits did not grow with the economy. For most workers, they fell. Wages peaked way back in 1972-1973, were on a mostly flat trajectory for more than two decades, rose briefly in the late 1990s, and then fell sharply in the new century. ... Millions are out of work, and the jobs they once held are ... not coming back. And even if the Great Recession is coming to an end, we face years of jobs growing more slowly than the working-age population, which could radically transform America’s culture, work ethic, and sense of progress.

In 2006 families worked on average about 900 more hours than families did in the 1960s and early 1970s. That is a roughly 45 percent increase in hours worked... For many, the reality is that two jobs produce the same or a smaller after-tax income than just one job did three and four decades ago. ...

During the 45 years starting in 1961, payroll taxes have gone from a minor levy to almost a sixth of wages for the bottom 90 percent of American households. This $760 in income tax savings that the average taxpayer enjoyed in 2006 was taken back, and more, by the increased tax rates for Social Security and Medicare. Those rates rose from 3 percent withheld from pay in 1961 to 7.65 percent in 2006. Not all income is from wages, of course, but those higher payroll taxes wiped out the seeming reduction in the income tax and more. ...

The wealthy have benefited enormously from the income tax code. Again, Johnston explains:

"Without a doubt, the much lower tax rates at the top encouraged people to realize more income in the tax system. And if the only measure is that some people made more, then this would be a good. But let’s ask the question that the classical economists would have asked back when they were known as moral philosophers and their leaders spoke of policies that benefited the majority. Let’s go back to a time before Vilfredo Pareto’s observations began what is the overwhelmingly dominant orthodoxy today, neoclassical economics with its focus on gain.

What is the social utility of creating a society whose rules generate a doubling of output per person but provide those at the top with 37 times the gain of the vast majority? ...

Is a ratio of gain of 37 to 1 from the top to the vast majority beneficial? Is it optimal? Does it provide the development, support, and initiative to maximize the nation’s gain? Are we to think that the gains of the top 398 or 400 taxpayers are proportionate to their economic contributions? Does anyone really think that heavily leveraged, offshore hedge fund investments are creating wealth, rather than just exploiting rules to concentrate wealth, while shifting risks to everyone else?"

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan promised that wealth would "trickle down" and benefit all Americans. Johnston's data shows the promise didn't pan out as planned:

"Is our tax system helping us create wealth and build a stable society? Or is it breeding deep problems by redistributing benefits to the top while maintaining burdens for the rest of Americans?

Think about that in terms of this stunning fact teased from the latest Federal Reserve data by Barry Bosworth and Rosanna Smart for the Brookings Institution: The average net worth of middle-income families with children whose head is age 50 or younger, is smaller today than it was in 1983."


I'd also like to read it.

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