What Is Income?

The United States, like nearly all countries, has an income tax. What is an income tax? It’s a tax on income. What is income? That’s actually a very hard question.

The question comes up in a recent report by ProPublica on the taxes that very wealthy Americans pay (I’m not going to link to it, because the data was likely illegally obtained, and almost certainly immorally obtained, but you can easily find it). What’s really interesting is that never define income, but they do have an implicit definition which includes changes in net wealth. More on this later, but it does raise an important question under an income tax: what exactly should count as income?

For most wage and salary workers, income is fairly straightforward. It’s the compensation that your employer pays you in exchange for your labor services. Easy enough. There are some wrinkles. For example, most non-cash compensation is not considering income for tax purposes. And even some cash compensation, such as contributions to retirement plans, are not considered income. Still, pretty straightforward.

But what if you own a business? It gets a little more complicated. We could define your income as all of the money you receive when you sell goods and services to your customers. But that has a few problems. Let’s say you run a restaurant. You sell burgers for $5. Should you pay income tax on every $5 burger you sell? Keep in mind that you probably had $4.50 in expenses to sell that burger. You bought the beef, buns, and condiments. You paid your workers. You paid to “keep the lights on” (that’s how small business owners refer to utilities and other overheard). So our income tax system will only tax you on the $0.50 difference, which we usually call profit (in some years, of course, businesses have costs that exceed their sales revenue, in which case they owe no income tax).

Now for the really hard question: what if most of your income is derived from assets that you own? That’s where things get even more complicated, and both legal and philosophical questions come up.

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What’s the Worst Tax?

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!