01 January 2013

The Benefits Tax View

Economist's View
Richard Green:
"We are all in it together," and benefits taxes, by Richard Green: Tyler Cowen says that the Republican Party should propose raising taxes on everyone because, "we are all in it together."

To some extent, this is a benefits tax view--a view that we should pay to society our fair share of what we get from society.  But the implication of this is not necessarily that everyone should sacrifice in order to put us all on a sustainable fiscal path.

With Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the US saw a sea change in tax and regulatory policy.  While the policy was suppose to benefit everyone, it clearly hasn't.  For the bottom quintile of the income distribution, income has risen about 5 percent since 1982 (the first year in which Reagan's policies bit); for the next quintile, it has risen 8 percent; for the next, 11 percent, for the next, 20 percent, and for the highest, 45 percent.  But most of the highest quintile didn't do so well--the top 5 percent has seen average household income rise by 68 percent.

These data are before tax, and come from the US Census, Table H-3.  Before anyone suggests that this means that everyone has benefited, I should point out that average income in the lowest quintile of the income distribution is $11,239, which is right at the Federal Poverty Level for a single person household.  In a benefits tax view of the world, people who haven't sufficient income to live should not be taxed (they are living at subsistence levels as it is, and taxing them makes thing worse).

So let's begin by holding the bottom quintile harmless in doing any kind of deficit reduction.  But what of the remaining quintiles?  If we look at the share of income growth by quintile (excluding the meager income growth of the bottom quintile), we find that 3 percent went to the second quintile from the bottom; 7 percent to the next; 18 percent to the next, and 73 percent to the top quintile.  So little has gone to the second and third quintile from the bottom that one could make a case that they should be left along as well.

The fourth quintile, though, has seen a material improvement in incomes, so it is probably OK to ask this group for something--this includes people who nearly everyone would consider middle class.  Nevertheless, the lion's share of the benefits of the policy changes of the early 1980s has appeared to go to the top quintile, and so the top quntile should pay the most to put us on a sustainable fiscal path.

One last calculation--the top 5 percent got 57 percent of the income growth within its quintile.

It is true that households move in and out of quintiles, but as Dalton Conley shows, not as much as we would like to think,  In any event, we have not been all in it together when it has come to benefitting from the policies of the past 30 years.

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