Friday, July 31, 2009

Celebrate America!

After the non-stop deluge of the Congressional waterboarding of America (TARP, stimulus, cap-and-trade, health care, and a few trillion dollars later), it's time to sit back and enjoy a few weeks of long-needed rest. Let's hope that Congress takes a long, long vacation.

The Oppressive Progressive Income Tax: California Edition

I thought I would share a few charts on California’s Personal Income Tax (or PIT for short). I haven’t had time to analyze the federal IRS data yet. California’s PIT is more heavily progressive than the federal income tax and California relies on PIT for a greater share of total revenues (nearly 50% in 2006). California treats all income equally. Unlike the federal government, California taxes capital gains at the ordinary income level. Most of the taxes collected at the upper end are from stock and real-estate gains which have been devastated by the simultaneous downturns in both areas (hence the California budget disaster).

Recently, many in California pointed to the 2/3rds majority tax approval requirement as a stumbling block to patching the state government’s massive spending crater. Some argued that California needs to impose higher taxes on the rich because “we all know that the rich don’t pay their fair share.” These charts were meant to analyze these arguments.

The following charts use data freely available for download from California’s Franchise Tax Board (FTB, or California’s IRS).

I then sorted the percent of PIT taxes paid by population. I think that the chart speaks for itself, showing that the state’s need for revenues falls on a small minority of (i.e., electorally insignificant) taxpayers.

If distributed equally, the “average” state tax bill would be $3,100. By population, 85% of taxpayers paid below the average while just 15% paid above the average. Amazingly, half of the entire PIT tax bill is paid by just 2% of taxpayers. The other 98% of taxpayers pay the other half. The 2/3 majority requirement is the ONLY real check against runaway spending, and admittedly not a very good one.

Back to the 2/3rds discussion for a second. The majority of Californian’s already pay less than the “average”, even at the 66.7% population level. In fact, that electorally-strong 2/3rds contributed just 6% to the entire PIT tax bill. The electorally-weak 1/3 contributed the other 94%. Remember the 2% that pays 50% of the PIT bill? Well, because PIT is half of California’s revenues, those 2% provided a full quarter of the entire state’s revenues (thank you, my beloved fellow Californian). That 2% of taxpayers equates to a city the size of Riverside, CA or about 280,000 people. Remember, the state’s entire population is roughly 37 million, so we’re talking less that 0.8% of the entire population. But this is fair, right (he writes with fingers dripped in sarcasm)?

Let's look at it another way. Would you agree that all California residents benefit from state government? Do all state residents benefit equally? Sure, some argue that the rich benefit more because they have more to lose while others point to the costs of welfare and social programs at the low end. So let's look at the effective cost of state government by population. This following chart shows the effective cost of $1 of state government. Those taxpayers that pay below the “average” cost pay less than $1, those that pay above the average pay more. We won’t even discuss the estimated 7%-8% of the population that is here illegally and likely pays nothing in PIT.

Two-thirds of Californians effectively pay only 25 cents on each $1 of state service that they receive. A full half of taxpayers pay less than 12 cents. The remainder of that cost is subsidized by those at the upper end. High wage earners (we should all be so luck), effectively pay over $500 for every $1 of service.

Here is where the conflict emerges. We have two different systems when voting on spending and tax-related measures.

On one side, we have "one person, one vote". Many who vote in favor of more spending will never have to pay for the consequence of their vote.

On the other side, we have the progressive income tax system where top income earners pay more for government programs, despite having just one vote.

Politicians love to promise new spending to win votes and guarantee re-election. Voters love new services for which they do not have to pay. The progressive income tax system gives both the politicians and voters what they want without any pesky checks and balances.

Let's use an illustrative example. Say that, in order to ensure re-election, the dominant political party decides that every Californian MUST have a 50-inch HDTV on which to watch (and snicker at) the Governor's latest action flick. Due to State's buying power, the State can buy these TVs for $1,000. Just vote "Yes" on the ballot proposition and you too can have one of the beauties. The cost will be painlessly applied to your annual Personal Income Tax bill.

If you are in the bottom two-thirds of the taxpayer population, you pay just 25 cents or less on the dollar. Effectively, you are insulated from the true cost of operating the state government. This means that the $1,000 TV costs you $250 or less. If you are in the bottom 30%, the cost is only $100 or less because you effectively pay 1 cent on the dollar or less. So which way are you going to vote? I'd guess YES.

Now, let's say that you happen to be in the top 15% of taxpayers. Due to the progressive income tax, this means that you effectively pay more than $1 for every $1 of service. "That's fair," you say, "because they earn more money." Okay, let's look at the top-most 2% of taxpayers, you know, the ones that pay 50% of the entire bill. These "lucky" citizens effectively pay $4.75 and much, much more for every $1 of government service. That $1,000 TV effectively costs a minimum of $4,750 to these taxpayers. For the very top taxpayers, the bill comes to an amazing $507,000! All this, despite that these taxpayers likely already have two better-quality TVs at home. If you are in this category, I'd guess that you would vote NO. Unfortunately for you, you are electorally insignificant. It REALLY DOES NOT MATTER if you think this is a good idea or not but you WILL have to PAY FOR IT.

At the ballot box, the top 15% of taxpayers can NEVER prevail in a free and fair democratic election against the majority for popular programs. Want a low-cost 50-inch HDTV? Vote "YES" and make somebody else pay for. Want free higher education? Vote "YES" and make somebody else pay for it. Want free medical care? Vote "YES" and make somebody else pay for it.

The politicians that use these techniques appeal to the broad masses, ensuring re-election. There are no checks and balances against such abuses. While I have not found "smoking gun" evidence, it does offer an explanation for California’s constant overspending (above inflation and population growth), the lack of fiscal discipline, and the domination of one party in the California Legislature.

There is also a separate debate as to whether the excess tax money better serves society when in the hands of government, or left in the pockets of those that earned it. By California’s example, even a spoiled rich heiress might make better spending decisions.