Chart of the day, US taxes edition

By Felix Salmon
March 16, 2011
Ask, and you'll receive an explanation of what this chart means.

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Ask, and you’ll receive an explanation of what this chart means.

tax_burden.jpg

tax_burdenthinOne way to look at this chart is in horizontal slices. Right now, for instance, if you look along the bottom of the chart, you can see that the line is bluest at the right-hand end, and reddest in the middle-class zone up to roughly $100,000 a year in annual income. When the chart is blue, that means you’re paying less tax than people on your income level have done historically, and when it’s red that means you’re paying more.

Looked at this way, you can see that taxes were generally very low up until about 1930, and they were generally pretty high in the 1940s and 1950s. And then something interesting happens around 1970: different parts of the population start being taxed in very different ways. So people earning roughly $10,000 to $50,000 a year had historically very low tax rates between about 1970 and 1980, while people earning more than $1 million a year (in 2011 dollars) have been doing very well for themselves since about 1990.

Another way to look at the chart is to look at vertical slices of it. For instance, the slice for people earning $1 million per year, in 2011 dollars, is on the left. In this case, the very rich had it best during the Gilded Age of the 1920s, and were taxed most heavily in the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1980s they were taxed at a historically-normal level, and today they’re undertaxed by historical standards.

But the main takeaway from the chart, at least for me, is that taxes in general have been declining for a long time now, especially on the rich. Which is one big reason why the fiscal situation looks unsustainable: we’re just not raising enough money in taxes to be able to pay for the amount we spend each year. With entitlements on both the retirement and healthcare side of things certain to rise inexorably for the foreseeable future, the chart is going to have to get redder from here on in. It’s not a question of whether, it’s just a question of when.

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