What’s the solution: higher taxes or spending restraint?

By Tom Quiner

The Tea Party movement deserves credit for changing the entire national debate on fiscal accountability. More than ever, our two political parties are debating paths to deficit reduction.

Republican Congressman, Paul Ryan, has outlined a detailed plan to fiscal sanity by calling for spending restraint.

President Obama, after escalating spending to unprecedented heights, has finally been browbeat into talking about America’s financial house-of-cards.

His solution is the old mantra of the Left: tax our country’s most-productive citizens (aka “the rich”) more.

The President’s premise is this: the root cause of deficits have been Reagan and Bush tax cuts.

He says rates are too low for top earners, that there are too many deductions and loopholes. For the record, the President has fully taken advantage of these deductions, saving himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes on his $5 million a year income.

He didn’t have to deduct interest on his mortgage and his retirement plans. He didn’t have to take a foreign tax credit or charitable deduction on his Nobel Peace Prize earnings.

But he did.

Let’s set that aside for now. Is the President correct? Are Republicans really wrong about their call to reduce government spending? Are Democrats correct that we simply need to tax high-earners more?

According to my research, we have a spending problem, not a tax problem.

I added up total government tax receipts by decade, adjusting for inflation in 1980 dollars.  Then I divided that number by the total U.S. population for the last year of each decade.  Here are my calculations:

For the 1980’s (1980 through 1989), the federal government collected an average of $22,688 per citizen for that decade.

For the 1990’s, they collected an average of $26,179 per citizen.

For the 2000’s, they collected an average of $29,427 per citizen (2009 tax receipts are estimated).

Remember, these numbers adjust for inflation and population.  According to my calculations, the treasury was not drained by the Bush tax cuts.  In fact, they collected more than ever from all sources, even income taxes.  In the 90’s, the government collected $11,889 in income taxes per citizen compared to $13,357 in the 2000’s.

Were the Bush tax cuts at the expense of us working class Americans?  In other words, did the rich bear a lighter load?

The answer is no.

Here is where the confusion sets in:  there has been a steady reduction in average tax rates for high earners since 1980.

Back in 1980, the average tax rate (as a percentage of adjusted gross income) for the top one percent of earners was just under 35 percent.  By 2007, the percentage had dropped to just over 22 percent.

That’s a pretty good deal for the fat cats, isn’t it?

Not so fast.  Their total share of the nation’s income tax load increased from about 19 percent in 1980 to about 40 percent in 2007 according to the IRS.

In one generation, the tax load shouldered by the rich doubled.

The rich paid more when we cut their taxes.  The top 25 percent of earners pay nearly 87 percent of the nation’s income tax; the bottom half pay less than 3 percent.

When you penalize (tax) productivity, you get less of it.  Lower marginal tax rates reward productivity.

So if the problem isn’t the tax cuts for America’s most productive workers, it must be big corporations.  They must not be paying their fair share.

Not according to the President’s Office of Management and Budget.  Their tax charts reveal that corporations picked up a bigger share of the income tax load under Bush than Clinton (12.1 percent in Bush’s last year in office compared with 10.2 percent in Clinton’s).

The evidence suggests that tax cuts weren’t the root cause of America’s growing indebtedness.  Spending is the problem.

For the past thirty years, the federal government’s tax haul has averaged 18.4 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Entitlement spending will soon swamp that number.

In 1980, entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) consumed 7 percent of GDP.  The number is growing, projected to reach 10 percent of GDP by 2015.  The Congressional Budget Office tells us it will consume 18.5 percent of GDP by 2055.

In other words, our entire budget, if we go by the historical tax share of GDP, will be consumed by just these three budget items in the next generation. Taxes will have to be raised to unprecedented levels.  Lifestyles will be a shadow of what America knew.

Is this the responsible thing to do to our kids?

If the President wanted to take the moral high ground, he could forgo all those tax deductions and loopholes he derides. He can ask the rich Democrat campaign contributors, like Planned Parenthood CEOs, to do the same. He doesn’t have to change the law.

But in the meantime, he better do something about our nation’s insatiable spending habits.

We have a spending problem in America, not a tax problem.


  1. Paul Sharp on April 16, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Good post.

    Propaganda will be intense in the progressive/liberal/leftist (whatever they want to be called) drive to “make the rich pay their fair share”. They’ll attempt to set the masses against “the rich” and advocate continued spending funded by taxing the rich. Is there any chance they understand how excessive taxes inhibit production? Or maybe their real motivation is to equalize incomes, and the current financial mess we are in does not concern them.

    There is critical need for clear description of the facts, such as information like that in above post, in front of the public.

  2. Bob Roelf on April 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    This is an excellent article Tom. I’ll print it off for friends (with full credit to you) if that’s ok.

    I think there is one more factor at work from the liberal side of the political spectrum. Many liberals prefer that our country’s economic and social systems become more like those of many European nations I.e. socialistic. I think they are following a strategy to advance that cause. The logic of your position is irrelevant to them – all the facts in the world won’t change their minds or strategy.

    Our best hope is the ballot box beginning in 2012.

    Bob Roelf

    • quinersdiner on April 16, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      You may reprint with my blessing.

      • Bob Roelf on April 18, 2011 at 9:23 am

        Thanks Tom.

        Bob Roelf