So the goal of tax policy should be taking as much revenue as you can while trying to minimize distortions. Some kinds of taxes are more distortionary than others. In order of least to most harmful, it goes
1. Consumption taxes
2. Income taxes
3. Wealth taxes
Cut to our current tax debate, where these concerns get no attention. The goal seems less about minimizing distortions/maximizing revenue and more about punishment, i.e., rich people for making too much in a zero-sum world and corporations for being greedy. Now, I think our tax system should be more progressive, too. But there are good and bad ways to achieve that goal.
In case you are thinking, “Well, the rich make more, they should pay more,” the top 1 percent of taxpayers account for 20 percent of all income (AGI). So, their 40 percent share of income taxes is twice their share of the nation’s income.
Similarly, in 2018, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers paid $311 billion in income taxes. That amounted to 20 percent of all income taxes paid, the highest level since 2001, as far back as the IRS data allows us to measure. The top 0.1 percent of taxpayers in 2018 paid a greater share of the income tax burden than the bottom 75 percent of taxpayers combined.
But at a national level, it is much less clear that the SALT deduction makes for good politics. Most of the key swing states, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Arizona were below the national average in the value of the SALT deduction as a percent of adjusted gross income before the new cap. Florida and Nevada were in the bottom seven states.
Of course, states and local governments do need help from the Federal government. In fact, more help is needed now more than ever. The pandemic is hurting state and local government revenues, to the tune of around $350 billion over the next three years. Now is the time to enact a better federal support system for states and localities, and to replace the SALT deduction, rather than revert to the previous system.
The good news is that there are a number of good policy options available to legislators, many of which were outlined at a recent Brookings event on this subject, and any of which would be much fairer and more effective than lifting the SALT deduction cap. The key point is that Congress should help states directly, rather than through the long, roundabout route of a regressive tax break to individuals.
Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, as well as Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider, are leading the charge to repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions, as reported by Crain’s and elswehere. They’ve each sponsored bills to eliminate the SALT cap, as it is called, which became law in 2017.
That cap of $10,000 on deductibility of state and local taxes, including property taxes, walloped many high income taxpayers not just by increasing their federal tax bill but by reducing the value of homes they own. We described the research showing that in our recent article here.
There’s actually no debate about it: Liberal and conservative tax experts alike agree that the eliminating the SALT cap would be a windfall for high earners. The conservative Tax Foundation explained why here, and the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, ITEP, wrote this in an article opposing elimination of the cap:
Sources of state revenue have come under closer scrutiny in light of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as different tax types have differing volatility and economic impact—although even beyond these unique circumstances, it is important for policymakers to understand the trade-offs associated with different sources of tax revenue. This week’s map looks at what percentage of each state’s state and local tax collections is attributable to the individual income tax.
State and localities rely heavily on the individual income tax, which accounted for 24.2 percent of total U.S. state and local tax collections in fiscal year 2018, the latest year for which data are available. The individual income tax ranks just above the general sales tax (23.3 percent) and behind property taxes (31.1 percent), taking its place as the second largest source of state and local revenue.
One of these political events was the War of 1812. This war may have inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” as he famously watched the rockets red glare over Fort McHenry, but it was also straining our fiscal resources and the war effort needed to be financed.
Enter the idea of a progressive income tax – based on the British Tax Act of 1798 (which should have been our first warning). Fortunately for the time, the War of 1812 came to a close in 1815, and the discussion of enacting an income tax was tabled for the next few decades.
Ever so stubborn, progressive individuals were hell-bent on enacting income taxes, and they eventually found a way to do this at a local and state level. In time, they would reignite a new movement for the adoption of the federal income tax.