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. Dec 21, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 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. Dec 30, 2012 at 0:51

3 Answers 3


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, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2013 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, 2019 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? Jun 16, 2019 at 7:20

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. Dec 24, 2012 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? Jun 16, 2019 at 12:59
  • @LangLangC It's a children's book. you can google it. Jun 16, 2019 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. Jun 16, 2019 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. Jun 16, 2019 at 21:44

The base answer is a simple "Yes". How to get there is a source of endless debate. For a rough answer, we can look in: List of countries by government spending as percentage of GDP

Seems all government spending in the United States of America adds up to about 45% of GDP. Yes, we are entirely capable of balancing the budget.

As a side-note, a few percent of that is money paid to rich people (as interest), which is ... weird.

The civic and economic context of the United States is maintained by government. That context has costs. If you derive wealth from that context, then you should pay a share of the costs.

As most of the wealth in this country is captured by rich folk, any vaguely fair scheme will collect from rich folk. There are many different answers for how to collect. The question did not ask how.

Again, the base answer is "Yes", we can balance the government budgets.

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