Tag: taxes

Jared Bernstein Tilts His Tax Facts

Former Obama administration economist, Jared Bernstein, argues for higher taxes in a New York Times op-ed yesterday. His piece begins:

Like it or not, the campaign season is upon us, and that almost certainly means somebody is going to try to buy your vote with a tax cut — even though average federal tax rates are already low in historical terms, our tax code remains tilted in favor of the wealthy, and our children, neighborhoods and infrastructure desperately need public investment.

I tried to use my imagination and think of how a thoughtful and intelligent liberal like Bernstein might conceive of tax policy. But I could not come up with any scenario under which this statement might be considered true: “our tax code remains tilted in favor of the wealthy.”   

The plain fact of the matter is that the federal tax system is highly graduated, or what liberals call “progressive.” Lower-income households pay much smaller shares of their income in taxes than do higher-income households.

In his article, Bernstein uses data from the respected Tax Policy Center (TPC), as I do here. The first table shows TPC estimates of average federal tax rates (total taxes divided by income) for U.S. households (specifically, “tax units”) in five income groups.

Obamacare’s Not-So-Hidden Tax: Thank You for Smoking

Without government interference, insurance markets will naturally charge higher premiums for riskier individuals. For example, life insurance premiums vary considerably based on factors that increase the likelihood of death, such as age, gender, smoking status, and health.

Under Obamacare, many factors that influence healthcare expenditures are excluded from premiums. For example, premiums make no distinction for obesity, likelihood of having a baby, alcoholism or pre-existing conditions. One notable exception is for smokers, where premiums may be up to 50 percent higher than that for non-smokers. I have collected data on premiums for smokers and non-smokers in 35 states, and the data shows large variation in the extent to which smokers are charged more for their choice.

Leon Trotsky on the Weapon of Taxation

“You ought not to forget that the credit system and the tax apparatus remain in the hands of the workers’ state and that this is a very important weapon in the struggle between state industry and private industry….

The pruning knife of taxation is a very important instrument.  With it the workers’ state will be able to clip the young plant of capitalism, lest it thrive too luxuriously.”

–Leon Trotsky, The First 5 Years of the Comintern, Vol 2 (London, New Park, 1945) p. 341

Taxpayer Democracy, for Each Taxpayer

Today, the day American taxpayers wonder if the federal government is really worth all the money and hassle, I have an article at the Washington Post on how to give taxpayers more control.

Why shouldn’t taxpayers make direct decisions about how much money they want to spend on other government programs, like paying off the national debt, the war in Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts? This would force the federal government to focus time and resources on projects citizens actually want, not just efforts that appeal to special interests.

To do this, we’d have to expand the concept of the campaign financing checkoff to all government programs. With this reform, the real expression of popular democracy would take place not every four years but every April 15. A new final page of the 1040 form would be created, called 1040-D (for democracy). At the top, the taxpayer would write in his total tax as determined by the 1040 form. Following would be a list of government programs, along with the percentage of the federal budget devoted to each (as proposed by Congress and the president). The taxpayer would then multiply that percentage by his total tax to determine the “amount requested” in order to meet the government’s total spending request. (Computerization of tax returns has made this step simple.) The taxpayer would then consider that request and enter the amount he was willing to pay for that program in the final column–the amount requested by the government, or more, or less, down to zero.

A taxpayer who thinks that $600 billion is too much to spend on military in the post-Cold War era could choose to allocate less to that function than the government requested. A taxpayer who thinks that Congress has been underfunding Head Start and the arts could allocate double the requested amount for those programs….

Real budget democracy, of course, means not just that the taxpayers can decide where their money will go but also that they can decide how much of their money the government is entitled to. Thus the last line on the 1040-D form must be “Tax refund.”  The form would indicate that none of the taxpayer’s duly calculated tax should be refunded to him; but under budget democracy the taxpayer would have the right to allocate less than the amount requested for some or all programs in order to claim a refund (beyond whatever excess withholding is already due him).

I regret that space considerations required the loss of my historical context:

Ever since Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago this spring, the Anglo-American tradition of fiscal policy has been that the people would decide how much of their money they would give to government. Parliament arose as a representative body to which the Crown would appeal for funds. The monarch had to explain why he or she was seeking more funds–and Parliament frequently rejected the request as frivolous, wasteful, or actually injurious to the commonweal.

Today, of course, we can’t count on the legislative branch to guard our tax dollars, and technology makes it easier for us to direct them ourselves.

More on taxes – and Magna Carta – in The Libertarian Mind. Find ideas for government programs that are unnecessary or too big at Downsizing the Federal Government.

The Great Society Meets the Taxpayer

President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy was the so-called Great Society (read: entitlement programs). As these programs have matured, along with the U.S. population, the proportion of the people dependent on the State has soared. Indeed, spending on entitlement programs gobbles up bigger and bigger chunks of the federal budget.

As the population grows older, entitlements will grow. Worryingly, the ratio of people receiving government benefits to those paying taxes will continue to climb, too. As the accompanying chart shows, those who receive government goodies already number the same as those who pay taxes (the ratio is one). With the steady progression of the ratio, it will be very hard to put the genie of the Great Society back in the bottle. Can you just imagine how difficult it will be to cut entitlement programs when those who are dependent on the government outnumber taxpayers by two to one?

Demand for Smaller Government Remains Strong

Whether the recent election was good news for tea party Republicans, establishment Republicans, or activist Democrats, the Washington Post notes that 

Obama’s larger project of redefining what government should do has been stymied by steady Republican opposition and public disenchantment with political leaders….While Obama has framed the question in different ways over the past five years, he has consistently sought to convince Americans that well-run government is uniquely positioned to help secure their economic prosperity. 

A sidebar graphic reminds us that

Majorities have consistently preferred a smaller government with fewer services to a larger one with more services. 

Here’s the chart accompanying the article:

Smaller Government Polls

The “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–“more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. With that in mind, I’ve adjusted the Post’s poll numbers by four points in each direction, to approximate what the numbers would look like if the Post included “higher taxes” in its question. The revised figure makes even more clear why presidents have difficulty persuading people to increase the size of government:

Smaller Government with Taxes

Transit Spending Slows Urban Growth

Contrary to the claims of many transit advocates, regions that spend more money on transit seem to grow slower than regions that spend less. The fastest-growing urban areas of the country tend to offer transit service mainly to people who lack access to automobiles. Urban areas that seek to provide high-cost transit services, such as trains, in order to attract people out of their cars, tend to grow far slower.

Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, I downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.

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