As the presidential campaigns rev up, taxes are emerging as the defining issue of the election. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation and myths about taxes are spreading as candidates and commentators look to push their different economic agendas.
To start the election season off, here is a breakdown of the five biggest tax whoppers being told by the candidates and commentators alike.
1) Myth: 47 Percent of Americans Do Not Pay Taxes
Fact: All Americans Pay Taxes
Pundits and politicians will continue to rile up audiences this election season by claiming that half of Americans in the U.S. do not pay any taxes. This talking point is used to deflect questions about why the rich should pay their fair share.
The basis of this claim is data showing that 47 percent of Americans did not owe federal income taxes in 2009, which the recession was at it's peak. The claim ignores the much more regressive federal payroll taxes or state and local sales, income, and property taxes that all Americans pay. The reality is that three-quarters of American households actually pay more in payroll taxes than federal income taxes.
Adding to this, the very reason many low income Americans do not pay federal income taxes is because they benefit from highly effective tax credits like the earned income tax credit (EITC), which incentivize work while providing much needed support to working low and middle class family budgets.
2) Myth: The American People and Corporations Pay High Taxes
Fact: The US Has the Third Lowest Taxes of Any Developed Country in the World
Total US taxes are actually at the lowest level they’ve been since 1958. The US has the third lowest level of total taxes of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, with the exception of only Chile and Mexico. President Obama, who is often falsely accused of raising taxes, actually cut taxes for 98 percent of the country on top of temporarily extending the entirety of the Bush tax cuts.
A related claim is that the US has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. This is misleading because it’s based on the on-paper (statutory) corporate rate rather than the actual (effective) rate that corporations pay. Because of the plethora of corporate tax breaks and loopholes, the US actually has the second lowest coporate taxes as a share of GDP in the OECD. In fact, 30 major corporations, including Verizon, Boeing and General Electric, paid nothing in corporate taxes over the last 3 years. Rather than cutting corporate taxes, the sensible solution is to pass revenue-positive corporate tax reform.
3) Myth: Cutting Taxes Creates Jobs and Raises Revenue
Fact: Tax Cuts Reduce Revenue And Are Not Associated with Economic Growth
Since the rise of supply-side economics, tax cuts for the rich have been regarded as a magic elixir that could unleash economic growth, while simultaneously increasing government revenue.
The reality is that the tax cuts that have been tried for over 30 years have proven to be a stunning failure in all regards. In fact, history has shown that the tax rate on the wealthy simply has nothing to do with economic growth. Just consider the strong growth that occurred after President Clinton increased taxes versus the dismal growth following the Bush tax cuts.
Not surprisingly, tax cuts have been definitely proven to reduce revenue. Even President Bush's own Treasury Department concluded that tax cuts do not create enough economic growth to to come close to offsetting their costs or raising revenue. The Bush tax cuts cost $2.5 trillion in their first decade and the Reagan tax cuts cost $582 billion.
4) Myth: The US tax system is very progressive because wealthy individuals already pay a disproportionate amount of taxes.
Fact: At a Time of Growing Income Inequality, the US Tax System is Basically Flat.
Conservative commentators and politicians claim that it would be unfair to raise taxes on wealthy individuals because they already pay a disproportionate amount of taxes, usually citing the fact that the top one percent of income earners pay 38 percent of federal income taxes. Once again, such claims ignore the fact that the federal income tax is just one of many taxes that individuals pay.
When you take into account all of the taxes that individuals pay, the truth is that our tax system is relatively flat. The top one percent of income earners receives 20.3 percent of total income while paying 21.5 percent of total taxes and the lowest 20 percent of income earners receive 3.5 percent of total income while still paying out two percent of total taxes.
In other words, wealthy individuals pay a high percentage of taxes because they earn a highly disproportionate amount of income. This is, of course, a consequence of growing income inequality in the United States, which is at a level not seen since before the Great Depression.
5) Myth : The “Fair Tax” or a flat tax would be more “fair”
Fact: The “Fair Tax” or a Flat Tax Would Make Our Tax System Even More Regressive
Whether it’s Steve Forbes promoting his flat tax proposal in 1996 and 2000 or Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential race today, the idea to sweep away our current tax system and replace it with a single rate, flat income or national sales tax (called the “Fair Tax”) has become a perennial campaign issue for Republican presidential candidates.
The simplicity of these proposals has much appeal for many Americans, who believe they would make filing taxes less complex and, at the same time, stop wealthy individuals from being able to game the tax system.
A deeper look, however, reveals that both the “fair” and flat tax are very regressive compared to our current system. One recent analysis of a typical flat tax proposal from last year shows that it would result in an average tax increase of $2,887 for the bottom 95 percent of Americans, while those in the top one percent would receive an average tax cut of over $209,562. Furthermore, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s analysis of the Fair Tax points out the under this system, the sales tax rate would have to be set at a politically and administratively unfeasible rate of at least 45 percent, and, the result would be the bottom 80 percent of American’s paying an average of 51 percent more in taxes compared to our current system.
It’s also important to note that “complexity in the tax code,” which a flat tax system purports to fix, is not caused by our progressive rate structure; rather, it’s the multitude of loopholes and tax breaks, all of which could easily be eliminated while keeping a progressive tax rate structure in place.