Tower of Babel

October 23, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about taxes and income. Each month, the Federal Reserve (2022) releases an estimate detailing how people spend their money and the sources of their income. I was surprised that 17% of personal income is from government transfers like Social Security and other programs. This is 2% more than the income people receive on their assets. A bit of history for context.

In the 1960s, 2/3 of income was from wages and salaries. Each decade, the wages and salaries component declined 5% until this past decade when wages and salaries were just 50 cents out of every dollar of income.

A greater portion of employee compensation shifted from discretionary income to dedicated non-taxable benefits like health care insurance and pensions. In the early 1960s employer benefits were 10% of wages and salaries. Now they are 21%. Despite the rise in the non-taxable share of compensation, workers give up more out of their paychecks to taxes.

A growing share of income goes to FICA taxes

In 1960, workers paid 6% of their paychecks to FICA taxes. The Medicare program, about 20% of our FICA taxes today, would not be enacted until 1965 when President Johnson ushered in his Great Society programs. Within five years analysts realized that lawmakers had wildly underestimated the costs of the program. By 1980, increases in Social Security and Medicare taxes increased the FICA portion to 12% of paychecks. Today, workers pay 15% of their paychecks in FICA taxes (see note).

In 1960, all other taxes were 11% of total income in 1960, had climbed to almost 13% in 1980 then to over 14% by the year 2000 and are now 15% of total income. In the past twenty years, the rich have paid a growing share of income taxes but their effective tax rate has changed little. Why? When lawmakers put a heavier burden on rich people, they lobby for legal income exclusions and Congress obliges.

Top 10% pay a growing share of income tax

In 2001, the top 1% paid 33% of income taxes. In 2019, they paid 39% (IRS, 2022). In 2001, the top 10% (the Tennies, I’ll call them) paid 64% of personal income taxes. In 2019, they paid 71%. Whether it is the super-rich or the rich, their share of income tax has grown by 6 -7%. That’s not the end of the story.

Growth in incomes of the top 10% is far higher

The Tennies have seen their share of gross income increase from 42.5% in 2001 to 47.3% in 2019, a gain of almost 5 percentage points. They have paid a rising share of the nation’s income taxes but the rise in taxes is less than the rise in personal income (BEA, 2022). In the 2001-2003 period the income tax paid by the Tennies averaged 5.6% of national personal income. In the 2017-2019 period, that tax share was 6.3%, a difference of just .7%. It is a cheap price to pay for a 5% gain in the nation’s total income.

Effective Tax Rate of the top 10% is steady despite rise in Income

In the 2001-3 period the Tennies averaged an effective tax rate of 13.5%. In the 2017-19 period, that effective rate had declined to 13.2% despite a 2% rise in the top marginal tax rate from 35% in 2001 to 37% in 2019. Raising the marginal tax rate on the highest income brackets has little net effect yet it was a campaign issue for Mr. Biden and many Democrats. Political scientists call it position-taking.

The party of no taxes produces higher deficits

Despite their rhetoric about reducing the deficit, Republicans have adopted a no new taxes on anyone pledge that ensures the deficit will get worse. True to form, the budget deficit has grown more under Republican administrations over the past four decades. The party also has a record of slower economic growth but that is mostly due to the two terms of the George Bush administration. Mr. Bush’s failures caused many Republicans to abandon more mainstream Republican values and adopt a mean spirited attitude of radical defiance exemplified by the Tea Party and the Republican Study Committee.

Action requires Compromise

The “Just Say No” Republican factions permit little compromise so the party cannot get significant legislation passed. In the first year of Mr. Trump’s Presidency, Republicans held all three legislative bodies but were stymied by their internal squabbles. In November of 2017, they hastily assembled the corporate tax reform package, TCJA, to show their constituents that they were capable of legislating and to give Mr. Trump some accomplishment that he could tweet  about.

A look ahead

If Republicans take control of the House after the upcoming elections, we can expect more of the same dysfunction under Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Libertarians in the Republican Party want a limited role for the federal government as specified in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. They have little tolerance for national abortion laws and other bullying social legislation that Republicans have promised. The uncompromising factions within the Republican Party ensure that the party cannot govern. They are like drivers in a car with a manual transmission who don’t know how to clutch and shift. Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, drive down the road, focused on staying perfectly centered between the white lane markers of equality and equity. The rich benefit when party leaders cannot assemble a cohesive coalition of interest groups and voters. The economic interests of the top 10% are protected when voters remain fragmented. Party elites and partisan interest groups speak in languages that are understandable only to a narrow constituency. By promoting dissension, social media has helped create a Tower of Babel.


Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

BEA: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Income [PI], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;, October 19, 2022.

Federal Reserve. (2022). Personal income and its disposition. FRED. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from The FICA tax percentage includes the employer and employee portion of the tax. The employee effectively bears the burden of the entire tax.

IRS. (2022). SOI tax stats – individual income tax rates and tax shares. Internal Revenue Service. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from Table 4.2, Selected Descending Cumulative Percentiles of Returns Based on Income Size Using the Definition of AGI for Each Year.

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