Children Are Not 3/55ths of a Person

In the past several years there has been increasing salience and support of pronatalist policies. Several people have turned to the IRS income tax code, which already includes some incentives regarding children. The Child Tax Credit (CTC), which lowers a person’s tax liability on a dollar-per-dollar basis, is the most obvious item that addresses children. The other tax credit is for child care expenses, but I won’t be focusing on that here.

Below are the 2021 marginal tax rate brackets and the standard deductions.  The standard deduction reduces the taxable income, and then the tax rates are applied.

After the tax liability is calculated, it’s reduced by any tax credits, such as the CTC. In 2021, households earned a credit of $3,600 for every child under 6 years old and $3,000 for every child under 18 years old.  Median household income in 2020 was $67,521.  That means that the tax liability was reduced by 5.3% – or 3/55ths – of median gross income. But, I have a problem with that.

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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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Inequality VS the Environment

What do we know?

We know that density is good for most environmental measures. With greater density comes less water runoff, less carbon emissions, less burned fossil fuel. With density, fewer people own vehicles, implements of yard curation, and we require fewer roofs per person.

What else do we know?

We know that in a static economy, progressive taxation makes after-tax incomes more equal. There are formal models that say the same thing about dynamic economies. Progressive taxation results in more income equality, and regressive taxation results in less. For clarity, income tax progressivity is determined by percent of income paid in taxes. When the rich pay a higher percent tax rate, that’s more progressive.

Are you ready?

Wealthy people tend to have more valuable land. That is, they improve the land and the things built on it. Do you want to tax land progressively? Then what you want is a property tax with a sliding tax rate. This way, you can make those rich people pay their ‘fair share‘. Even without a sliding scale, rich people will pay more dollars for their improved land.

Uh-oh.

Now that we are taxing property on land proportionally, rich people are seeking alternatives. They’re trying to avoid taxes! What do they do? Well, a smaller and cheaper house is a nonstarter. What is all that wealth for, if not to enjoy it partly through one’s home environment? The rich are going to find a place to live where they can be comfortable and where their property taxes are lower. Maybe a place where the land is not so expensive. Hello rural estate!

Do you want a proportional property tax so that rich people pay for the value of their property? Be ready to say hello to suburbanization and sprawl. All those benefits of urbanization mentioned above? Invert all of them to see the results.

Okay…

I see the attraction of taxing immovable property. Taxing a residence is nice for the government because the tax revenues are nice and stable, given the relatively inelastic demand for real property.

If only there were a real property tax scheme that provided stable revenues and encouraged urbanization… Well, the answer is not to try taxing the value of the land without taxing the value of property. What am I? A Georgist?

A Georgist I am not. But, I do have an affinity for lump sum taxes.

If, as a polity, you want urbanization, then impose lump sum taxes per area of land owned. Doesn’t matter if it’s a house. Doesn’t matter if it’s commercial. Doesn’t matter if it’s unimproved farm land. Just sit back and watch the skyline rise, our environmental footprint shrink, and plenty of land being turned into wildlife preserves and parks.

Oh dear.

People have feelings. Consider a beautiful multi story single-family home on an acre. Now consider a mobile home with a large yard and some trees – also on an acre. With a standard, flat proportional property tax, the owner of the big pricey house pays more. With lump sum taxes per square foot of land, they pay the same dollar figure. In other words, the less wealthy person pays a higher proportion of his properties value in taxes. In case you missed it, this beautiful solution to sprawl and environmental degradation comes hand-in-hand with proportional regressivity.

BTW:

I live in Collier County Florida. If all of the land, excluding surface water, in the county was taxed at the same lump sum per square foot, then we would need to pay about $1,600 per acre in order to replace all revenues currently collected from a variety of sources. If we assume that government property is excluded from the tax and we assume that the government owns a very liberal 10% of all property, then it is more like $1,780.

I haven’t even discussed all of the improved economic performance that an already developed counties might enjoy by eliminating the distortionary excise taxes and ad valorem taxes. I don’t know about you, but $1,600 doesn’t sound too bad in exchange for eliminating all the other nickel and dimes that add up to quite a bit.

(Just as I am not a Georgist, I am also not a revolutionary. We need not jump in head-first. We could ease our way into such a system. We’d just add a fixed lump-sum portion to existing property tax bills that increases over time. Property taxes bills would be calculated slope-intercept style with a portion being constant and a portion being dependent of property value.)