The Taxman Comes for Homer

Last week I wrote about the Simpsons’ mortgage payment. In short, I found that using a reasonable assumption of Homer’s income, the median housing price, and the rate of interest, the Simpsons are likely paying less of their household budget on housing today than in the 1990s.

But what about the family’s taxes? Are they getting squeezed by the taxman? Taxes are referenced throughout The Simpsons series. Here’s an article that collects a lot of the references. And that makes sense: the Simpsons are a normal American family, and normal American families love to complain about taxes.

Using the same reasonable assumption about Homer’s income from last week’s post (that Homer earns a constant percentage of a single-earner family, rather than merely adjusting for inflation), we can calculate the family’s average tax rate and how it has changed over the year. Conveniently, “average tax rate” is just economist speak for “how much of your family’s budget goes to the government.”

First, let’s just look at the federal income tax, since this is where most of the changes happen. Don’t worry, I’ll add in payroll taxes below, though this is a constant percent of the family’s budget since it is a flat tax on income!

The chart below shows the average tax rate the Simpsons paid for their federal income taxes. I didn’t go through every year, because: a) it’s a lot of work (I’m doing each year manually); and b) it’s more interesting to look at years right after or before major changes in the tax code. So no cherry picking here — the years selected are picked to tell a mostly complete story.

I’ll now briefly explain each of the years chosen, and what changes in the tax code impacted the Simpsons. But as you can see, just like their mortgage payment, the Simpsons are now spending less of their household income on federal income taxes (don’t worry, the trend is similar with payroll taxes included). In fact, they are now getting a net rebate from the federal government, and have been since the late 1990s!

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Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Who Pays?

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a great post earlier this week about the minimum wage. Go read it before you read my post. When Mike said he was bothered by the notion that “the welfare state must be channeled through employment,” I very much nodded in agreement. It reminded me of a frustration I have with the entire debate about the minimum wage vs. the Earned Income Tax Credit as policy tools to help out the least well-off in society (yes, some argue they are complements, but let’s put that debate aside for the moment).

Here’s my frustration. In both the popular discussion and occasionally among academics/policy wonks, the difference between the minimum wage and the EITC is often framed this way: employers pay for the minimum wage, but the government pays for the EITC. I know there are important questions about the incidence of the minimum wage, but let’s assume that the proponents of higher minimum wages are correct, and the full cost comes out of business profits.

But the distinction between “employers” and “the government” is not a useful one. Where does the government get its revenue to pay for things like the EITC (or alternatively, food stamps)? They must come from society. There is some diversion of real resources from Group A to Group B. Group A is, in the case of the minimum wage, the owners of businesses — in other words, individuals with high incomes. Group B is the workers. But this is true in the case of both the minimum wage and the EITC!

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