Income tax claims are confused

The claim that half of Americans do not pay income taxes has been bandied about by Republican presidential candidates lately. The three front runners — Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney — have all thrown out the statistic in stump speeches in the past few weeks. It seems odd that Republicans would complain about individuals paying low taxes given that their opposition to taxation is probably the core feature of their party’s brand.

Of course, these candidates do not actually oppose taxation in general, just the taxation of the super-rich. Trotting out the claim that half of Americans do not pay taxes is no more than an effort to generate a counter-narrative that the wealthy are actually the ones being oppressed. Unsurprisingly, this attempted narrative is as confused as the income tax claims that it rests on.

Most of the commentators who have responded to the income tax talking point have rightly pointed out that income taxes are not the only taxes. The poor pay a higher percentage of their income in federal FICA taxes as well as state and local taxes. In fact, one of the motivations for the Earned Income Tax Credit — a credit which helps contribute to the low nominal income tax payments of the poor — was to counteract the regressive nature of the Social Security taxes.

But this rebuttal avoids the main driver of the income tax confusion: the total misunderstanding of what the tax code is. The reason citing numbers about the percentage of people who pay income taxes is so foolish is that the tax code serves a dual function: it is used both to generate revenue and to implement certain government programs.

For example, take the mortgage interest tax deduction. At some point, the Congress decided that it wanted to create a program to pay some of the loan interest for those who held mortgages, ostensibly to encourage home ownership. The government could have implemented this in one of two ways. It could have created a Mortgage Interest Agency (MIA) that sent checks to those paying a mortgage, or it could have allowed them to deduct from their taxes an equivalent amount of money. Fiscally and economically speaking, these two actions are identical.

Even though these two approaches are identical in all relevant ways, the deduction-oriented route leads to lower nominal tax payments than the MIA route. No one could seriously maintain that this distinction matters, but it is precisely this kind of distinction that the claims about half of the population not paying taxes rests on. What is actually going on in all of these cases is that government programs being implemented through the tax code — deductions for the elderly, exemptions for parents and the poor, and other various tax credits — transfer the same amount or more money than the households pay in taxes.

The objection to the non-paying of taxes then is totally confused. Is the objection really just that nominal tax payments are zero? If that is the case, perhaps we ought to just create an Elderly Benefits Agency, Earned Income Agency, Child Benefits Agency, and so on to replace the more efficient way we currently enact cash transfers through the tax code. Shifting cash transfers to check-writing agencies would ensure that everyone paid their exact marginal rate.

Presumably these Republican candidates are not just objecting to the way in which the programs are carried out, but something more substantive than that. However, phrasing their objection in terms of zero tax payments leaves their actual objection completely unclear.

As mentioned before, what is going on in these cases they are objecting to is that poor and old people are receiving more from government programs than they are paying in taxes. Is the objection that a person should not benefit more from government programs than they pay in taxes? That is the only thing remotely coherent, but it is so extreme a view that I am hesitant to attribute it to even figures as right wing as Bachmann and Perry.

The logical consequence of this sort of view would make even a flat tax in which everyone paid an identical percentage objectionable. After all, in a flat tax, low income earners still necessarily benefit more from government services than they pay in, at least in a superficial sense. Someone making 100x what someone else made would pay 100x more while receiving the exact same benefit from military services, police services, emergency services, infrastructure projects, and so on. Even though this kind of spending does not manifest itself as cash payments like tax expenditures do, that does not make it any different.

Even if all individuals paid a flat tax and received the same government services, the bottom half of income earners would still be paying less in taxes than they get back in government services. So, under the only coherent interpretation of the no-tax objection, this ideal Republican world would still be equally objectionable.

No matter how you try to cut up this talking point, it winds up empty or confused. These candidates either do not understand how the tax code functions, are being intentionally misleading, or have embraced full-fledged Randian insanity more than I have given them credit for. In any case, the bizarre focus on zero nominal tax payments is so confused that it is difficult to even grasp what if any real point is being made.