That depends on who is offering the opinion. Democratic candidates for president certainly don’t think so. John Edwards has said, “It’s time to restore fairness to a tax code that has been driven badly out of whack.” Hillary Clinton laments that “middle-class and working families are paying a much higher percentage of their income [in taxes].” Over the past seven years, however, Americans in general think taxes have become more fair, not less. The Gallup Organization found in an April poll that 60 percent of respondents believe the income taxes that they themselves pay are fair, compared with 37 percent who believe the taxes they pay are unfair. In 1997, the figures were 51 percent fair and 43 percent unfair.
3. But didn’t the Bush tax cuts favor the rich?
The New York Times reported recently that the average family in America with an income of $10 million or more received a half-million-dollar tax cut, while the middle class got crumbs (less than $100 shaved off their tax bill). If we examine the taxes paid in a static world—that is, if we assume that there was no change in behavior and economic performance as a result of the tax code—then these numbers are meaningful. Most of the tax cuts went to the super wealthy.
But Americans did respond to the tax cuts. There was more investment, more hiring by businesses, and a stronger stock market. When we compare the taxes paid under the old system with those paid after the Bush tax cuts, the rich are now actually paying a higher proportion of income taxes. The latest IRS data show an increase of more than $100 billion in tax payments from the wealthy by 2005 alone. The number of tax filers who claimed taxable income of more than $1 million increased from approximately 180,000 in 2003 to over 300,000 in 2005. The total taxes paid by these millionaire households rose by about 80 percent in two years, from $132 billion to $236 billion.
5. What has happened to tax rates in America over the last several decades?
They’ve fallen. In the early 1960s, the highest marginal income tax rate was a stunning 91 percent. That top rate fell to 70 percent after the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts and remained there until 1981. Then Ronald Reagan slashed it to 50 percent and ultimately to 28 percent after the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Although the federal tax rate fell by more than half, total tax receipts in the 1980s doubled from $517 billion in 1981 to $1,030 billion in 1990. The top tax rate rose slightly under George H. W. Bush and then moved to 39.6 percent under Bill Clinton. But under George W. Bush it fell again to 35 percent. So what’s striking is that, even as tax rates have fallen by half over the past quarter-century, taxes paid by the wealthy have increased. Lower tax rates have made the tax system more progressive, not less so. In 1980, for example, the top 5 percent of income earners paid only 37 percent of all income taxes. Today, the top 1 percent pay that proportion, and the top 5 percent pay a whopping 57 percent.
6. What is the economic logic behind these lower tax rates?
As legend has it, the famous “Laffer Curve” was first drawn by economist Arthur Laffer in 1974 on a cocktail napkin at a small dinner meeting attended by the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley and such high-powered policymakers as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Laffer showed how two different rates—one high and one low—could produce the same revenues, since the higher rate would discourage work and investment. The Laffer Curve helped launch Reaganomics here at home and ignited a frenzy of tax cutting around the globe that continues to this day. It’s also one of the simplest concepts in economics: lowering the tax rate on production, work, investment, and risk-taking will spur more of these activities and will often produce more tax revenue rather than less. Since the Reagan tax cuts, the United States has created some 40 million new jobs—more than all of Europe and Japan combined.
The Congressional Budget Office reports that, since the 2003 tax cuts, federal revenues have grown by $745 billion—the largest real increase in history over such a short time period. Individual and corporate income tax receipts have jumped by 30 percent in the two years since the tax cuts.
What is significant is that for the top 5 percent and 10 percent of earners, the ratio of taxes paid compared with income earned has risen. For example, in 1980, the top 10 percent earned 32 percent of the income and paid 44 percent of the taxes—a ratio of 1.4. In 2004, this group earned more of the income (44 percent) but paid a lot more of the taxes (68 percent)—a ratio of 1.6. In other words, progressivity—in terms of share of total taxes paid—has risen. On the other hand, for the top 1 percent of earners, progressivity has declined from a ratio of 2.2 in 1980 to 1.9 in 2004.
The same phenomenon occurred with the capital gains tax, which is essentially a voluntary tax because asset owners can avoid it by simply holding onto their stock, home, or business. This “lock-in” effect, as it is called, can be economically inefficient, since owners have a tax incentive to keep poor investments, rather than drawing out the cash and putting it into assets that are more productive. When the capital gains tax is cut, people unlock their assets and reinvest in other enterprises.
The 1997 tax reform, passed under President Clinton, reduced the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 20 percent, and taxable capital gains nearly doubled over the next three years. The 2003 reform brought the rate down to 15 percent, and between 2002 and 2005 there was a 154 percent increase in capital gains reported as income.
This explosion in realized gains cannot be explained only by the rise in the stock market, which averaged just 13 percent annually between 2003 and 2005. Capital gains tax receipts also far outpaced the revenues that the government’s static models predicted. Between 2003 and 2007, actual tax receipts exceeded expectations by $207 billion.