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Define Rich, Part III. What the tax tables of yore say.

 By Daniel Becker

Randolph Duke: Money isn’t everything, Mortimer.
Mortimer Duke: Oh, grow up.
Randolph Duke: Mother always said you were greedy.
Mortimer Duke: She meant it as a compliment.
A while ago (an understatement) I posted on the question of what is rich. The first dealt with what issues to consider in defining rich. The second was looking at the issue of getting rich if that is even what one wants to do. The “rat race”. I don’t believe most people really want to be rich. I believe most people when thinking about being rich are thinking about what it would take to remove the fears of events that would make one’s life either very difficult in a world that requires money to remove risk or drastically different from what one’s life was. I’m thinking things like losing a job, debilitating injury or illness possibly resulting in physical disability or Louis Winthorpe III.
This all ties into “The American Dream”. The “Dream” is not just an ideology of governance and social philosophy. It is also a life style and thus requires a specific level of income. I have posted on this issue also and noted just how high in income we have driven this “Dream” such that two people with bachelor’s degrees just starting life together may not be able to have it.
Now that we have entered a period where taxes are on everyone’s minds such that there is serious consensus to raising taxes, maybe we need to see what we had in the past to know what we need now. I am sure most readers are aware of Mike’s work defining what rates appear to effect economic growth the best. If I recall correctly the number for the top 1% was around 65%. I have also suggested that there is a range as to how large a share of the income the top 1% should have. That number for the top 1% is not to be above 15% and not to much below 10%.
I should also mention my postings on taxation’s purpose. Specifically I looked at taxing from the perspective of the legal profession as oppose to the economic profession. The conclusion was that there was one main reason for taxing. It is to fulfill the directive of our constitution: equality of power. It is to assure the concept of one voice one vote. If there was ever a time in our history to raise taxes in order to assure this directive it is now in the age of the Citizens United ruling. President FDR referred to the issue and those with the one voice multiple votes do to their monied power as “economic royalty”. I like that phrase and I wonder why it is not used as are retort to those who use “class warfare” as a guilt trip.
Let’s get started.

I have constructed 4 sets of data using the tax rates of 1936/37, 1945/46, 1965/67 and 2010. I chose 1936 because it is a tax rate increase after the economy had turned north based on Mikes posting. I chose 1945/46 because it is another adjustment that happens right after after WWII. I chose 1965/67 because it is the decrease often spoken of fondly. Of course 2010 is because that is where we are at.

This posting would be hugely long if I post on all 4 periods at once, so I have broken it up. Let me first and I think most importantly note that we people today have no idea just how much we were willing to tax ourselves to have the society that we now refer to as “the good old days”. Not only did we have the tax tables of 1936, that table eventually had a 10% surcharge added to pay for the war. Yes, another reason to consider the generation that fought the 1st and 2nd world wars the greatest generation. There was a 7% surcharge for the Vietnam war, though that number became less as time passed. Still, we knew that if we wanted to do exceptional things, we had to tax ourselves exceptionally. Also, the early taxation made no distinction for single or married, never mind filing joint or separate. Everyone paid the same rate. Most interestingly, with the current table, the people who comparatively get screwed are those who are married and file separately. All the rates kick in at a lower income than even those who are single. The other thing we don’t seem to understand is that all the tax rhetoric we have been hearing since Reagan we’ve heard before virtually to the word.
Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary 1921 to 1932 :
Generally speaking, Mellon argued that tax burdens were too high. Steep rates, he insisted, served only to stifle incentive and foster tax evasion. “Any man of energy and initiative in this country can get what he wants out of life,” he wrote. “But when initiative is crippled by legislation or by a tax system which denies him the right to receive a reasonable share of his earnings, then he will no longer exert himself and the country will be deprived of the energy on which its continued greatness depends.”
Worse yet, Mellon argued, high rates didn’t even raise money. By encouraging both legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion, they eroded the tax base and reduced overall revenue. Lower rates, he said, would actually raise money by spurring economic growth and reducing the incentive for tax avoidance. “It seems difficult for some to understand,” he complained, “that high rates of taxation do not necessarily mean large revenue to the government, and that more revenue may actually be obtained by lower rates.” In particular, Mellon insisted that high rates distorted investment decisions, boosting the popularity of tax-free state and local government bonds. Indeed, Mellon made these tax-free bonds a regular target of his reform attempts, but Congress resisted his plans to eliminate them.
Atlas Shrugged wasn’t even written then!  What we don’t hear much of are the original concerns and reasoning for progressive taxation. Teddy Roosevelt:
1906…We should discriminate in the sharpest way between fortunes well-won and fortunes ill-won; between those gained as an incident to performing great services to the community as a whole, and those gained in evil fashion by keeping just within the limits of mere law-honesty.
1907 regarding an income tax:…while in addition it is a difficult tax to administer in its practical working, and great care would have to be exercised to see that it was not evaded by the very men whom it was most desirable to have taxed, for if so evaded it would, of course, be worse than no tax at all; as the least desirable of all taxes is the tax which bears heavily upon the honest as compared with the dishonest man.
No advantage comes either to the country as a whole or to the individuals inheriting the money by permitting the transmission in their entirety of the enormous fortunes which would be affected by such a tax; and as an incident to its function of revenue raising, such a tax would help to preserve a measurable equality of opportunity for the people of the generations growing to manhood. We have not the slightest sympathy with that socialistic idea which would try to put laziness, thriftlessness and inefficiency on a par with industry, thrift and efficiency; which would strive to break up not merely private property, but what is far more important, the home, the chief prop upon which our whole civilization stands. Such a theory, if ever adopted, would mean the ruin of the entire country–a ruin  which would bear heaviest upon the weakest, upon those least able to shift for themselves.
At this moment, I want to mention corporate taxes. There are lessons to be learned from it’s history. I think it is a factor in understand more completely the issue Mike is focusing on: taxation and GDP growth. Wrap your minds around the fact that from 1936 to 1943 there were 6 years that corporate tax collections were greater than personal income tax collections. 1943 was the best year for this as personal income tax collections were 68.1% of the corporate tax collections. Just one year later it flips to corporate tax collections being 75.3% of personal income tax collections. In 1944 $34,543 million in total for the two taxes was collected vs 1943 $16,062 million in total.  In fact, personal income taxes remain in the mid to high 40 percent of total revenue collections from 1944 to present. The corporate share of total revenue peaks in 1943 at 39.8% and declines to hover around the 10% level with a few ventures into the single digits. Most notably 1983 the corporate share was 6.2% and 2009 it was 6.6%.
First up is our current tax table. I used the “married filling jointly” as that would be consistent with the other tables. One big rule of this series of postings: DO NOT concern yourself or me about the deductions that exist. They do not matter for this presentation and for all intent and purposes we can consider the income to have already gone through the deduction calculator and is now ready to have the tax table applied. This is because, these tables only apply to adjusted gross income.
You will notice that the table is calculated out to $,1,000,000 of income. I did this in order to keep all the tables going to the same income level. The 1936 table actually has rates for incomes up to $8 million. That is $8 million in 1936. (Using my favorite money converter that would be $301,000,000 in unskilled labor or $573,000,000 in GDP/capita.) Going to $1,000,000 in income also allows one to see what happens at the top when the rate no longer rises.
A very important concept to understand is that not every dollar is taxed at the single percentage rate as you go up the income ladder. Thus, there are two columns in my charts. The “Marginal Tax” is the additional money paid at the top of the bracket for the corresponding rate. The “Total tax” is the actual money paid up to that level. It is the “effective rate”. In simple terms, if you are at the 35% level, you 
are not paying 35% on all that you earn. Instead you are paying the amount based on your income being divided up into the number of brackets that exist. For 2010, there are 6 brackets, thus you have six different incomes so to speak.
This is what it looks like as a graph.
When the rate maxed out, I divided the range to $1 million into even parts so that the tax paid for each additional income level is the same. For the 1945/46 and 1965/67 data sets I converted the net income to 2010 dollars. I used the “unskilled labor” and GDP/cap as those are the 2 factors suggested as being the best for knowing what income equivalents are over time. The 1936 data set is converted to 1967 dollar because the numbers just get crazy. For example, a net income of $3840 is $145,000 in unskilled labor and $275,000 in GDP/cap. Though it is only $60,400 via the CPI. Which doesn’t say much for today’s median family income. It also gives us a clue as to just how much money is considered “rich”.
Next posting, I will start presenting the historical data sets. I’m still thinking about the best way to do it as what is important is the comparison among the data sets.  Maybe post just the data charts and later the graphs or maybe one data set and it’s graphs at a time. 

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The Rich *Are* Different

by Tom Bozzo

Yesterday, run75441 sent an e-mail to the Bears touching off a bit of a discussion on the perennial question of what constitutes the “middle class” or a “middle-class income.” Run’s touchstone was the AMT, which has been turned by bad legislation (not indexing the zero bracket; interactions with the Bush-era changes to the ordinary income tax) and 40 years of inflation into something that “requires” — in the sense of avoiding the actual or perceived political catastrophe of raising taxes on a (fairly) large number of (mostly) upper-middle income taxpayers with high propensities to vote — annual patches to keep it mainly an upper-upper-middle-income tax. While there are horror stories about middle-income taxpayers with unusual circumstances being hit with AMT (e.g. due to exceptional numbers of exemptions for dependents), the patches mainly serve to keep AMT off the backs of low-six-figure earners who, despite being relatively well-to-do, nevertheless don’t have sufficient income to be in line for tax increases under Obamanomics.

I’ve viewed the $200K or $250K-ish threshold for who’s rich enough to be subject to so much as the statutory income-tax rates of the 1990s as a mutant offspring of behavioral economics and tax politics. It’s a figure that happens to be enough money that people who will never make $100K (but don’t know it) won’t worry that raised upper-income taxes will affect themselves, or something like that. Based on criteria such as ability to pay without major hardship, I’m with Felix Salmon that the boundary of the “rich” is being set too high.

That said, there is an interesting qualitative change in the structure of income that starts to happen around this cutoff for the “rich” which actually suggests that taxpayers above that threshold are rich in most important ways. The most recent (2007) tax stats from the IRS now reflect the peak of the late bubble and show that the $100K-$200K AGI bucket is the last one that more-or-less resembles middle-income categories in their dependence on labor as the all-but exclusive source of income. (Think of pensions and proceeds of retirement accounts as representing deferred wages or salaries.) This graph shows the shares of AGI from some major income sources, and the average incomes for various brackets. (*)

Sources of Individual Income, 2007 SOI Tax Stats
(May be embiggened by clicking here.)

Starting with the $200-500K category, the share of earnings from labor begins a marked decline. By the time you hit mid-six figures, average earnings from income, dividends, and capital gains become high enough to provide middle-class or better incomes without (necessarily) working. Tax returns in the upper-six-figure bucket, on average, show more income from other sources collectively than from salaries, and at the top of the income scale even interest and dividend income exceeds wages and salaries. (**) I suggest that if you can provide yourself with a better-than-average living without working, a very rare luxury indeed, you are in fact rich.

(Revised and slightly expanded.)

(*) That some of the shares sum to more than 100 percent is not an error. Some sources of income, notably nontaxable Social Security benefits, are not part of AGI. If average incomes by bracket are not plotted on a log scale, that line looks like everyone except the super-rich makes nothing.

(**) Moreover, high-earners are negligibly dependent on Social Security and pensions for retirement income, in case anyone wonders about the origins of the long-running war on social insurance.

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Define rich!!!!!!!!

(I’m broadening the discussion now.)
by Divorced one like Bush

Define rich. Define rich! Define rich?

That’s the come back every time the issue of raising the income tax on the rich come up. What is unsaid is: Go ahead. Define rich. I dare ya! (Triple dog dare at that.)

Fine. I’ll accept the challenge. But, first understand that I accept the challenge because having a definition of “rich” is needed if we are going to fix the money from money economy. We have to ask: When is enough, enough? We have to take the responsibility of having determined what enough is, if we are going to return to the ideal of our democracy. The ideal of equality of power. This ideal was discussed in my postings (3 of them) on taxation.

I think this nation used to know when enough was enough. We used to know what rich was. It was a life; as in “pick a life, not a job”. It was an ability made capable by the amount of money managed (not flowing) through one’s hands. That it was a life meant we did not fall for the rhetorical trick of: Define rich! I dare ya. The trick is that the question is asked in reference to defining levels of income at which a specified percentage of taxation will take place. It is the infamous black and white trap when we all know we live in a life that is the spectrum of color. Cross this line you pay, don’t cross it, then you don’t pay. As with all dares, there is a threat. The threat for the rhetorical “define rich” dare is that the moment a number is chosen, the one doing the daring will retort with a life example of the chosen number that under the life circumstances retort might not be considered rich.

Back when we knew what rich was, we had an income tax based on a spectrum of rich. In fact, something I quoted in my tax series confirms that we knew what “rich” was:

There was another agenda at play as well in the early years of the federal income tax: the desire to use progressive taxation as a way to “ stave off more radical calls for industrial democracy.” This explains why even some high-income Republican groups supported the Sixteenth Amendment. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s and one of the wealthiest Americans, “ believed that keeping tax schedules graduated (albeit flatter) would mitigate radical demands for restructuring the capitalist system.”

Even the rich knew what rich was.

Let me say, for me wealth is not the rich I’m talking about. Wealth is another issue that should not be brought into the discussion of “rich” related to an income tax. It get’s thrown in as another rhetorical trick, the trick being that one will think about a dollar amount of wealth and then think how much money it took to get that wealth ala income. But, wealth is accounted under the asset category, not income.

Professor Mankiw posted in 2006 about a study that defined a level of rich world wide based on wealth which I think has a presentation ripe for rhetorical trap making. He quotes:

The research finds that assets of $2,200 per adult placed a household in the top half of the world wealth distribution in the year 2000. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world required $61,000 in assets, and more than $500,000 was needed to belong to the richest 1%, a group which — with 37 million members worldwide — is far from an exclusive club.

So, from a global perspective, if you have net worth of more than $61,000, you are rich.

Really? Thirty 37 million members world wide on a planet of 6 billion is not exclusive? $61,000 of assets should make us all feel rich? The message (and I am not interpreting that Profressor Mankiw’s posting suggests any qualification) is that we should all feel equally wealthy and thus rich. Can you see how such a presentation could be used as a rhetorical trap in determining “rich”. So, let’s not go there. “There” is for the discussion of the estate tax. Besides, once the income has been turned into an asset, it’s kind of too late to worry about taxing the income. No?

Also, we are talking the United States of America. Not Zimbabwe. (See the above issue.) I know there are children starving in Africa. We have the same here, it’s just that the income needed here to not have a child starving is higher. Purchasing power parity and all that. Though, if we would be adult about the issue of “rich” and define when enough is enough, we would be able to do more for such people as there would be more left for them.

We have lost our definition of rich and I believe it was done intentionally. If you are rich, then what better camouflage is there than to undefine “rich”? And, what better way to undefine “rich” than to have an argument accepted that “rich” can not really be defined? AND, once you can’t define rich, well then hey, how can you single out anyone number as a line for having to pay a higher percentage of tax on their income? Thus, we should all pay the same percentage and thus obtain our constitutional nirvana of all man is created equal. Throw in a little pity play as in the “rich are paying most of the taxes”, (funny how those complaining about how much the rich pay in taxes seem to know what “rich” is) present your candidates as the every-man or every-woman, salt of the earth, blab, blab, blab to reinforce the perception that this is all about constitutional equality and BINGO, you get to convert life from an economy that worked for society to a society that works for an economy. And as presented, once you get beyond “enough”, all you have is to have more:

Wealth confers power beyond its consumption value. This power is economic, social, and political. The economic power of the rich derives primarily from their ability to use their wealth to invest in enterprises that employ thousands of people and can dominate large sectors of the economy.

Yes, they are talking wealth. However, as I noted, this is after the rich bought their stuff to make them happy. Now they are just accumulating power.

We need to define “rich”. We need to be adult about this and take the responsibility for understanding the interplay of society and an economy within our form of democratic governance. Personally, I think we will find that defining rich for our purposes is rather easy once we stop answering the rhetorical dare of: Define rich?

For this discussion “rich” is a life classification. The classification is consumption determined, the amount of which is a function of energy expended (ie: physical labor/intellectual labor), work performed (ie: blue collar/white collar) along with energy conserved (freedom), work diverted (power). This aspect of life is not about what the individual finds satisfying. That is another rhetorical trap. We all know of those who are fine with just hitch hiking through the galaxy and would consider them self rich for the memories. The life aspect needed for determining “rich” for the purpose of taxing is the aspect determined by the structure of the society one lives in. For us, that structure is idealized in the phrase: The American Dream. That phrase is the socially understood goal and that phrase is underscored by how much money your hands manage.

Classification as in “class warfare”. Consumption as in “autonomous consumption”. American Dream as in more than autonomous consumption. All three a function of the amount of money managed by one’s hands.

To be continued.

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