A Thought on Taxes

As the idea of reforming our mendaciously Byzantine tax code starts to come up again—whether as a reform in its own right or as a bargaining chip in the coming debt ceiling debate (which debate properly focuses on cutting spending more than on taxes)—some thoughts occur to me, triggered by a couple of recent Wall Street Journal articles.

One thought concerns the purpose of tax reform.  The Progressives in government, led by President Barack Obama, Senators Chuck Schumer (D, NY) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV), and Congressman Sander Levin (D, MI, Ranking Member on the Ways and Means Committee) insist that the purpose must be to raise yet more revenue for government, while most Republicans and generally all Conservatives insist that the purpose must be both to make the system fairer and to leave more money in the hands of the folks who earned it—which does not include government.

Levin actually argues in all seriousness

I don’t see how you do it without a major tax cut for the very wealthy.  And to make [the revenue] up, I think that means a tax increase for the middle class. I don’t see how else you do it.

But Levin, and his fellow Progressives generally, don’t explain why they have such disdain for this group of Americans.  Their bias is well-established, but it’s less important than another Progressive failure: their decision not to justify the government’s—or their own—”need” for more revenue.  The Progressives’ need is well understood—it’s to feed both their addiction to the dependency of others on their own power to dole out goodies to those dependents and to consolidate their personal political power.  But based on what theory must government have more revenue?  These worthies cynically decline to explain that at all.

Progressives (and too many Republicans) complain that cuts in taxes (or spending, come to that) will hurt this or that or those programs, but this simply begs the question.  They have yet to demonstrate either that the programs actually are necessary, and subsequently, that government can do them better than the private sector: private enterprise, charity/church, local communities, NGOs, etc.

There is an alternative to “paying” for a tax reform that reduces revenue to the government (eliding the fact that the resulting burgeoning economy will, on net, produce an increase in the government’s revenue collections).  That is to cut spending to fit within the revenues collected.  But that’s inconceivable to too many in government.

Government certainly can, and should, fill the shortfalls and failures, but there must be failure or shortfall before government legitimately can act.

Congressman Kevin Brady (R, TX, Joint Economic Committee Chairman), in the other WSJ article wrote of a practical aspect inhibiting real tax reform, and that is the inaccuracy of the underlying data.  I won’t go into the statistical arcana that are at the center of this problem; suffice it to say that there is a difference between the meanings of the median and mean (what we normally think of with “average”) of a collection of data, in this case the tables of tax data broken out by various categories involving income levels and who pays taxes currently—what Brady refers to as Tax Distribution Tables.

These tables are used to assess the outcomes of various tax proposals (and their degree of progressivity, that is by how much the higher income are required to pay more than the middle and lower income).  Misuse of the data in these tables can lead to misleading assessments of proposal outcomes.  Brady wrote

The tables use averages—rather than medians—to characterize changes in tax liabilities by income groups (or quintiles).  But averages are wildly unrepresentative for this purpose.  For example, the study found that the average tax liability for the second quintile (with adjusted gross incomes between $11,100 and $24,000) represents just 1.1% of the taxpayers in that quintile.  The average reflects a mere 31.9% of taxpayers in the fourth income quintile ($42,600-$76,600).

The average adjusted gross income for all tax returns…was $59,800 while the median is only $32,200.  The average tax liability was $8,000 while the median is $1,500.  This dramatic difference suggests how much confidence one can place in these tables as a guide to policy makers.


The tables group taxpayers by income categories without regard to other relevant factors.  In reality, income alone has little in common with tax liabilities—that is, how much a taxpayer owes the government—because of differences in the size and composition of households, the type of income, and the amount of deductions and exclusions.

The tables miss two other important aspects of our tax code, also, stemming from the fact that they are static snapshots and so cannot illuminate the dynamics of an American taxpayer, or the collection of us.  For instance:

Tax-distribution tables cannot capture one of the most salient characteristics of the U.S. tax code—the decreasing share of taxes paid by the bottom 50% of taxpayers and the increasing share of taxes paid by the upper 1%.


Tax-distribution tables are momentary snapshots that ignore income mobility.  …  The nonpartisan Tax Foundation found in a study on income mobility in 2010 that nearly 60% of the households in the lowest quintile moved into a higher income group between 1999 and 2007, while almost 40% of households in the top quintile fell by at least one quintile. The…traditional tax tables [are] obsolete shortly after they are published.

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