As far as I can tell, if corporations and the top 1% paid anything like a fair share of taxes, budget problems would melt away.
I feel a bit like the recent physicists who seemed to find faster-than-light neutrinos in their data. (There’s the big difference that I’m an amateur at taxes, and they’re anything but amateurs at physics.) But, like them, I’m so boggled by the results that I want to throw it out there for people to pick apart.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The current US deficit is around $1.5 trillion per year. Current US GDP is around $14 trillion per year. Current yearly tax revenues are near $1.1 trillion (IRS pdf, 2008 numbers). In better years revenue is higher, deficits are lower.
An aside: Those numbers are smaller than the multiple trillions of cuts the Super Committee throws around. That’s because they say they need to come up with money for ballooning future costs of social insurance. (The powers-that-be didn’t seem to be worried about the future when tax cuts were implemented.) I don’t consider those future costs a real issue. Social Security doesn’t have any real problems. National health care costs could be cut in half with Medicare for All, based on the evidence from all the industrialized countries that do have national health care systems. (Link is to Congressional Research Service, 2004, pdf. See e.g. Table 1, Fig. 1, Fig. 2.) So Medicare for All is the place to start for anyone who is actually concerned about future costs, and not some other agenda.
Further, a healthy deficit level is said to be around 2% of yearly GDP. In addition to other considerations, the ability to buy US Treasury bonds and bills is an important factor in global finance. Zero deficit means the end of that whole asset class, which is not a Good Thing. One wants a sustainable and easily carryable deficit, and 2% is a conservative estimate of that level. Two percent of $14 trillion is $280 billion. (I saw this most clearly expressed somewhere in Krugman’s writing, but all I can find right now is a passing reference here.)
So the yearly shortfall, in round numbers, is $1.2 trillion ($1.5T deficit – 0.280T healthy deficit).
If Fortune 500 corporations actually paid tax on their corporate profits, there’d be much less freeloading from that end. When even Marketwatch headlines “Big Profits, Zero Taxes” you know it’s not a small issue. It’s hard (for me) to find unequivocal numbers on how much difference that would make to revenue, but there are fairly clear data on corporate tax payments as a share of GDP. It’s now at a recent all-time low of 1% of GDP. Moving that back to 4%, about where it was in the 1960s would bring in an extra $480 billion (1% of GDP = $160B, 3% = 480B).
That would entail ending all the corporate loopholes, such as income-shifting in transnationals to whichever tax haven suits them that year, as well as ending special tax breaks for wildly profitable industries such as oil and finance. It would involve adding necessary new taxes, such as a financial transaction tax that would have other beneficial social consequences by slowing down market trading velocity. And it would involve raising rates on large corporations.
Then, the other task is to raise taxes on the top 1%. According to the IRS (pdf), in 2008 the top 1% was composed of households making an average of $1.2 million per year. Their effective tax rate is 20% ±5% (CBO pdf, Table 3), and at that rate they contributed well over $350 billion in tax revenue. (For instance, in 2009 the top 1% contributed 36.7% of total income taxes. That proportion is typical during the last decade, plus or minus a few percent. Total income tax revenue in 2008, the last year for which I could find complete IRS data, was $1.081 trillion. 36% of 1.081T = $389 billion.) If their tax rates went to 60%, there would be an extra $700 billion revenue.
So, $700 billion plus $480 billion approaches $1.2 trillion, pretty much the entire yearly shortfall of $1.2 trillion.
That doesn’t pay down the debt. Nor does it provide funds for essential projects such as switching to clean, sustainable energy. But those are one-time charges, as it were, not permanent features of fiscal balance, which I gather is what the Super Committee is worrying about.
Raising taxes on the megarich is not the same as taxing the middle class. It’s not even taxing the upper middle class, such as the heart surgeons and mid-size successful business owners. It involves only having the massively wealthy corporations and households pay something vaguely like their fair share. What’s more, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to their lifestyles. For an income of $1.2 million per year, that tax increase would drop them from living on $80,000 per month to living on $40,000 per month. They could still jet to Paris for the weekend. Anybody who feels deprived living on $40,000 per month needs therapy, not tax breaks.
All this is something to think about while the news covers the new super ways the Super Committee has found to shred the safety net. Nor is this just a classic “Don’t tax him, don’t tax me. Tax the fellow behind the tree.” The fellow behind the tree has been tax cheating for far too long, and it’s time to rebalance. If the megarich paid their fair share, we could have a future that was more than collapsing bridges and work on their plantations.