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Dynamics and Tax Fairness

3 min readBy: J. D. Foster, Ph.D.

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Having made the $500 per child taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. credit the centerpiece of their tax plan rather than eco­nomic growth, congressional Republicans never had much chance of avoiding being bludgeoned over the fairness of their tax cuts. Now they find themselves defending a do-little bill, and yet tak­ing the same abuse from the forces of redistribu­tionism as though they had tried for a major pro-­growth tax cut.

One reason Republicans tend to stumble in these debates is that the expression “low-income taxpayer” is an oxymoron when it comes to the federal income tax. Few lower-income taxpay­ers pay federal income tax and a great many actually receive cash, on net, thanks mainly to the refundable Earned Income Tax CreditA tax credit is a provision that reduces a taxpayer’s final tax bill, dollar-for-dollar. A tax credit differs from deductions and exemptions, which reduce taxable income, rather than the taxpayer’s tax bill directly. .

Of course, low-income taxpayers still pay taxes, particularly in the form of Social Security and federal excise taxes. The Social Security tax, however, raises a special problem for tax analy­sis. The tax itself is regressive, but Social Securi­ty benefits are highly progressive, and the system is progressive on balance. It’s hard to argue, un­der the circumstances, that low-income workers should have some of their payroll taxA payroll tax is a tax paid on the wages and salaries of employees to finance social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. Payroll taxes are social insurance taxes that comprise 24.8 percent of combined federal, state, and local government revenue, the second largest source of that combined tax revenue. burden off­set by an income tax cut, assuming these work­ers can reasonably expect to receive the prom­ised Social Security benefits.

Another reason Republicans have trouble with “fairness” is that many of their tax provi­sions are shown by the Joint Tax Committee and the Treasury to benefit mostly upper-income tax­payers. Take capital gains relief. After the initial surge in revenues due to accelerated realizations, capital gains relief as currently estimated begins to lose revenue. Capital gains tend to go to those with capital, so capital gains relief tends to go to the wealthy, at least as currently estimated.

The purpose of capital gains relief is to spur investment and real wage growth. Unfo11unately, the JTC and Treasury maintain they don’t know enough to estimate the additional economic growth that would result from reducing capi­tal gains taxes. So they assume no additional eco­nomic activity. If they knew enough, however, at least to make a comfortable, conservative esti­mate, the consequences would be very interest­ing – and very helpful to pro-growth tax cutters.

One consequence is that, as we have learned repeatedly this year, when the economy grows faster, Treasury revenues grow faster. More jobs mean more personal income tax. Higher wages mean higher tax bracketA tax bracket is the range of incomes taxed at given rates, which typically differ depending on filing status. In a progressive individual or corporate income tax system, rates rise as income increases. There are seven federal individual income tax brackets; the federal corporate income tax system is flat. s. More profits mean more corporate income taxA corporate income tax (CIT) is levied by federal and state governments on business profits. Many companies are not subject to the CIT because they are taxed as pass-through businesses, with income reportable under the individual income tax. revenue. In fact, vir­tually every tax imposed yields more revenue when the economy does better. Thus, a capital gains taxA capital gains tax is levied on the profit made from selling an asset and is often in addition to corporate income taxes, frequently resulting in double taxation. These taxes create a bias against saving, leading to a lower level of national income by encouraging present consumption over investment. cut would increase the revenue flow to the Treasury over and above that due to an accel­eration of capital gains realizations. For tax distribution purposes, though, it’s important to know who will pay these additional taxes.

The overall federal tax system is highly pro­gressive. Left unchecked, this progressivity in­creases when real incomes grow. As incomes grow, taxpayers move from one tax bracket to a higher bracket. Then, as their incomes rise still fu11her, more and more of their additional in­come is subjected to the higher tax bracket, rais­ing their average tax rateThe average tax rate is the total tax paid divided by taxable income. While marginal tax rates show the amount of tax paid on the next dollar earned, average tax rates show the overall share of income paid in taxes. s every step of the way.

Estimated on the current, nearly static basis, a capital gains tax cut shows upper-income tax­payers benefitting disproportionately over the long mn. But the economic growth from a capi­tal gains cut would produce additional tax pay­ments that would also fall disproportionately on upper-income taxpayers. This wouldn’t make capital gains relief a net tax increase on the wealthy. But crediting capital gains relief, or any other pro-growth tax provision, with even a con­servative estimate of the additional growth that might be expected would ce1tainly make the tax distribution tables more accurate, and it might make a pro-growth tax policy a little easier to achieve the next time around.