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Some of the stalemate over the Fiscal Cliff has been over whether to raise the tax rate on the wealthy in order to raise additional revenue.

One argument that is frequently made is that the main problem is not revenue, it is the level of spending. More specifically, that no amount of tax revue from the wealthy would be enough to cover the current spending levels.

Is that argument in favor of bigger spending cuts sound? Can it be substantiated with actual numbers?

If you would consider the "wealthy" to be everyone who earns more than one million per year in income or capital gains (which was a cutoff for many proposals over the last two years), could taxing their income at any level fund the current federal government spending? If yes, what would the effective tax rate have to be? If no, what is the most you can fund at 100% effective rate? (assume 2012 revenues and spending).

(Note: No one is asking the rich to pay 100% of their income over a certain level, but this question is about whether the budget deficit is theoretically addressable without major spending cuts.)

NOTE: I'm not looking for discussions over whether such taxes are fair or not. Merely how the two numbers compare. The answer should consist of the following numbers:

  1. Current federal spending deficit for 2012 (revenues - spending)

  2. Total income of those earning $1mil + for a year

  3. If #1 < #2, what % of #2 is #1?

  4. If #1 > #2, what amount and % of deficit is not covered?

To be clear, the "deficit" discussed here is the annual deficit, not the total federal debt.

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    This questions is simply rhetoric. Nobody is asking the "wealthy" to pay 100% of their income in taxes. If you're asking about the cost of running the government, get specific about the budget numbers you seek. But beyond that, this type of grandstanding isn't really what this site is about. – Robert Cartaino Dec 21 '12 at 1:45
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    @RobertCartaino, indeed no one is. But an argument is being made that they aren't paying their fair share, and that is why we are going over the Fiscal Cliff. If spending is actually the issue, then it will be clear from the fact that confiscating 100% of the rich's income over one million is still not enough to pay for our current.spending levels. No one ever provides a figure for what a fair share would be, so if 100% won't do it, that should be proof enough. – user1873 Dec 21 '12 at 2:45
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    This column indicates that it would only address 1/3 of our current spending (and that is taking all their income, not just income over one million. It doesn't source its calculations, so it would be nice to see if this was CBO numbers or some other source. – user1873 Dec 21 '12 at 3:40
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    @RobertCartaino - I'm sorry but I completely disagree. The answer to this question (assuming the answer I read is correct numbers wise) is 100% relevant to a debate over whether the spending needs to be cut. The answer to this question is 100% supported by facts and references, and nobody is likely to debate math. Frankly, I feel that closing it as "non-constructive" is a complete abuse of what "non-constructive" means. just because you don't like the implications of the answer doesn't make it a bad question. – user4012 Dec 21 '12 at 12:39
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    @RobertCartaino I support the question, as re-stated, because it helps reach through political rhetoric to facts. If this site can gather Q&As which do that, I think it will be doing a great service. – Jim DeLaHunt Dec 30 '12 at 0:51
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Point by point.... (all numbers for FY2012 unless otherwise stated)

Total Revenues -- $2.469 trillion

Total Expenditures -- $3.590 trillion

2012 Budget Deficit - $1.121 trillion

(Above numbers are from the OMB)

From the IRS raw data:

Year -- Total income for those grossing over $1m -- Total taxable income over $1m

2007 -- $1.401 trillion -- $1.008 trillion

2008 -- $1.076 trillion -- $754 billion

2009 -- $726 billion -- $490 billion

We don't have hard IRS data for any year after 2009, which was the worst year in the recession, so this is not a great yardstick.

However, looking at the economy as a whole (real GDP) year-to-year from the BEA

2007 -- $13.33 T

2008 -- $12.88 T

2009 -- $12.87 T

2010 -- $13.18 T

2011 -- $13.44 T

2012 -- $13.89 T (assuming 2% growth in Q4)

Based on these numbers, the answer is, "probably not."


Even if personal incomes return to 2007 levels, there is not enough income in the over-1-million bracket to cover the current deficit for FY2012. Total GDP is higher than in 2007 but that doesn't tie directly to personal income, and there would still be a $100B deficit at 2007 levels.

Another interesting point from these numbers is that the last year a 100% tax on income over $1m would have balanced the budget was 2007, when the deficit was around $160B.

  • offtopic: Is IRS in general on 2 year lag reporting, or is there something special about 2009? – user4012 Dec 22 '12 at 0:06
  • I think its normal. FY2009 returns were filed all through 2010 and this is pretty detailed breakdown info that would take a while to aggregate. – JNK Dec 22 '12 at 0:39
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    Subtracting out the portion of that ~ $1 trillion that they already pay in taxes, and the answer changes from "probably not" to "certainly not". – Ben Voigt Oct 1 '13 at 18:03
  • @BenVoigt With a taxable income of $1t (2007) or half that (2009), they definitely pay much less than $1t in taxes. Although you are right that what they do pay should be deducted from the calculation. – Evargalo Jun 14 at 14:14
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    Just out of curiosity, could the calculation also be performed for other definitions of wealthy, say half a million per year. Or could capital incomes be included. Are capital incomes included? – Trilarion Jun 16 at 7:20
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When you ask for how much will the tax rate have to be for rich people to wipe out the budget, you're most likely to be presented with a How Much is a Million?, Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics Edition.

The reason for this is because "taxes on the rich" can be defined in a lot of ways, such as making arbitrary cutoffs on who's rich and only counting certain types of taxes, such as personal income tax, payroll tax, corporate tax, capital gains tax, estate tax, etc.

That being said, The deficit is to the point now, where if you actually want to cut it, you're going to have to BOTH raise taxes AND cut spending. Either/or is just not going to cut it.

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    <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try to not to turn comment threads into miniature chat rooms and debates. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino Dec 24 '12 at 14:37
  • The link re-writer is blocked on my network. Could you give a more standard form of referencing or provide a less commercial link? – LangLangC Jun 16 at 12:59
  • @LangLangC It's a children's book. you can google it. – Sam I am Jun 16 at 15:20
  • I have. But cannot be sure to have arrived at the right one because of the "Lies"allusion. And the comment is meant as a suggestion to not make an advert for a selling intermediary, blocked anyway, but to give readers a way to follow up the link you tried to give. Please excuse me for having missed very probably any intended humour and sarcasm if it is the Schwartz book. – LangLangC Jun 16 at 15:28
  • @LangLangC Another bit of background you might be interested, is that "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" is a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, that is about how you can shape true statistics to appear to support almost any idea you want. – Sam I am Jun 16 at 21:44
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The more you raise taxes on the rich, the more they will move away or hide their wealth.

Its already happening in California, Illinois and New York. People are moving from the high tax states to the low ones. People and corporations will just move their money away. Giving your money to the government to me is like taking all of your cash and burning it in my fireplace. We need small limited government. Turn the hospitals into nonprofit, and let people form groups for insurance just as Trump is doing now. The government can privatize everything, social security, the veterans administration, education etc...

The only non private thing would be the military, the politicians and the investigating agencies and law enforcement although a lot of mercenaries and private organization are being hired there as well. If we took social security and had it invested in the total market fund or the S and P 500 and made it where each person had an actual balance where they can give it to their heirs just think how rich people would be. Privatize the pensions for governments as well just combine them. Sell the land in the West instead of the government owning almost all of Nevada just sell it at a good price. Cut government spending by 50% and use that to pay the deficit.

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    By that logic, there would be no rich people left in high-tax countries like you find in Europe. That not being the case to the extent you describe, this seems more of a rant than an argument supported by facts and statistics. Can you add some of that to support your answer? – JJJ Jun 14 at 12:47
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    The high taxes are on the middle class in Europe. Even the president of Denmark stated this. They tax the middle class not the wealthy. The wealthy can move their money, take different forms of payment and have diverse sources of income where as the middle class and poor in general do not. They wealthy also have the ability to move countries and move their assets to the Cayman Islands. Switzerland has about 3 trillion in hidden money. If you were taxed at 90% would you want to move or hide the money? What the incentive to work over that threshold? Is it for 10 cents... Please. – Ralph Jun 14 at 13:14
  • The maximal effective marginal tax rate in Denmark is 55.9%. Like many other European countries Denmark has what's called a progressive tax system meaning people are taxed at low rates for part of their income. In particular, the first +-$7K is income-tax free and in 2016 only 10% of people reached the highest tax bracket. – JJJ Jun 14 at 13:37
  • But yes, creating tax havens will encourage wealthy individuals and corporations to stash the majority of their wealth there, I'm not disputing that. It's another step to let that stop you from raising taxes altogether. – JJJ Jun 14 at 13:39
  • There are more than twice as many non-profit hospitals as there are for-profit ones (source), so I'd say they've already "turn[ed]... into nonprofit". I also have no idea what you mean by "let[ting] people form groups for insurance". Are you suggesting that people will need to go out and find a bunch of people to all pool their money together for medical purposes? (That's what insurance is currently, except a company manages it and sometimes takes a cut.) – Bobson Jun 14 at 19:27

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