America is supposed to be a democracy in which we're all in it together. Part of that ethos, which has been so essential to the country in times of crisis, is a common understanding that we all pay a share of the costs. Taxes are an essential ingredient in the civic glue that binds us together.
Our democracy is corrupted when some voters think that they won't have to pay for the benefits their representatives offer them. It is corrupted when some voters see themselves as victims of exploitation by their fellow citizens.
By both standards, American democracy is in trouble. We have the worst of both worlds. The rhetoric of the president tells the public that the rich are not paying their fair share, undermining the common understanding from the bottom up. Meanwhile, the IRS recently released new numbers on who pays how much taxes, and those numbers tell the people at the top that they're being exploited.
Let's start with the rich, whom I define as families in the top 1% of income among those who filed tax returns. In 2007, the year with the most recent tax data, they had family incomes of $410,000 or more. They paid 40% of all the personal income taxes collected.
Yes, you read it right: 1% of American families paid 40% of America's personal taxes.
The families in the rest of the top 5% had family incomes of $160,000 to $410,000. They paid another 20% of total personal income taxes. Now we're up to three out of every five dollars in personal taxes paid by just five out of every 100 American families.
Turn to the bottom three-quarters of the families who filed income tax returns in 2007--not just low-income families, but everybody with family incomes below $66,500. That 75% of families paid just 13% of all personal income taxes. Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation has recast these numbers in terms of a single, stunning statistic: The top 1% of American households pay more in federal taxes than the bottom 95% combined.
My point is not that the rich are being bled dry. The taxes paid by families in the top 1% amounted to 22% of their adjusted gross income, not a confiscatory rate. The issue is that it is inherently problematic to have a democracy in which a third of filers pay no personal income tax at all (another datum from the IRS), and the entire bottom half of filers, meaning those with adjusted gross incomes below $33,000, have an average tax rate of just 3%.
This deforms the behavior of everyone--the voters who think they aren't paying for Congress's latest bright idea, the politicians who know that promising new programs will always be a winning political strategy with the majority of taxpayers who don't think they have to pay for them, and the wealthy who know that the only way to get politicians to refrain from that strategy is to buy them off.
For once, we face a problem with a solution that costs nothing. Most families who pay little or no personal income taxes are paying Social Security and Medicare taxes. All we need to do is make an accounting change, no longer pretending that payroll taxes are sequestered in trust funds.
Fold payroll taxes into the personal tax code, adjusting the rules so that everyone still pays the same total, but the tax bill shows up on the 1040. Doing so will tell everyone the truth: Their payroll taxes are being used to pay whatever bills the federal government brings upon itself, among which are the costs of Social Security and Medicare.
The finishing touch is to make sure that people understand how much they are paying, which is presently obscured by withholding at the workplace. End withholding, and require everybody to do what millions of Americans already do: write checks for estimated taxes four times a year.
Both of those simple changes scare politicians. Payroll taxes are politically useful because low-income and middle-income taxpayers don't complain about what they believe are contributions to their retirement and they think, wrongly, that they aren't paying much for anything else. Tax withholding has a wonderfully anesthetizing effect on people whose only income is a paycheck, leaving many of them actually feeling grateful for their tax refund check every year, not noticing how much the government has taken from them.
But the politicians' fear of being honest about taxes doesn't change the urgent need to be honest. The average taxpayer is wrong if he believes the affluent aren't paying their fair share--the top income earners carry an extraordinary proportion of the tax burden. High-income earners are wrong, too, about being exploited: Take account of payroll taxes, and low-income people also bear a heavy tax load.
End the payroll tax, end withholding, and these corrosive misapprehensions go away. We will once again be a democracy in which we're all in it together, we all know that we're all paying a share, and we are all aware how much that share is.
Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.