Jason Clemens

President Obama and congressional Democrats are avidly pursuing a sweeping agenda they claim is justified by the need for greater "fairness." This invites scrutiny of the various programs to verify if they do, in fact, promote fairness.

"Free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice" is the standard meaning of fairness, which requires treating people similarly, perhaps not identically, but certainly not with purposeful difference. Apply this test to the tax changes proposed in President Obama's budget, and it seems clear he wants to punish higher-income earners for the benefit of others, namely lower and middle-income earners.

Let's understand the pre-Obama tax status quo. In 2006, the most recent year for which comprehensive IRS statistics are available, there were 135.7 million tax returns with a total of $8.1 trillion in income (technically called adjusted gross income) and a total of $1.0 trillion paid in income taxes after consideration of tax credits.

The top one percent of earners claimed 22.1 percent of all the adjusted gross income that year, but they paid 39.9 percent of all income taxes.

In other words, the richest of the rich in 2006 paid nearly double the proportion of their income in income taxes. Such a disproportionate burden makes it tough to argue that the tax system is rigged to benefit the rich.

Perhaps more striking is the burden placed on the 13.8 million earners who represent the top 10 percent of Americans. In 2006, the top 10 percent earned almost half of all the income (47.3 percent) but paid a full 70.8 percent of all income taxes. Put differently, 13.8 million taxpayers paid almost three-quarters of the entire income tax bill in 2006.

Another way of looking at the burden of income taxes is by the average tax rate faced by different groups. The average tax rate (ratio of income taxes after credits to adjusted gross income) for the top one percent was 22.8 percent. For the top 10 percent it was 18.9 percent. For the bottom 50 percent it was a near non-existent 3.0 percent. The figures make it abundantly clear that income taxes, the largest source of government revenues, are markedly punitive the more one earns.


Jason Clemens

Jason Clemens is the Director of Research at the Pacific Research Institute.