It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when we start to get all those little documents in the mail and electronically showing how much you earned in the past year. The purpose of these little documents, of course, is to complete your federal and state income tax returns. While many Americans dislike paying income taxes, there is another tax that is rated as even worse in surveys: the property tax.
Why do Americans dislike the property tax so much? One popular explanation is that people don’t like the idea that “you never really own your property.” In other words, even after you have paid off your mortgage, you must continue to pay property taxes, which feels like a form of “rent” that you pay to the government. Of course, that “rent” does pay for a variety of public services, primarily K-12 education in most locations, but this still seems to rub many Americans the wrong way. The libertarian phase “taxation is theft” conveys a similar sentiment for income taxes, that you never “really own” your own labor if you must pay taxes on your earnings.
But there is also an economic explanation for the hatred of the property tax: it is very salient, especially to taxpayers that no longer have a mortgage. While those of us that still have a mortgage on our home pay property taxes through our normal monthly mortgage payment, Americans that have paid off their mortgage typically write a check (or two) to pay the full amount of their property tax bill. An interesting paper by Cabral and Hoxby finds that jurisdictions with more taxpayers using escrow for their property taxes (meaning they have a mortgage) also have higher property tax rates. And furthermore, they “find that owners with tax escrow report their taxes much less accurately than those without tax escrow” (look at Figure 2 in the paper to see the huge differences).
Income taxes, on the other hand, are not salient for most Americans. Payroll withholding means that the taxes are taken out before we even get our paycheck, and you’ll only notice them if you look at your pay stub. And about three-quarters of US taxpayers get a tax refund at the end of the year. For most Americans, the only salient part of the income tax system is a check they receive as a refund, rather than writing a check for their property taxes.
What does all this mean? Should income taxes be made more salient? Should property taxes be made less salient? A simple answer could be that all taxes should be equally salient. Or if you view one tax as superior in some way, maybe that tax should be less salient, so there is less opposition to it.
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do have a question for readers: do you know your own income tax rate? Specifically, what is the marginal rate on your federal income taxes? I invite readers to write down their guesses, then look up the correct answer. How close were you? Please leave a comment, and be honest!
This paper by Cabral and Hoxby is terrific. It was actually an idea I had in my PhD Urban Economics class and was happy to see someone was doing it and did it better than I could have. The question of awareness about taxes is important. I’ve been thinking the rise of Uber and other gig economy platforms requires people to do their own withholding. At the margin, people in these areas should be more aware of their income taxes. So the answer to your question of awareness is probably a large fraction are unaware but more know now than would have a few years ago.
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What I’m hearing is that escrow accounts should systematically overcharge such that owners receive rebates – or that such escrow accounts should exist for the un-mortgaged. The more that people feel good about inelastic demand taxes, the better. Or, the more that people feel good about less distortionary taxes, the better.
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