Monday, December 03, 2012

Marginal Tax Rates 101

With all the current hysterical coverage of the impending "Fiscal Cliff" - or "Obama Tax Storm," depending on who you're listening to - and seeing what certain of my friends and associates are saying or posting online about it, it is unbearably clear that most Americans haven't the faintest idea of how marginal tax rates work.

It's not their fault. Politicians and the media have been talking down to us and "simplifying" the discussion for so long, that they'd have you believe things that simply are not true. For example, you may accept as "fact" that President Obama and Congressional Democrats want to raise the tax rate on those who earn more than $250,000 from 35% to 39.6%.

Using that statement and some basic arithmetic, you would assume that a family with $251,000 in income would see their taxes rise from $87,850 (35% of $251,000) to $99,396 (39.6% of $251,000) - a total tax increase of $11,546. You would also be wrong.

The statement "President Obama and Congressional Democrats want to raise the tax rate on those who earn more than $250,000 from 35% to 39.6%" contains three major "simplifications" that lead to these sloppy (and expensive) calcluations:
  1. Uses "earnings" (implying total gross salary) instead of "taxable income" (after all deductions, adjustments, and exemptions).
  2. Implies that you pay a single rate on all your earnings, instead of explaining how marginal rates apply.
  3. Uses a $250,000 figure that is two decades out of date. That figure for the 2012 tax year is actually $388,350.
Let's take these one at a time...

Earnings versus Taxable Income: Nobody, but Nobody, pays income tax on 100% of their income. Each version of the IRS form 1040, from the one-page EZ to the more complicated versions with dozens of attached schedules and sub-forms allows you to reduce the amount of income on which you owe taxes. Frankly, the more complicated a form you use, the more you are reducing your tax liability.

But even a single guy, just starting out, with no dependents, educational expenses, mortgage, or anything else to deduct, just using little old form 1040EZ, will take a standard deduction of $5,950 for 2012. That means, if he earns $30,000, he'll only pay taxes on $24,050. That tax will come out to $3,173, or about 10.5% of his gross income, or 13.2% of his taxable income, even though he's in the 15% tax bracket.

What's that? You don't get how somebody in the 15% tax bracket only pays 10.5% in taxes? Let's move on to that second "simplification" ...

Marginal Rates apply to earnings above the margin: When politicians talk about raising the rate on "incomes above $250,000" (really: taxable income above $388,350), they only mean the increment, or margin, above that figure. It doesn't change the taxes paid on the first "$250,000" you earn ($388,350 taxable).

To explain, we'll build a more complicated example than our single guy above. Let's assume a couple with a nice home, two kids, and combined total salary income of $450,000. They're going to file jointly, so they'll look at Tax Rate Schedule Y-1. Their taxes will be:
  • 10% on taxable income from $0 to $17,400, +
  • 15% on income over $17,400 to $70,700, +
  • 25% on income over $70,700 to $142,700, +
  • 28% on income over $142,700 to $217,450, +
  • 33% on income over $217,450 to $388,350, +
  • 35% on taxable income over $388,350.
But, before they figure out their taxes, they'll itemize their deductions to reduce their gross actual income and find their net taxable income:
  • Mortgage Interest: $16,500
  • Two Kids ($3,800 each): $7,600
  • Charitable Giving (1.5% of their income): $6,750
  • Business Expenses: $7,500
  • Miscellaneous: $3,500
  • Total Deductions: $41,850
(This is a real simple example with modest deductions - I didn't include any medical expenses, educational expenses, deposits to retirement accounts, etc. - These are just a few of the ways to reduce your tax liability.)

So, using Schedule Y-1 above, here's what their federal income taxes will break down to:
-->

 Earnings  Tax
Deductions  $41,850 $0
10%  $17,400  $1,740
15%  $53,300  $7,995
25%  $72,000  $18,000
28%  $74,750  $20,930
33%  $170,900  $56,397
35%  $19,800  $6,930
Totals:  $450,000  $111,992

Their bottom line is $111,992, or 24.9% of their total income of $450,000 ... even though they're in the top 35% bracket.

Using the media/political simplification of all things numerical, we would have thought they were paying $157,500 in taxes (35% of $450,000). We would also assume that the Democrats' proposal to let the top rate return to 39.6% would increase their taxes by $20,700 to $178,200 (39.6% of $450,000).

But, now that you know how real math works, you know that raising the top marginal rate on this well-to-do family will bring their total federal income tax burden to $112,903. An increase of only $911 (0.2% of their total income) - quite a bit less than the $20,700 certain politicians and journalists would suggest. Because, now you understand, the rate change from 35 to 39.6% only applies above the margin, to that last $19,800 of their taxable income.

So, where's  $250,000 in all this? When President Clinton's tax increases created the 39.6% rate twenty years ago, it was for taxable income over that figure. And, because politicians and journalists are lazy, they've just continued referring to that number ever since (if you don't like "lazy" please come up with a better explanation that doesn't include "lie"). But the cut-off point for each of the tax brackets actually adjusts each year for inflation.

By 2003, when the Bush tax cuts were going into effect, "$250,000" was $311,950, but we kept saying "$250,000" out of habit. During the 2010 "Fiscal Cliff" discussions, "$250,000" was $373,650. Today, it's $388,350. Is that really so hard for reporters and politicians to understand? Never mind...

But aren't we Taxed Enough Already? The Tea Partiers are both wrong and right on this. Regarding federal income tax rates they are completely wrong. Current federal income tax rates are at their lowest point in over 60 years. And, yes, because the base line for each marginal rate has gone up at least as fast as inflation (why $250,000 is now $388,350), that means this year's tax burden is less than last year's.

But, in part because federal income taxes have been held at historically low levels for a decade, other taxes and fees have gone up. States, not getting as much as they used to from the feds, may have increased their income, property, or sales taxes, as well as made cuts. Counties and cities, not getting what they used to from the states, may have raised local sales taxes or passed "special assessments" added on to property tax bills, and/or made cuts in services. Across the board, fees for everything from parking to getting married etc., may have increased to make up for shortfalls from another area.

Because sales taxes, use fees, etc., are not progressive, like the federal income tax (multi-tiered, the rich pay a higher rate), the burden of these taxes falls more on lower and middle income earners. So, depending on where you live, what you earn, and a few other factors, you may indeed feel as if you're paying more in taxes over-all, even with a smaller annual bill from the IRS.

Bottom Line: You probably know where I stand on this. I don't believe it's asking too much of a family that earns nearly half-a-million dollars annually to kick in another grand in taxes when the country faces a fiscal crisis. To insist on holding even this top rate down will only result in more cuts in services and/or increased taxes and fees elsewhere down the line.

But regardless of whether or not you agree with me on the politics, can we all at least agree to use real numbers and real math?

For more fun with tax brackets, this page on moneychimp.com has an easy, interactive tax calculator that allows you to see how all of this works and check your tax rates across time and space.

1 comment:

  1. Your figures are in error. The taxes for both Clinton and Bush were calculated using the maximum rate for that selected income. For instance the Clinton 1999 tax rate on 30K was 28%, which is what they used to get the 8400 figure. However taxes are not calculated that way. The first 25K of income would have been 2013 tax brackets at the lower 15% bracket first, thus yielding a much lower figure than what you show.I am not arguing that Bush doesn't have lower taxes. He certainly does. Of course he obtained his lower tax brackets by using deficit spending and increasing the national debt. Add back in the interest payments we'll be making and I bet Bush actually cost taxpayers far more than Clinton ever did.

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