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Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Middle Class Legacy of Rich Tax Cuts

It is said that “money is the No. 1 fighting word in America”; therefore, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Americans wrote more letters to their congressional representatives about money in 1969 than about the Vietnam War. It came about after a popular upheaval, decrying how “155 individual taxpayers with incomes above $200,000 paid no federal income tax on their 1967 tax returns” (Burman et al. 2002). The 155 individual taxpayers cited by Joseph Barr, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Lyndon Johnson from 1968 to 1969, included 20 millionaires!

Thus the Tax Reform Act of 1969 was introduced, and, after 18 major legislative changes, the 10% add-on minimum income tax evolved into what is commonly known today as the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). AMT now encompasses a complex set of rules that assesses a minimum tax rate of either 26% or 28% on Alternative Minimum Taxable Income (AMTI) and tacks it on the regular tax owed, currently affecting individual taxpayers with an Adjusted Gross Income even lower than $50,000!

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Comparatively, when the minimum tax was first introduced in 1969, the 10% additional tax was assessed on incomes exceeding $200,000, which by most calculations, equals more than $1.1 million in 2007 – after adjusting for inflation; therefore, AMT, though originally aimed at the very rich who, through various loopholes in the tax system, had been able to purchase their way into paying no federal income tax, has now become a major source of government revenue assessed primarily on middle-income households. While there has been a 160% increase in the minimum tax rate since 1969, income subject to the tax has decreased by 95% in value. It's what is popularly described as the "AMT mistake": the government's failure to adjust the minimum tax for inflation.

Analysts generally agree that a second and more important mistake behind the AMT’s recent expansion is related to President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which, ironically, reduced regular income tax without changing the way AMT is calculated, thereby giving the top 1% income earners in the US the most benefit. In other words, by reducing regular tax rates, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts effectively reduced the income tax paid by households whose regular tax rates are higher than AMT rates. More than 90% of households that reported Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) in excess of $500,000 evaded paying AMT because their regular tax rates are higher than AMT rates, and they are the primary beneficiaries of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Contrastingly, over 90% of upper-middle and middle income households whose AMT is calculated after taking the AMT exemption ($44,350 for single filers, $66,250 MFJ or widowers, and $33,125 MFS), disallowing credits for dependents, medical expenses, state and local taxes, and and other itemized deductions, made up the deficit in the government’s tax revenue created by the reduction in the regular tax rate.

By the numbers, in 2004 (latest complete data on AMT available from the IRS post the 2001 and 2003 cuts), of 132,226,042 tax returns sampled, 3,096,300 were subject to AMT, divided by AGI as follows: 4,714 had no AGI (0.15%); 5,809 had AGIs under $25,000 (0.18%); 14,821 had AGIs between $25,000 and under $50,000 (0.47%); 244,461 had AGIs between $50,000 and under $100,000 (7.9%); 1,095,242 had AGIs between $100,000 and under $200,000 (35.4%); 1,529,159 had AGIs between $200,000 and under $500,000 (49.4%); 149,042 had AGIs between $500,000 and under $1 million (4.8%); and 53,052 had AGIs of $1 million and over (1.7%)!

Naturally, no discussion about tax can be totally devoid of politics. The so-called AMT mistake has been a big boon for the federal government’s coffers. Increases in the AMT rate notwithstanding, which until recently had popularly been viewed as an equalizing tax on the very rich, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have reaped billions in increased revenues without appearing to raise income taxes. However, under assumptions that existing tax credits, like the child credit, would remain in place, “by 2013, the AMT alone would actually raise more revenue than the regular tax alone.”

As in 1969, the United States was at war in 2007. Unlike 1969, there was relatively no outcry when congress failed to “fix” the AMT till the last minute, and, unlike 1969, money does not appear like the no. 1 fighting word in America, as there seems to be little repercussions over a tax that has outlived its intended purpose. If the federal government's intent had been to raise the income tax on middle-income households, then compounding the burden in complicated and costly rules does not constitute a sound economic policy; but the American people's relative complacency about the way AMT has apparently been exploited to effectively fund upper-income households' tax cuts points to uncharacteristic apathy towards the government's ineptitude, deep-rooted corruption, cynicism, or subservience to a combination of interests that embody these and other uncomplimentary traits.

Recent criticisms of the present tax system range from those who lament their smaller proportionate tax, in comparison to taxpayers earning substantially less, to those who think that they are paying too much tax, irrespective of comparative earnings. Ideas for fixing the US tax system range from implementing a complete overhaul of the present tax code to those who aim to abolish the income tax system.

Proposing an eleventh hour one-year fix that shields millions of Americans from an average $2,000 tax assessment, congress’ so-called “fix”, however, has not changed the trend established since 1969: increasing the AMT tax rate while decreasing the AGI subject to the tax. No longer the equalizing tax on the rich, this complex set of rules determining how to calculate AMT, requiring middle-income Americans to tabulate two calculations before totaling their tax liabilities, has now paid for the tax cut upper-income Americans have received since 2001. There are many proposals for fixing the AMT mistake and for relieving the federal government from its subsequent addiction to the revenue; but, unless the tax is either abolished or indexed to affect the taxpayers originally targeted by its introduction in the tax code, middle income taxpayers will continue to tote a disproportionate burden of a questionable political agenda.

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