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Monday, September 19, 2011

Taxing A Few Millionaires: Symbolic?

 According to the Wall Street Journal, the top 1% of U.S. taxpayers had 19.4% of the total income in 2007 and paid 28.1% of all federal taxes. In 1987, the top 1% had 11.2% of the total income and paid 16.2% of all federal taxes. In other words, the share of total income going to the wealthy (income over $353,000 in 1987) and the share of federal income taxes they paid increased. That the poverty rate hit 15% in 2011 while the real wages of the middle and lower classes were back to mid-1990s levels suggests that the rich were getting richer as the poor were getting poorer. That is to say, income and wealth inequalities were increasing. With the top 1% having more in income and the lower 60% taking in a smaller share, it makes sense that the top 1% would pay a larger share of the total federal income taxes. The question is whether the increase in taxes was sufficient, considering the increased amount of income. The 15% rate on dividends and capital gains put in place during the second Bush administration suggests a negative answer. According to the New York Times, “many wealthy Americans pay considerably less because their earnings are derived from dividends or capital gains.” Also, advantageous itemized deductions are more likely to be useful to a wealthy taxpayer, enabling a lower effective rate lower than that of a middle-class taxpayer.

There is another reason why 28.1% of all federal taxes may be too low for those who earn nearly 20% of all income. The income of those taxpayers near or below the poverty line may be exhausted by sustenance expenses so it could be argued that no tax ought to be paid on said income. Few if any low-income taxpayers benefit from itemizing deductions. It could be that the standard deduction (and exemptions) are not sufficient to reflect the actual and necessary expenses—especially relative to income. So to claim that the bottom 1% should pay the same share of taxes as the top 1% ignores the fundamental difference between surplus and necessity. In other words, not everyone’s income should be taxed. The symmetry of a bell-shaped curve does not apply because the incomes at the respective tails are qualitatively (i.e., not just quantitatively) different (e.g., relative to survival).

As for the effective rates, the unjust inversion with the middle class is not universally the case. For example, the top 400 taxpayers saw their effective federal income tax rate drop from 29% in 1993 to 18% in 2008. By comparison, households with income between $50,000 and $75,000 had an effective rate of 15% in 2008. These are averages, so there were doubtless cases of inversion where middle class taxpayers had a higher effective rate than wealthy tax payers. Depending on restoring justice to such cases does not go far enough in deficit reduction. That is to say, as just as it is, making sure millionaires are at least at the effective rate of the middle class may not go far enough, considering the seriousness and magnitudes of the U.S. deficit and accumulated debt. Given the sheer magnitudes, those who can afford to contribute more should be required to do so. It is doubtful that merely correcting for the effective rate injustice on a case by case basis would go far enough.

In 2009, for instance, 238,000 households filed returns with adjusted gross incomes of at least $1 million. Twenty-five percent of them paid an effective federal income tax rate of less than 15 percent, and 1,470 paid no federal income tax at all. Although the money involved dwarfs the number of taxpayers concerned, focusing on this “effective rate” injustice need not blind us to the fact that the increase to the treasury would fall well short of what is necessary to eliminate a deficit of over $1 trillion (not to mention paying down a debt roughly equal to the annual GNP of the U.S.). A macro justice matter concerns the role of the wealthy in reducing the deficits and debt—beyond the question of effective rates to address the inconvenience to the wealthy versus the pain from cuts to the poor.

To claim that the effective tax rate on the top 1% or even 5% of all taxpayers should be higher than the rates on lower incomes is not “class warfare.” Neither is the claim that those who can afford to contribute more money to reduce the deficit (and debt). The notion that those who can afford to contribute more follows from the principle that those who have means, rather than those who do not, should be relied on disproportionately, given the qualitative difference between surplus and sustenance. To suggest that everyone except those who are able should sacrifice to reduce a deficit is antipodal to the ethical principle of fairness. In other words, it is unfair to try to squeeze blood from a turnip while leaving the watermelons alone.

As easy as it may be to get bogged down on the percentages and dollar amounts, charts and graphs, pros and cons, the debate about taxation, spending cuts, and deficit reduction comes down to values. This is why the debate can get so heated, only we don’t take the cue and cut to the chase. We are perhaps too instrumental and utility-oriented; we miss the broader question of what we as a society value—who we are—things that are even if we don’t make it explicit. I submit, therefore, that the final paragraph below is much more significant than any of the figures and analysis above. Statistics can be manipulated to support virtually any point, whereas values go to the core in defining a society and its members.

A society that cuts its way to eliminating a deficit is saying something quite different regarding itself than a society that includes a solidarity tax on the wealthy. Solidarity itself can mean different things to different people, particularly when self-interest is consulted. How do we weigh society as dog-eat-dog relative to society as solidarity? In other words, is solidarity something more than society as an aggregation? Is it ethical to exempt the rich from paying more while making cuts to the sustenance of the poor? Is solidarity implicit or renounced in extending the Bush Tax Cuts while cutting food stamps and unemployment compensation? Do we go to the alter in the name of the trinity of Me, Myself, and I, or of the solidarity of my brother and me? Squaring the values in a Trinitarian “cuts only” approach with teachings ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth regarding the poor (and the rich man) seems a bit like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. It is from such questions, rather than simply measuring differences in effective rates and counting dollars—and even eliminating minor injustices—that the answers may be found. Are we afraid to look in the mirror, for fear of we might find—possibly too much comfort with convenience, with selfishness, or even pettiness? If we don’t like what we see, can we change?


John D. McKinnon, “Millionaire’s Tax To Be Tough Sell,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2011.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904106704576579082751681762.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

David Kocieniewski, “A Tax Others Embrace, U.S. Opposes,” New York Times, September 21, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/21/business/obamas-tax-on-millionaires-faces-obstacles.html