The tax this year will increase by two percentage points, to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent, on all earned income up to $113,700.
Indeed, for most lower- and middle-income households, the payroll tax increase will most likely equal or exceed the value of the income tax savings. A household earning $50,000 in 2013, roughly the national median, will avoid paying about $1,000 more in income taxes — but pay about $1,000 more in payroll taxes.
That tax rates are nominally increasing, or that effective tax rates are not decreasing, should come as no surprise. Government spending must be funded somehow, and the only three possible options for raising revenue are taxation, inflation, and borrowing. The federal government must have money in order to do what it does, and that money must come from somewhere. To think that the federal government can spend close to $4 trillion without imposing any costs on anyone except “the rich”—itself a nebulous, ill-defied concept—is simply ludicrous. And to those who complain about the tax burden they must inevitably bear, I simply ask: what government services do you no longer want provided for you? If you want the government to do something for you, you must—you will—pay for it. Thus, any complaints about taxes, if they are serious, must be accompanied with complaints about spending.
There are a lot of people calling for raising taxes. Tom Coburn (a Republican, it should be noted) is in favor of increasing tax revenue by raising nominal rates on the wealthy. Daniel Berger thinks it’s unfair that the rich (himself excepted, of course) don’t pay their fair share. These two stories, then, reveal the two main arguments for increase tax rates on the wealthy: increasing revenue and making society fairer. Unfortunately, these two arguments have nothing to do with reality.
It’s surprising that anyone seriously thinks that raising relatively high tax rates to an even higher level will automatically lead to higher revenues. Britain tried this last year by raising the top income rate on millionaire earners to 50% and saw a £7 billion decrease in tax revenue. California attempted to create the highest state income tax in the nation and saw its revenue fall as well. Furthermore, federal tax revenues actually increased after the Bush tax cuts. Clearly, the argument that increasing revenue is as simple as raising tax rates is demonstrably false.*
What’s interesting, though, is that a progressive tax system doesn’t actually alleviate unfairness (aka inequality). California and New York, for example, have two of the most progressive tax codes, relative to other states. They also have a surprising amount of income inequality, relative to other states. Of course, correlation is not causation. But the absence of correlation should certainly indicate the absence of causality (since the theory is that progressive tax rates reduce income inequality, the complete absence of this theory in practice should lead to the conclusion that this theory is complete and utter bunk).
Why it is the case that progressive tax rates don’t lead to greater income equality is difficult to discern. Perhaps it is the case that, in response to increased taxes, the moderately wealthy leave while the uber-wealthy stay. Perhaps there is a connection between progressive tax rates and expansive regulation, with said regulation tending to benefit the wealthy. Perhaps the progressive tax system is a mirage of nominally tax rates coupled with lots and lots of loopholes. Perhaps God hates progressive and loves nothing more than a good joke at their expense. Perhaps the elite exploit progressive naiveté for gain. Whatever the case may be, it appears that it’s time to refrain from arguing that progressive tax rates make things fair.
At any rate, it should be clear that the two main reasons for increasing nominal tax rates are nothing more than crap. Raising rates doesn’t increase revenue, nor does it make things more fair. Now, let’s stop pretending that it does.
* Of course, this doesn’t mean that decreasing tax rates necessarily leads to a revenue increase. The Laffer curve suggests that there is a revenue-optimal tax rate between 0% and 100%. Where this specific point is for federal revenue is unknown, but history suggests that revenue will not generally exceed 20% of GDP, and that optimal tax rates generally tend to be below 50%. My personal opinion is that, assuming a highly simplified tax code (one or two collection points and few to zero loopholes), the optimal tax rate will be in the low to mid twenty percent range.
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Street vending has been a path out of poverty for Americans. And like other such paths (say, driving a taxi), this one is increasingly difficult to navigate. Why? Because entrenched interests don’t like competition. So they lobby their powerful friends to erect high hurdles to upstarts. It’s an old story.
Now, growing local governments are crushing street vendors.
The city of Atlanta, for example, has turned all street vending over to a monopoly contractor. In feudalist fashion, all existing vendors were told they must work for the monopoly or not vend at all.
Institute lawyer Elizabeth Foley says the regulations make “it virtually impossible to be an effective street vendor. You can’t be within 300 feet of any place that sells the same or similar merchandise. That’s absolutely ridiculous for the government to use its power to enact a law like that. … These people are just trying to make an honest living, and the city is making it impossible to do so.”
Raul Martinez, the mayor when the law passed, defended the rule.
“You don’t want to have everybody in the middle of the streets competing for space on the sidewalk without some sort of regulations. In the city of Hialeah, we’re not overregulating anybody.”
He says one purpose of the law is simple fairness: Street vendors don’t pay property taxes. Brick-and-mortar stores must.
No one likes paying taxes, and so everyone tries to either avoid the misery or spread it around. One common justification for paying taxes, then, is fairness: Why should I pay taxes when my competitor doesn’t?
That is, perhaps, a legitimate question, but it is irrelevant nonetheless because fairness does not exist. For starters, no two people can even agree on what constitutes fairness. And even if they could, ensuring fairness requires more data than anyone possesses or could hope of possessing.
Taking the case at hand, it seems obvious that it is unfair for street vendors to not pay taxes. But should their tax bill be comparable to brick-and-mortar stores? The answer isn’t straightforward because one must consider how much less of a burden street vendors are to the local government relative to brick-and-mortar stores. One must also compare the relative advantages of each venue—a street vendor does not offer the same product as a restaurant, even if the menu offerings are identical. Trying to determine a fair tax rate in light of the considerations is simply impossible.
As such, it is simply best for the government to surrender the battle on fairness and simply say that the government needs X amount of dollars in revenue and that policy Y is the easiest way to attain this. The continual bickering over fairness simply increases systemic costs, damages the economy, kills people’s job prospects, increases political rancor, and does absolutely nothing to improve the system in the long run. Therefore, the government would be better off implementing one simple tax and living within its means, and stop concerning itself with fairness.