Barack Obama wants the rich to pay more taxes. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, says the president, Republicans have been protecting the rich at every opportunity — shielding them from the obligation to pay their fair share. Yet here are some facts about U.S. income taxes that most people don’t know:
• Over the past quarter century, our income tax system has become increasingly progressive — with the tax burden almost continuously shifting through time from the bottom half to the top half of the income distribution. (See the graph below.)
• As a result of this seismic shift in the tax burden, more than half of U.S. households pay no income tax at all and 30% of all households actually make money off the income tax system (pay “negative taxes”) through the Earned Income Tax Credit.
• More than one-third of all income taxes are paid by the top 1 percent and almost three-fourths of all income taxes are paid by the top 10%.
• According to an OECD report, the U.S. currently has the most progressive tax system among all developed countries.
• Although it’s hard to assign responsibility to the two political parties, Republicans are probably responsible for 80 percent of the increase in progressivity.
If you find all of this surprising, the obvious question is: why is it surprising? If the president wants to have a national discussion about the distribution of the tax burden, why are the American people not better informed? There are three reasons: Republicans, Democrats and the news media.
The most important reason for the increasing progressivity of income taxes is that virtually every Republican tax bill over the past 25 years has taken more and more people off the tax rolls. Democratic opponents inevitably point to the lowering of the highest tax rates as a “giveaway to the rich.” They conveniently ignore the fact that in lowering the rates, these same tax bills also widened the base. By allowing fewer deductions, exemptions and loop holes, the bills exposed more income to taxation. More importantly, if people at the bottom of the income ladder are completely taken off the tax rolls, the burden of the tax system will shift to those at the top, no matter what rates they pay or what deductions they take.
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