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Thursday, March 25, 2010

How big is government?

In the Principles class, when I start the section on the structure of the tax system, I always ask students if they believe taxes are "too high, too low or about right". The majority always answer "too high". After reading a recent article by Bruce Bartlett [hat tip to Mark Thoma] I'm now tempted to ask them more specific questions about their beliefs about taxes and the size of government, since Bartlett has done the work of finding the answers for me. I don't usually do such extended quotes but this is great stuff (I should also mention that the responses from the Tea Partyers are exactly why I think we need to teach this stuff in Principles):
Tea Partyers were asked how much the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. According to Congressional Budget Office data, acceptable answers would be 6.4%, which is the percentage for federal income taxes; 12.7%, which would be for both income taxes and Social Security payroll taxes; or 14.8%, which would represent all federal taxes as a share of GDP in 2009...

According to the CBO, the highest figure for all federal taxes since 1970 came in the year 2000, when they reached 20.6% of GDP. As we know, after that George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress cut federal taxes; they fell to 18.5% of GDP in 2007, before the recession hit, and 17.5% in 2008.

Tuesday's Tea Party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.

To follow up, Tea Partyers were asked how much they think a typical family making $50,000 per year pays in federal income taxes. The average response was $12,710, the median $10,000. In percentage terms this means a tax burden of between 20% and 25% of income.

Of course, it's hard to know what any particular individual or family pays in taxes, but according to IRS tax tables, a single person with $50,000 in taxable income last year would owe $8,694 in federal income taxes, and a married couple filing jointly would owe $6,669.

But these numbers are high because to have a taxable income of $50,000, one's gross income would be higher by at least the personal exemption, which is $3,650, and the standard deduction, which is $5,700 for single people and $11,400 for married couples. Owning a home or having children would reduce one's tax burden further.

According to calculations by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a congressional committee, tax filers with adjusted gross incomes between $40,000 and $50,000 have an average federal income tax burden of just 1.7%. Those with adjusted gross incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 have an average burden of 4.2%.

Even though the Tea Partyers were specifically asked about federal income taxes, it's possible that they were thinking about other federal taxes as well, such as payroll and excise taxes. According to the JCT, when all federal taxes are included, those earning between $40,000 and $50,000 have an average tax rate of 12.3%, and those earning between $50,000 and $75,000 pay a rate of 14.5%.
To be fair, in states with income taxes (like California), I don't think people differentiate between state and federal taxes - they just see money being taken out of their paycheck. But even if you add in state income taxes, my guess is that adds maybe another few percent for most people, so still nowhere near 20%. The full survey is here, with some additional questions with equally fascinating /scary answers. 

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