Tax Cuts for Those Paying at 2.6%

Since Inauguration Day, conservatives might be heartened and even jazzed about what’s been coming out of D.C. But now that Republicans own D.C., isn’t it time to start training our critical lights on the GOP to help make them even better? One reason to come down on our own is because we’re hearing, yet again, of plans for income tax cuts for the middle class. Right now, that’s a bad idea. Warning: the following may constitute a minority opinion.

The middle class is not overtaxed, at least when it comes to the income tax. The Congressional Budget Office reports that in 2013 the middle quintile of income taxpayers had an effective income tax rate of just 2.6 percent. To verify that, see the CBO’s June 2016 report “The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2013” and go to page 11 where at the bottom you’ll read: “The average individual income tax rate was 2.6 percent for the middle quintile, 6.1 percent for the fourth quintile, and 15.5 percent for the highest quintile (see Figure 5).” Even the fourth quintile, the next-to-highest fifth of us, paid an average effective income tax rate that was well below the lowest statutory rate.

On page 5 of U.S Census Bureau’s 2014 report “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013,” we read this: “Median household income was $51,939 in 2013.” Now, 2.6 percent of that median income is $1,350. That should be the average federal income tax bill for the middle 20 percent of taxpayers. Is that so much?

But some in the middle class are overtaxed, at least when compared to the others in their quintile. In 2013, it was possible for someone who fit a certain profile to earn the median income and to have had an income tax bill of $6,410 and an effective rate of 12.34 percent. Meaning: both her income tax bill and her effective rate would have been 4.74 times the average.

If it seems outrageous that a person earning a modest income could be paying so much more than someone else earning the exact same income, then do what I did and figure her taxes. Just fill in the 2013 1040EZ form for an unmarried person making the median income. Our hypothetical taxpayer earning the 2013 median income of $51,939 would be eligible for the standard deduction only, exactly $10K. Verify her tax bill on page 33 of the 2013 Tax Table.

In 2013, our hypothetical taxpayer earning the median income would have her last dollar taxed at 25 percent (her marginal rate), whereas the average earner of that income would have her last dollar taxed at 10 percent (see Tax Foundation chart). Such anomalies, whereby earners with comparable incomes pay at quite different effective rates, are even possible in the bottom two quintiles, despite their having average effective rates in 2013 that were negative: -7.2 percent and -1.2 percent.

On Dec. 3 in “A Great Deal for the Many,” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat worried about crony capitalism and a policy that “ignores deep Hayekian insights.” But his main concern was “stagnant take-home pay,” and he has his own ideas about upping that:

However: It is possible for policy makers to raise take-home pay directly even without big boosts in the underlying wages. Cutting payroll taxes would do it. The earned-income tax credit does it. Middle-class tax cuts do it. Child tax credits do it. A wage subsidy would do it. The list of possibilities is long.

If the “list of possibilities” really is long, you’d think a conservative could come up with some conservative possibilities. Douthat’s payroll tax cut would make Social Security’s cash-flow negativity worse. And the earned-income tax credit is one of the main reasons the bottom 40 percent of income tax filers has an average effective income tax rate that is negative. (With conservatives proposing solutions like Mr. Douthat’s, who needs socialists?)

Why not just drop everyone in the bottom two quintiles from the income tax rolls entirely? It’s not as though they’re contributing anything to federal revenue. Here’s why: Democrats want folks to file tax returns even when they’re not paying taxes because that’s the way they do social engineering. If you file your taxes you can get welfare; e.g. the earned income tax credit. Also, the ObamaCare mandate is triggered by filing a tax return, and the Dems want everyone to have so-called “coverage.” The IRS long ago ceased being strictly a tax-collection agency.

Cutting tax rates is not “tax reform,” nor is reducing the number of rates and brackets. If the new government really wants to reform the income tax, then iron out the anomalies where income earners pay at wildly different rates. Here’s a wild and crazy idea for tax reform: tax everyone earning the same income at the same (effective) rate. If such a system were in place back in 2013, everyone earning the median income would have had their total incomes taxed at 2.6 percent.

Despite the fact that the middle classes have average effective income tax rates that are already ridiculously low, there are those in the new government who seem dead set on giving them yet another statutory rate cut. And not only that, they want to cut the number of rates from seven down to three. But those ideas alone don’t simplify our taxes, nor do they ease the burden of tax preparation. And such changes alone do nothing to address the anomalies.

Conservatives could snatch defeat from the jaws of their stunning November victory if they’re not careful. You see, the federal deficit was $587B deficit in 2016. That’s $149B higher than in 2015; we’re going in the wrong direction again. On top of that, there are calls for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, more military spending, and other new spending, which will entail either more tax revenue or more borrowing. The CBO is already projecting a return to trillion-dollar deficits. With cuts in tax revenue and more spending, such deficits could be here sooner than the CBO projects.

If Congress isn’t really up for real tax reform, if all they want to do is cut rates and cut the number of rates, then I say leave the individual income tax alone, and instead concentrate on the corporate income tax. If dynamic ramped-up economic growth is their goal, then corporate rate cuts and deregulation is where Congress should be focused anyway. To appropriate the lyrics of an elusive Nobel laureate in literature: corporate tax reform is “where it’s at.”

Jon N. Hall of Ultracon Opinion is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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