The Myth of Higher Tax Rates

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Schiff punctures the myth that higher taxes on the wealthy would result in them paying a bigger share of our overall revenue.  This myth is based upon the top tax rte of 91% in the 1950’s:

Democratic Party leaders, President Obama in particular, are forever telling the country that wealthy Americans are taxed at too low a rate and pay too little in taxes. The need to correct this seeming injustice is framed not simply in terms of fairness. Higher tax rates on the wealthy, we’re told, would help balance the budget, allow for more “investment” in America’s future and foster better economic growth for all. In support of this claim, like-minded liberal pundits point out that in the 1950s, when America’s economic might was at its zenith, the rich faced tax rates as high as 91%.

As Schiff points out, the much higher rate did not result in any more of our total revenue coming from the rich:

True enough, the top marginal income-tax rate in the 1950s was much higher than today’s top rate of 35%—but the share of income paid by the wealthiest Americans has essentially remained flat since then.

In 1958, the top 3% of taxpayers earned 14.7% of all adjusted gross income and paid 29.2% of all federal income taxes. In 2010, the top 3% earned 27.2% of adjusted gross income and their share of all federal taxes rose proportionally, to 51%.

Here is Schiff’s explanation on how this happened:

So if the top marginal tax rate has fallen to 35% from 91%, how in the world has the tax burden on the wealthy remained roughly the same? Two factors are responsible. Lower- and middle-income workers now bear a significantly lighter burden than in the past. And the confiscatory top marginal rates of the 1950s were essentially symbolic—very few actually paid them. In reality the vast majority of top earners faced lower effective rates than they do today.

In 1958, an 81% marginal tax rate applied to incomes above $140,000, and the 91% rate kicked in at $400,000 for couples. These figures are in unadjusted 1958 dollars and correspond today to nominal income levels that are about eight times higher. That year, according to Internal Revenue Service records, about 10,000 of the nation’s 45.6 million tax filers had income that was taxed at 81% or higher. The number is an estimate and is inexact because the IRS tables list the number of tax filers by income ranges, not precisely by the number who paid at the 81% rate.

In 1958, approximately two million filers (4.4% of all taxpayers) earned the $12,000 or more for married couples needed to face marginal rates as high as 30%. These Americans paid about 35% of all income taxes. And now? In 2010, 3.9 million taxpayers (2.75% of all taxpayers) were subjected to rates that were 33% or higher. These Americans—many of whom would hardly call themselves wealthy—reported an adjusted gross income of $209,000 or higher, and they paid 49.7% of all income taxes.

In contrast, the share of taxes paid by the bottom two-thirds of taxpayers has fallen dramatically over the same period. In 1958, these Americans accounted for 41.3% of adjusted gross income and paid 29% of all federal taxes. By 2010, their share of adjusted gross income had fallen to 22.5%. But their share of taxes paid fell far more dramatically—to 6.7%. The 77% decline represents the single biggest difference in the way the tax burden is shared in this country since the late 1950s.

The changes came about not so much by movements in rates but by the addition of tax credits for the poor and the elimination of exemptions for the wealthy. In 1958, even the lowest-tier filers, which included everyone making up to $5,000 annually, were subjected to an effective 20% rate. Today, almost half of all tax filers have no income-tax liability whatsoever, and many “taxpayers” actually get a net refund from the government. Those nostalgic for 1950s-era “tax fairness” should bear this in mind.

The tax code of the 1950s allowed upper-income Americans to take exemptions and deductions that are unheard of today. Tax shelters were widespread, and not just for the superrich. The working wealthy—including doctors, lawyers, business owners and executives—were versed in the art of creating losses to lower their tax exposure.

In short, our real tax problem is that the overall tax burden is increasingly shouldered by a a relatively small number of those in the upper income bracket.  While this may make some feel good about “sticking it to the rich,” it represents an unsustainable revenue base.  An unsustainable revenue base coupled with a growing government spending addiction is not an economically healthy combination for any civilization.