Our Fair Share

January 19, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The holidays are over. This week our city picked up Christmas trees set by the curb. The sun set after 5 PM, the first time since the time change in the first week of November. The sun is returning to the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the variations in the amount of sunshine throughout the year, we all get the same amount of sunshine over the course of a year. Not so with our tax bills.

Estimated taxes were due this week. The self-employed, retired people and others who earn income with no taxes withheld must pay estimated taxes every quarter. This past year the IRS audited less than ½% of returns, a lifetime low. That sounds great because none of us wants to endure an audit. The very word strikes fear in the hearts of many taxpayers, but most of us have a small chance of being audited regardless. We don’t pay enough in taxes for the IRS to do much more than a paper audit, a request for supporting documentation.

The IRS is not a popular agency and became less popular when the agency discriminated against Tea Party and progressive groups during the 2010 election (Farhi, 2017). House Republicans repeatedly cut the agency’s budget, but that retribution has had serious budget consequences. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the government could raise an additional $1 trillion in tax revenue – that’s about 20% of total revenue – with stricter enforcement of existing law (Heeb, 2019). In 2019, the Federal deficit, or budget shortfall, was $1.1 trillion (BPC, 2020). Stricter enforcement would have effectively erased that deficit.

The race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President promises to center around several themes. The first is the horse race against President Trump, whose incumbency gives him a distinct advantage when running for re-election. The press often seems more concerned with the contest than the underlying issues of a campaign. Taxation is a recurring discussion in each election. More or less? What is a fair share? More, more, more social programs, taxation and regulation, or less, less, less social programs and taxation and more defense spending and power for large corporations?

What is fair? As children we have a keen sense of fairness – our “monkey brain.” We are social creatures who feel scorned at what we perceive as unequal treatment. Equal and fair are not the same thing. A fair share is not the same as an equal share. If I can afford to buy $50,000 worth of goods in a year, why should I have to pay more sales tax than someone who only buys $30,000? We make equal use of a city’s public services. Why should we be treated unequally? Well, we have become accustomed to paying an equal percentage of what we buy in the stores as a sales tax.

Why don’t we follow that same approach for income taxes? States like Colorado do charge the same rate of state income tax regardless of income. Is that fair? Some cities like Denver charge a head tax, a flat fee income tax for anyone who works within the district. Should we follow the same approach throughout the nation? Warren Buffett and I would pay the same amount in income taxes. Is that fair?

Should prices for public utilities be adjusted based on income? If my neighbor makes twice what I do, should they pay twice for the same amount of water? Currently, we are charged the same rate. The income and property taxes of those over 65 are often given a discount. In some districts, a person who reaches 65 finds that they can lower their property tax by 50%. Is that fair?

Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, proposed that all student debt be eliminated. Should students who went to more expensive private schools be rewarded more than students who borrowed less because they went to a state college? Should students who borrowed less because they worked part time while going to school be penalized? Is that fair?

In Matthew 20:1–16, Jesus tells a parable of the workers in the vineyard. Workers who came to work in the morning agreed to an amount of money for a day’s work. Workers who came to work later in the day were also promised the same amount of money for working the rest of the day. Jesus was making a point that each person will be rewarded equally in the kingdom of heaven no matter when in their lifetime they come to God’s love. No matter what your religious orientation, is that fair?

Each election we get to vote on what’s fair. Some people don’t vote because they say that their opinion doesn’t matter. It certainly doesn’t if they don’t vote so they have proved their case. If I vote and my neighbor doesn’t, my vote effectively counts double. In a few weeks, the Democratic primaries will start. The first two are in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with small populations and an even smaller number of people who participate in the caucus system. The votes of a few thousand people can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In a democratic nation of 320 million people, is that fair?



Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). (2020, January 9). Deficit Tracker. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/deficit-tracker/

Farhi, P. (2017, October 5). Four years later, the IRS tea party scandal looks very different. It may not even be a scandal. Washington Post. [Web page]. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/four-years-later-the-irs-tea-party-scandal-looks-very-different-it-may-not-even-be-a-scandal/2017/10/05/4e90c7ec-a9f7-11e7-850e-2bdd1236be5d_story.html

Heeb, G. (2019, November 19). The US could raise $1 trillion more in taxes through stricter IRS enforcement, according to a new study. Markets Insider. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-could-raise-1-trillion-more-tighter-irs-enforcement-study-2019-11-1028700145

Photo by Maria Molinero on Unsplash

Tax Brawl

Taxation with representation ain’t so hot either – Gerald Barzan

August 26, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The debate over taxes focuses on the size of national programs, and the Federal taxes collected for those programs. In the past fifty years, state and local government (SLG) taxes have risen to equal the burden of Federal taxes. Despite this rise, SLGs must increase tax revenues to meet obligations and historic growth rates. Republicans control most states and will turn to property and sales tax for the additional revenue.

Fifty years ago, SLG tax receipts were half of all Federal tax receipts, including Social Security. For every tax dollar a worker sent to Washington, he sent fifty cents to his SLG. During the past decade, the SLG tax share has averaged ninety cents.


In the engine model I first introduced in July, Federal taxes were drained from the economic engine. Because SLGs do not have super powers to create money, their taxes stay within the engine and grease the gears. 72% of SLG taxes are under the category of mandatory business production – they are levied on goods and services received by the taxpayers. These include property, sales and business taxes and a plethora of licensing fees. A family who cannot pay their property taxes loses their home. Sales taxes are mandatory at the time of purchase. When SLG taxes are high, households must work more hours or cut expenses to meet the burden. Unlike Federal taxes, higher SLG taxes can force families to work more and increase GDP (Note#1).

For the past thirty years, SLG taxes have grown 6.6% each year, 1-1/2% above the 5.2% annual growth in spending. In the past ten years, tax receipts have grown at half that rate – 3.2%, barely above the 3.0% growth in spending. SLGs have not saved enough to meet the pension benefits and medical care promised the Boomer generation. SLGs will need to raise revenues, cut spending or both.

23% of total SLG tax receipts are taxes collected on personal income. Taxes on business income make up an additional 5%. Sixty years ago, those personal and business shares of the SLG tax pie were 7% and 3%.


Republicans oppose raising taxes, especially income taxes, and they control the legislatures in 32 states. In 26 of those states, they control the governorship as well (Note #2).  Democrats have total control of only six states, one of them California, where income and sales tax make up a whopping 50% of state revenues (Note #3). Many SLGs will cut spending and raise additional revenue through higher property and sales taxes and licensing fees. This lowering of the income tax share will move the mix of income and production taxes to the model of sixty years ago when production taxes were 87% of total SLG tax receipts.

In 2017, single family homeowners averaged $3300 in property taxes. Some states like Colorado have low property taxes averaging only $2000 (Note #4). Personal property taxes have averaged almost 7% annual growth during the past thirty years. Expect 8 – 10% annual growth in the next decade and a population shift to those states which can curb the growth of their taxes. Angry homeowners and taxpayers are sure to kick up a ruckus at City Councils and State Legislatures around the country.


  1. In 2007, Christina and David Romer analyzed the effect of tax changes on GDP. They found that a 1% exogenous tax increase resulted in a 2 – 3% reduction in real GDP. They classified tax changes implemented for long-term growth as exogenous. Here is a one page summary of the PDF.
  2. One of several sources on Republican dominance of state legislatures. The Hill.
  3. Income and sales tax make up 50% of California’s tax revenues (CA Research Bureau)
  4. Denver Post article on property taxes



NYT had an article on senior scams this week. Because those older than 50 own 70% of deposit balances, they are prime targets of fraud. This was novel: a retired IT pro who thought he was working from home as an employee gave his new “employer” his bank information so that his paycheck could be direct deposited. Common scams: Check fraud is still common, as are overpayments and other excuses to get you to give up your bank account information. Only you should be initiating such a transaction.

Vanguard’s projections of expected returns for various asset classes over the next ten years. Domestic stocks 3.9%. Bonds 3.3%



Sales Tax Collections

January 8, 2017

The New Year begins, the 9th year of this blog that began during the financial crisis.  For two decades I had studied financial markets but the financial crisis surprised most people.  This was my attempt to organize and share my thoughts.

Sales Tax Collections

Let’s look at a data point that has been a consistent indicator of economic health – sales tax collections. This is not survey data or economic estimates but actual tax collections based on consumer purchases. For the first 3 quarters of 2016, sales tax collections are up 1.6% above the same period in 2015. (Census Bureau)    As we will see, this tepid growth rate does not compare well with the historical data of the past 25 years.  Below is a quarterly graph of sales tax collected in the 50 states.

As we can see in the graph above, the 2nd quarter (orange bar) is the highest each year, and is a good indicator of consumer activity and confidence. Since population growth is about 1%, the annual growth of sales tax collected should be above that mark to be effectively positive.

In the graph below, we can see negligible or negative growth in 2001, 2008 and 2016. In 2001 and 2008, we were already in recession, although it took the recession marking committee at the NBER almost a year to declare the beginning of those recessions.  By selecting the 2nd quarter growth rate in the historical data, we can more easily see the weakness at the start of an economic downturn.

In retrospect, 25 years of data is rather sparse.  We can only hope that this year’s lack of sales tax growth may turn out to be a warning sign only, a fluke.  Third quarter tax collections were effectively positive, but only 2% growth, and that annual growth has consistently declined in the past three years in a pattern exactly like the weakening of 2006 – 2008.

Of particular note in the graph above is the steep 10% drop in sales tax collections in the second quarter of 2009. Fom a vantage point eight years in the future, we may have forgotten the degree of fear during the winter of 2008-2009.  The American people were holding onto their money.  State budgets were crippled by the lack of sales tax collections, an important and ongoing source of revenue for state and local governments.

See end for a side note.


Population Growth

Business Insider published a chart of 2015-2016 population data from the Census Bureau.  We can see a clear shift from the northern states to the mountain and southern states.  Retiring boomers, who want to maximize their fixed incomes, will shift from states with high state income and property taxes like New Jersey and New York, and move to states with lower taxes.


Tax Reform

In a few weeks Republicans will control the legislative machinery, and have promised  tax reform that, after thirty years, is overdue.  One of the proposals on the bargaining table is the end of the home interest deduction, which prompted this blog post at Slate.  The author contends that the elimination of this deduction will hurt middle class homeowners, who will see the value of their homes decline by 7%.

I’ll add in some contextual data from the IRS.  In 2011, 22% of the 145 million (M) returns claimed mortgage interest totalling $321 billion. ( IRS tax stats Table 3) People making a middle class income of less than $100K claimed half of that interest – 14% of all returns.  The average interest deduction for these middle class households was $8100.

Two million returns with incomes of $500K and above claimed $46B in mortgage interest, about 15% of the total interest claimed.  For these high earners, the average deduction was $20,000.

The tax reform of 1986 eliminated the interest deduction on credit cards and cars, but lawmakers could not go the final distance and squelch the home mortgage interest deduction.  At the time, auto dealerships complained that, without the interest deduction on new car loans, their business would suffer.  Tax subsidies affect both consumers and the businesses who are indirect recipients of the subsidy. Should 78% of taxpayers subsidize the housing costs for 22% of taxpayers?   Certainly, the 22% appreciate the subsidy! The real estate industry continues to resist any tax changes that might have a negative impact on their business.  Each industry deserves a subsidy of some kind because that industry is important to the overall economy – or so the argument goes.


The End of Capitalism – Almost

Let’s get in the wayback machine and dial in 1997.  The dot-com boom is not yet a bubble but is growing.  Cell phones are growing in acceptance but the majority of people do not have one.  A one year CD is paying more than 5%.  The unemployment rate is about the same level as today (2016).  What is very different between then and now is the number of publicly traded companies.  In 1997, there were over 9000 listed companies.  Today, there are about 6000 companies.  The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley (SB) law has such stringent and plentiful financial reporting regulations that many companies decide not to go public, or to sell themselves to a larger company that already has the internal infrastructure in place to comply with SB regulations.  Both parties want to repeal or amend the law but cannot agree on the details.  Readers can click for more info.


Next week I will compare the 10 year performance and risks of various portfolios.  There are some surprises there.


Side note on Sales Tax.  The Federal Reserve charts retail sales but these are based on data samples and will not be as accurate as the actual tax collected.  When retail sales are adjusted for inflation, the year over year growth can give a number of false positives.  In the graph below, I have marked up periods that went negative without the economy going into recession.  I think that the actual tax collected may be a much more accurate predictor of economic weakness.