The US tax system, like those in many Western countries, incorporates the concept of “progressivity” — the higher the income you earn, the higher the tax you pay on the last dollar. Your income is divided into blocks where each block of dollars is taxed at a different (rising) rate. In other words, the lower your personal income the less tax you pay per dollar of income. Amity Shlaes explains why this mechanism makes reforming or cutting taxes such a challenge:
Over the hundred years intervening, studies have shown that generally people do think that the greater the wealth, the more dollars wealthy people should pay in tax, proportionally. But that is not a progressive rate structure. That is a flat tax. A progressive tax increases rates as you earn more, disproportionally.
Nor are many people aware that under a progressive structure the last dollar is taxed at a different rate from the first dollar. The top marginal rate is not necessarily the average rate. In the early 1980s, scholar Karlyn Keene found that many Americans, when interviewed, thought flat taxes fair. Before Keene, Walter Blum and Harry Kalven at the University of Chicago studied attitudes toward progressivity and its functions and came away, despite their liberal predilections, concluding that the case for progressivity is “uneasy.”
Vanity of two sorts provides answers. Most Americans are unwilling to concede that they may not understand or be comfortable with long formulas and complex economic ideas. So, like the Enron audit committee, they simply nod and go along.
The second vanity involves not intelligence but a kind of Puritan pretension. No American wants to be caught appearing unfair, even if in the most fleeting snapshot. “Progressivity” sounds like “progress.” Nobody wants to be seen opposing progress, even if that progress is regress and unfair to boot.
In any case: That willed American ignorance is the single greatest reason our progressive income-tax rates have moved, at times, into the 90 percent range, up from that original 7 percent.
Worse, the attitude makes progressivity hard to undo. When you cut taxes for all in a progressive rate structure, the rich necessarily get a larger tax break because they pay a greater share of the taxes. But “larger tax breaks for the rich” are impossible to sell. A redistributive corollary: benefits for the poor. This week Paul Ryan is getting scourged because his budget cuts affect the poor more than the rich. That is because the poor get more of the benefits in the first place.
Update, 10 April: Here’s a great example of how much tax rates can increase at higher levels (although this particular example is not an income tax). In New York state, a recent change to estate tax rates can result in a marginal tax of 164%:
On its face, the new law seems like tax relief. Under the previous law, New Yorkers paid estate taxes of 3.06 percent to 16 percent on the value of estates over $1 million. The new law raises that exclusion to $2.062 million this year and gradually increases it to more than $5 million by 2017.
But because the law also phases out certain credits related to federal taxes, people who have estates valued just above the $2 million threshold could get massive estate tax bills. An analysis by U.S. Trust found that a New York resident who dies today with a taxable estate of $2,165,625 could have to pay an estate tax of over $112,050. That represents a tax of over 100 percent on the value of the estate over $2,062,000.
It gets worse in a few years. Matz said that assuming that the exclusion rises to $5,250,000, a New Yorker with a taxable estate of $5,512,500 would have to pay an estate tax of $430,050. That’s a marginal tax rate of 164 percent on the value of the estate above the exclusion.