Did you file your federal income taxes on or before April 15? Almost 50% of American households won’t be paying any federal income tax this year, and the reasons why have profound implications for our democracy as well as our economy now.
A series of tax reforms, generous exemptions and tax credits, including last year’s economic stimulus bill, have dropped millions of Americans from the federal tax rolls. Huge numbers of Americans are simply no longer affected by the federal income tax. The Tax Policy Center projects that 47 percent of all U.S. households will pay no federal income tax for 2009. And, the bottom 40 percent of income earners actually receive a cash payment from the government at tax time. This cash payment is styled as a “refund” but it is actually a net cash transfer from the government--not a refund of taxes actually withheld on income. And for many Americans, this cash transfer from Uncle Sam actually exceeds all federal, state and local taxes that they pay in any form during the year including sales taxes and social security taxes.
Of course, we are accustomed to the idea that high income earners pay more in taxes both in absolute terms and as a percentage of their incomes. But taxing only the top half of a society is not normal progressive taxation. Instead, the recent changes to our tax system are an example of politicians using the tax code for their own political ends. In this case, the so-called progressive Democratic politicians are using “tax reform” to grow their political base by creating a group of Americans that pay no federal income tax.
The people who don’t pay federal income taxes are, as the phrase goes, “rational economic actors” just as much as anyone. Like all people, non-taxpayers respond to economic incentives. Their demand for entitlements and government programs is naturally insatiable because they don’t care at all about the cost. Non-taxpayers don’t have any “skin in the game” and are completely indifferent to the government raising income taxes. So they will always support increasing government programs as a long as they get even a small benefit from them because it does not cost them a cent. It’s also perfectly rational for non-taxpayers to support politicians who favor more spending. Non-taxpayers get something for nothing, at least until the country becomes insolvent.
The so-called progressive Democratic politicians are rational actors too. By taking more and more Americans off the federal tax rolls, they are creating a permanent base of supporters for themselves. These politicians may claim to support increased government spending because of their concern for the less-fortunate but--hey, it also happens to be in their own political self-interest. And these politicians will continue to spend on these programs until our nation goes bust because they want to keep their jobs and grow expensive programs for their political base.
And what about the people paying all the federal taxes? Well, taxpayers respond to incentives too. When faced with increasing tax rates, taxpayers will reduce their income, which is why it is impossible to raise a lot of revenue by increasing taxes above a certain point. As taxes on income rise, taxpayers spend less time on work and more on leisure. They avoid sales of investments and assets which could trigger income until they can pair them with offsetting losses from other transactions. They spend billions of dollars on tax advice and structuring to reduce their tax burden, which makes economic sense for them but which is a waste of resources for our society. In the aggregate, a tax system that is hostile to investment and growth has a distortive effect which harms U.S. productivity and reduces the standard of living of our whole nation.
Under the Obama administration, many Americans accustomed to paying their share of federal taxes are being taken off the tax rolls. Recent tax law changes mean that for the first time, in 2009, a family of four making $50,000 can pay no federal income tax at all. This family may not change its behavior and outlook immediately from its taxpaying days. But the family’s economic incentives are now to keep America taxing and spending. And a family at this income level has surely suffered in this recession, but should they really pay no federal income tax at all?
Ronald Reagan once said that a taxpayer is “someone who works for the Federal government but doesn’t have to take the civil service examination.” Every American should have to work for the federal government at least a little bit. We need to move back to a broad-based tax system so that more Americans understand that there is no such thing as free money—government spending actually has a huge cost for our nation.
The so-called "progressive" politicians have turned John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” on its head. And telling so many Americans that they don’t need to make sacrifices for our government, as we are now saying, is dangerous new territory for our nation and for the health of our democracy and economy.
Elizabeth Factor is an international tax lawyer and former investment banker.Mallory Factor is the co-chairman and co-founder of the Monday Meeting, an influential meeting of economic conservatives, journalists and corporate leaders in New York City. Mr. Factor is a well-known merchant banker and speaks and writes frequently on economic and fiscal topics for news stations, leading newspapers and other print and online publications. Mr. Factor writes frequently for the Fox Forum. Mr. Factor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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