Sixteenth Amendment, Revenue Act of 1913, Progressive Tax, Marginal Tax Rate, Tax Shelter, Tax Cuts and Decade of Greed

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 10th, 2012

History 101

Americans find Taxes Repugnant and have a Long History of Making this Repugnance Known

American independence began with a tax revolt.  The ratification of the U.S. Constitution happened only with safeguards against the new federal government from growing too powerful.  And great efforts went to limiting the amount of money it could spend.  For a long time all federal tax revenue came from import tariffs.  Then from sales of federal lands as the population moved west.  It took a civil war for us to impose an income tax.  Our first income tax was 3% on incomes over $800 (or about $20,000 today).  The first income tax was a flat tax.  They passed this income tax to pay for the war.  They repealed the income tax following the war.  Americans wouldn’t see another federal income tax until 1913 when we ratified the Sixteenth Amendment.  And President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Revenue Act of 1913.

Woodrow Wilson was a progressive.  The precursor to today’s liberals.  Who thought beyond the limited government of our Founding Fathers.  They wanted to expand government.  To make it a part of our everyday life.  Where the brilliant progressive politicians would make better decisions for us than we ever could.  And their changing of society included the funding of the federal government.  For their income tax was a progressive tax.  Everyone paid a flat tax of 1% on income of $3,000 or more.  About $66,100 today.  Then the progressive taxes came into play.   Adding another percentage to the income tax rate for increasing amounts of income.  The thresholds for these increases were as follows: $20,000 (roughly $440,400 today), $50,000 ($1,101,000 today), $75,000 ($1,651,600), $100,000 ($2,202,100), $250,000 ($5,505,300) and $500,000 ($11,010,700).  The top marginal tax rate on the super rich (earning $11,010,700) was 7%.

Our second income tax was quite controversial.  A lot of people hated it.  For Americans find taxes repugnant.  And have a long history of making this repugnance well known.  But thanks to the American Civil War a generation of men was lost.  And a generation of boys grew up without fathers.  Tended on by doting mothers.  Smothering them with love and affection.  And these boys grew up without knowing the manly hardships of life.  And they entered politics.  Becoming those early progressives.  Who wanted to change the government into a great doting mother.  And now they could.  For they had their income tax.

Few paid the Confiscatory Tax Rates of the Seventies by Hiding their Income in Tax Shelters

The rich paid our first federal income taxes after the Revenue Act of 1913.  And these were very small percentages we had them pay.  Back then the top marginal tax rate was lower than our lowest income tax rate today.  Think about that.  The richest of the rich paid only 7% of their income ($11,010,700 or more today) in federal income taxes.  While today single people earning the lowest bracket of taxable income (from $0 to $8,700) pay 10% of their income in federal income taxes.  Clearly the growth of government exploded thanks to the Sixteenth Amendment.  Much as our Founding Fathers feared it would if they had too much money to spend.

Of course, this is ancient history.  Few know about this today.  For few could even tell you why we fought for our independence.  Or even who we fought for our independence from.  (We fought for our independence from Great Britain because of their policies to tax us despite our having no representation in Parliament.  That’s where the phrase taxation without representation came from).  Today high taxes are sadly just an accepted part of life.  In fact, we have referred to our paychecks as take-home pay.  Our net pay.  Because gross pay is a myth.  No one sees their gross pay.  About a third or more of that disappears in withholding taxes.  So gross pay is a meaningless expression for us today.  (It wasn’t before the Sixteenth Amendment or before the progressives came to power).  Something that we sadly accept.  And we now fund our lives on the take-home pay the government allows us to keep.  All the while accepting these high tax rates.

Government spending took off in the Sixties and the Seventies.  As did our taxes.  If we had once thought that a 7% tax on incomes of $11,010,700 or more was an outrage, we didn’t see anything yet.  In 1978 the top marginal tax rate was 70% on incomes of $351,712 or more.  And there were 25 marginal tax rates.  As shown here adjusted for inflation (sources: Tax Rates, Tax Receipts, and Celebrity Incomes).

 In this example we calculated the average of some top celebrities.  And the top celebrities on average earned about $30,000,000 in 2010.  Using the 1978 tax brackets they would have owed $20,936,506 in federal income taxes.  Or approximately 69.8% of their total income.  Which is pretty much equal to the top marginal tax rate.  Of course, few paid these confiscatory tax rates.  They hid their income as best as they could in the Seventies.  In tax shelters.  And you know they did because despite these confiscatory tax rates the federal government still ran budget deficits.  Having to print money to pay for their explosion in government spending. 

The Low Tax Rates of the Eighties created so much Economic Activity the Opposition called it the Decade of Greed

The heyday of Keynesian economics was in the Seventies.  After Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold the Keynesians were free to print money to stimulate the economy.  Which was their answer to ending a recession.  Stimulus spending.  Have the government print money to create economic activity that wasn’t happening in the private sector.  Their policy tool to end a recession was inflation.  By pouring money into the economy people would borrow it and buy cars and houses and furniture.  And everything else under the sun.  Creating a surge of economic activity.  And creating jobs in the process as businesses must hire new workers to meet that government stimulated demand.  With the dollar decoupled from the ‘cross of gold’ the Keynesians were finally able to prove their mettle.  And solve all the country’s economic problems.  It was the dawn of a brave new world.

And that world sucked.  For the implementation of Keynesian economic policy proved those policies did not work.  Instead of replacing high unemployment with inflation they just added high inflation to the high unemployment.  Something that was impossible to happen in Keynesian textbooks.  But it happened.  Stagnant economic activity.  And inflation.  What we called stagflation.  We added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate to come up with a new economic indicator.  The misery index.  The economy was so miserable during Jimmy Carter’s 4 years in office that he lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan.  Who was a proponent not of Keynesian economics but of the Austrian school.  Or supply side economics.   And the Austrians believed in low tax rates.  For low tax rates would stimulate economic activity.  And the greater amount of economic activity would generate a greater amount of tax revenue even at lower tax rates.  Let’s look at that same celebrity paying taxes a decade later under Ronald Reagan.

 Much simpler.  And more in keeping with the Founding Fathers.  Instead of paying 70% of their earnings in federal income taxes they will only pay 28% (again, equal to the top marginal tax rate.  Which is pretty much the only tax rate the rich pay).  That’s still a lot of money to give to the federal government.  But it’s so much smaller that in many cases it was cheaper and easier to pay Uncle Sam than trying to hide that income.  So economic activity took off in the Eighties.  It was so great that the opposition called it the Decade of Greed.  Out of sour grapes because their policies could never produce anything like it.  But what about tax revenue?  Those on the Left say this economic activity came at a price.  Exploding deficits.  Well, the deficits did grow.  But it wasn’t because of the cuts in the tax rates.

Higher Tax Rates do not Necessarily Increase Tax Revenue 

In 1978 total tax revenue was $1,113.6 billion.  In 1988 total tax revenue was $1,421.1 billion.  So Reagan’s cuts in the tax rates produced $307.5 billion more in tax revenue.  An increase of about 27.6%.  Dropping the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28% actually increased tax revenue.  So the cut in tax rates did not cause the deficits.  It wasn’t a revenue problem.  Revenue went up.  Spending just increased more.  And it was this excessive government spending that caused the deficits.  Not the tax cuts. 

The lesson here is that higher tax rates do not necessarily increase tax revenue.  Because changes in tax rates changes behavior.  Higher tax rates discourage people from investing in businesses.  They discourage businesses from expanding.  Or hiring new workers.  Higher tax rates may decrease the opportunity costs for hiding income.  The cost and inconvenience of hiding income in tax shelters and offshore accounts may become less that the cost of paying higher taxes.  Like it was during the Seventies.  Where despite confiscatory tax rates the government could not generate enough tax revenue to meet their spending obligations.

Income tax rates grew from a very small percentage on only the largest of incomes to high tax rates on very modest incomes.  And yet our deficits have never been larger.  Proving that our tax rates are either too high and dampen economic activity (as well as encouraging people to avoid paying their taxes).  Or that government spending has just grown too large.  More than likely it’s a combination of the two.  A fact that would shock and dismay the Founding Fathers were they alive to see what we did with the republic they gave us.


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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #75: “Lower income tax rates generate more tax revenue by making more rich people who pay more income taxes.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 19th, 2011

The top 1% of Earners pay close to 40% of all Federal Income Taxes

Poor people pay little income taxes.  Rich people pay a lot of income taxes.  Everyone else pays somewhere in between.  The tool to make this happen is the progressive tax system.  Government designed it so that people with more income pay more taxes.   Via progressive tax brackets.  And the current (2010-2011) brackets (for head of household) are:

  • 10% on first $12,150
  • 15% on income from $12,150 – $46,250
  • 25% on income from $46,250 – $119,400
  • 28% on income from $119,400 – $193,350
  • 33% on income from $193,350 – $379,150
  • 35% on income over $379,150

If you earn $8,000 you owe $800.  Simple.  If you earn $83,600 you owe $15,668.  If you earn $450,000 you owe $131,435.  If you earn $2,500,000 you owe $848,935.  See the pattern?  Earn more.  Pay more.  Almost as if you’re penalized for being successful.

Of course, low-income people often don’t pay any federal income taxes.  In fact, a lot of people don’t.  About half.  Thanks to tax credits, deductions and exemptions.  But when you’re a rich CEO earning a multimillion dollar salary there aren’t enough tax credits, deductions and exemptions to avoid your taxes.  That’s why the top 1% of earners pay close to 40% of all federal income taxes.  Something we should thank them for.  Instead of demonizing them.

The higher the Top Marginal Tax Rate is the more the Rich avoid paying Income Taxes

There are no Mom and Pop hardware stores anymore.  The big box home improvement stores like The Home Depot, Lowe’s and, for those of you old enough to remember, Builder’s Square put them out of business.  Because of greedy consumers like you.  And me.  Who want to get the best value while shopping.  And if we can buy something of equal quality at a lower price we do.  We work hard for our money.  We spend it carefully.  Wisely.  And we don’t pay more for something when we can get the same for less elsewhere.

It’s the same for rich people.  When they shop.  And when they invest their wealth.  Or their ability.  They look at their options.  Create a new business?  Work at an established business?  If you’re highly skilled you can earn a lot of income.  Which rich people take into consideration.  But there are costs.  Payroll taxes.  Employee compensation and benefits.  Compliance and regulation costs.  And, of course, the progressive tax system.

The higher the top marginal tax rate the less incentive they have to start or run a business.  The less incentive they have to create jobs.  And the more likely they won’t start or run a business.  Instead they’ll invest their money and pay the simpler and (so far) lower capital gains tax.  And this is what happens.  The higher the top marginal tax rate is the more the rich avoid paying income taxes, leaving the middle class to pick them up.  Just like you avoided that Mom and Pop hardware store on your way to The Home Dept.  And with an abundance of government debt available, the rich can invest and live on interest.  Sitting on the sidelines.  Watching the rest of us struggle to find a job.

You don’t need Employees to live on Interest Income

So, the progressive tax system is a way to make rich people pay more.  To transfer the tax burden to them.  And it does.  To a point.  But if you try to tax them too much they’ll just drop out of the economy.  And take their jobs with them.  Which is a double whammy.  We lose some of that generous 40% of income taxes they pay.  And we lose who knows how many thousands of jobs.  And taxpayers.  Thus transferring the burden the other way.  Away from the rich.  To those less able to afford it.

The progressive tax system is supposed to make paying taxes easier on the poor.  The less you earn the less you pay, leaving you with more money for the necessities of life.  Whereas the rich can afford to pay more so they do.  But a flat tax is a progressive tax, too.  The more you earn the more you pay.  For example, going to a 15% flat tax, our sample earners above would change their taxes owed as follows:

  • $8000:  $800  →  $1,200
  • $83,600:  $15,668  →  $12,540
  • $450,000:  $131,435  →  $67,500
  • $2,500,000:  $848,935  →  $375,000

It’s still progressive.  And, yes, the rich will pay less individually.  But there will be more of them.  For this lower income tax rate changes the dynamic.  It will be more profitable to get off of the sidelines and get back into the economy.  Because a flat 15% income tax rate will beat or equal the capital gains tax.  And the profit from creating or running a business will blow away the earnings on a portfolio of treasury bonds.

Better still are the jobs.  You don’t need employees to live on interest income.  But you need them to run a business.  More jobs mean more taxpayers.  So more rich people are back in the economy earning income and paying income taxes.  And more employees are working.  That’s more payroll taxes.  And more personal income taxes.  In the end, the numbers win.  More jobs.  More GDP.  And more federal tax receipts.

Keeping People Poorer and more Dependent on Government

If the goal of government tax policy is to raise tax revenue, the logical thing to do would be to design a tax code that creates more rich people.  A lower top marginal tax rate does this.  So does a flat tax.  Such a tax policy will create incentives to earn income instead of living on capital gains from investments.  Each rich person will pay less income tax individually but there will be far more of them paying income taxes overall.  And they will create jobs.  The more jobs there are the more payroll taxes and personal income taxes there are.

History has shown that cutting tax rates has done just that.  The Mellon tax cuts of the 1920s.  The JFK tax cuts of the 1960s.  The Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s.  The Bush tax cuts of the 2000s.  So if the record shows that lower tax rates produce more tax revenue, why are we always trying to raise the top marginal tax rates?  Simple.  Politics.

Being in politics is the closest you can get to being part of an aristocracy in the United States.  Unless you’re born a Kennedy.  Whether its ego or the graft, people aspire to be in the privileged few.  Life is better there.  If you have no talent or ability.  Other than being able to tell a pretty good lie.  So you use class warfare to get the masses to support you.  And the progressive tax system.  Which keeps people poorer and more dependent on government.  Like it used to be in the old days when there was an aristocracy.


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