Policy Documents

The U.S. Tax System: Who Really Pays?

Stephen Moore –
August 1, 2012

Even if most policymakers and members of the public instinctively understand the wisdom of President Kennedy’s words, tax rates are set to go way up, not down, next year because of the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the beginning of 2013. The Obamacare law also raises tax rates on wealthy individuals by an additional 3.8 percentage points next year. President Obama and others in Congress argue that these higher tax rates are justified because of the growing consensus that the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Unless we do something to spread the burden more equitably, the argument goes, American society will become more unfair and the economy more unsustainable with each passing year.

At first glance, the tax rate issue seems inseparable from the tax fairness issue, since higher taxes are expected to shift society’s wealth from the private sector to the public sector, where, broadly speaking, it is redistributed to lower-wage earners and the needy. In reality, the people at the bottom of the scale have benefited directly and indirectly from every tax rate reduction dating back to Kennedy’s rate reductions in the early 1960s and through the tax cuts adopted early in the administration of George W. Bush. If those lower rates, along with the Alternative Minimum Tax fix, are allowed to expire, the poor will be burdened even more than the wealthy because the whole economic pie will shrink.

If tax cuts work to expand the economy, the income pie gets larger for everyone. For example, tax rate reductions on businesses may mean more money after-tax for hiring more workers, paying them more, or purchasing more plant and equipment and computers that make workers more productive and efficient. Tax rate reductions on investment expand investment and mean more funds available for new businesses to get off the ground and for existing businesses to expand. Lower estate taxes may mean that family-owned businesses don’t have to be sold at auction at the time of the owner’s death. Everyone benefits.

At stake in the current tax debate in Washington are not only marginal income-tax rates but the tax on capital gains and dividends. Federal taxes are already scheduled to rise by about $700 billion over the next ten years to finance the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In short, Americans face the largest cumulative tax increase since the end of World War II, which could be a mighty blow to an economy already on the verge of double-dip recession.

The truth is that higher taxes starve the very sectors of the economy that create jobs for everyone. They can, for a little while, reduce the incomes of our top-earning citizens—until these people’s top-notch accountants are able to redirect their investments away from the most efficient, effective uses of their money and into sleepier investments such as government debt, instead of providing the capital that some high-tech company, for example, needs to develop its next tablet.

Below are a series of statements reflecting popular conceptions and misconceptions about the impact of tax rates on economic productivity and fairness. We’ll address these statements (and debunk attendant myths) one at a time.