It seems as if a number of people in the media have decided that President Obama was fibbing when he said that some millionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries — because, as the usual suspects triumphantly declare, on average millionaires pay higher average taxes than middle-income Americans.
This is, of course, stupid: the operative word is “some.”
And we’re not talking about one or two exceptional guys, either. Look at the I.R.S. data on returns for the 400 highest incomes in America, available at irs.gov. If you look at the numbers since 2004, you’ll see that in a typical year between 30 and 40 percent of those super-high-income players paid an average tax rate of less than 15 percent; most of them paid less than 20 percent. Bear in mind that for the very wealthy, the payroll tax — the main burden on working-class Americans — is trivial because of the cap on Social Security taxes and the fact that it only applies to earned income. And what becomes clear is that Mr. Obama’s claim that Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a higher tax rate than Mr. Buffett does is absolutely, totally true.
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So why the attack? Probably because it’s such an effective line. And we can’t have populism that actually strikes a chord with the public, can we?
The Consequences of Tax Cuts
With taxes on the wealthy on the political radar, we’re going to be drowning in a vast wave of double-talk and smothered by the fuzzy math. Still, one has to try. So, a couple of notes.
One is that you have to beware of the old trick of saying “taxes,” then slipping into “income taxes.” Most Americans pay more payroll taxes (for things like Medicare and Social Security) than income taxes, but the reverse is true at high incomes. So focusing only on income taxes makes it seem as if the rich bear much more of the burden than they really do.
Another, more subtle trick involves comparing percentage changes in taxes as opposed to tax changes as a percentage of income.
The starting point is that federal taxes are indeed progressive on average (although there are billionaires who pay a lower rate than their secretaries). And this in turn means that you have to be careful about the question when evaluating a change in taxes.
Suppose that it’s 1979, and individual A is a member of the working poor, paying 12 percent of his income in taxes — basically payroll tax and not much else. Meanwhile, individual B is very wealthy, and pays 40 percent of his income in taxes — as the very wealthy did on average 30 years ago.
Now suppose that 30 years of conservative governance lead to a fall of a quarter in both individuals’ average tax rates; A’s rate falls from 12 to 9, B’s from 40 to 30.
Would it make sense to say that they have gained equally from tax cuts?
Clearly not. A’s after-tax income has risen from 88 to 91 percent of pretax income, a gain of 3.4 percent. B’s after-tax income has risen from 60 to 70 percent of pretax income, a gain of 16.7 percent. The distribution of after-tax income has become substantially less equal.
Now, right-wingers come back and say that this is what has to happen when you cut taxes. No, it doesn’t.
And anyway, cutting taxes is itself a choice — a choice that then leads to demands that we cut programs for the poor and middle class to close the deficit those tax cuts created.
The point is that yes, tax policy these past 30 years has been very much tilted toward benefiting the rich.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.