Saturday, September 25, 2010

History of the U.S. Tax System

Fact Sheets: Taxes

The federal, state, and local tax systems in the United States have been marked by significant changes over the years in response to changing circumstances and changes in the role of government. The types of taxes collected, their relative proportions, and the magnitudes of the revenues collected are all far different than they were 50 or 100 years ago. Some of these changes are traceable to specific historical events, such as a war or the passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution that granted the Congress the power to levy a tax on personal income. Other changes were more gradual, responding to changes in society, in our economy, and in the roles and responsibilities that government has taken unto itself.

Colonial Times

For most of our nation's history, individual taxpayers rarely had any significant contact with Federal tax authorities as most of the Federal government's tax revenues were derived from excise taxes, tariffs, and customs duties. Before the Revolutionary War, the colonial government had only a limited need for revenue, while each of the colonies had greater responsibilities and thus greater revenue needs, which they met with different types of taxes. For example, the southern colonies primarily taxed imports and exports, the middle colonies at times imposed a property tax and a "head" or poll tax levied on each adult male, and the New England colonies raised revenue primarily through general real estate taxes, excises taxes, and taxes based on occupation.

England's need for revenues to pay for its wars against France led it to impose a series of taxes on the American colonies. In 1765, the English Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which was the first tax imposed directly on the American colonies, and then Parliament imposed a tax on tea. Even though colonists were forced to pay these taxes, they lacked representation in the English Parliament. This led to the rallying cry of the American Revolution that "taxation without representation is tyranny" and established a persistent wariness regarding taxation as part of the American culture.

The Post Revolutionary Era

The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, reflected the American fear of a strong central government and so retained much of the political power in the States. The national government had few responsibilities and no nationwide tax system, relying on donations from the States for its revenue. Under the Articles, each State was a sovereign entity and could levy tax as it pleased.

When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Founding Fathers recognized that no government could function if it relied entirely on other governments for its resources, thus the Federal Government was granted the authority to raise taxes. The Constitution endowed the Congress with the power to "…lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." Ever on guard against the power of the central government to eclipse that of the states, the collection of the taxes was left as the responsibility of the State governments.

To pay the debts of the Revolutionary War, Congress levied excise taxes on distilled spirits, tobacco and snuff, refined sugar, carriages, property sold at auctions, and various legal documents. Even in the early days of the Republic, however, social purposes influenced what was taxed. For example, Pennsylvania imposed an excise tax on liquor sales partly "to restrain persons in low circumstances from an immoderate use thereof." Additional support for such a targeted tax came from property owners, who hoped thereby to keep their property tax rates low, providing an early example of the political tensions often underlying tax policy decisions.

Though social policies sometimes governed the course of tax policy even in the early days of the Republic, the nature of these policies did not extend either to the collection of taxes so as to equalize incomes and wealth, or for the purpose of redistributing income or wealth. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote regarding the "general Welfare" clause:

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his father has acquired too much, in order to spare to others who (or whose fathers) have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, "to guarantee to everyone a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."
With the establishment of the new nation, the citizens of the various colonies now had proper democratic representation, yet many Americans still opposed and resisted taxes they deemed unfair or improper. In 1794, a group of farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania physically opposed the tax on whiskey, forcing President Washington to send Federal troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, establishing the important precedent that the Federal government was determined to enforce its revenue laws. The Whiskey Rebellion also confirmed, however, that the resistance to unfair or high taxes that led to the Declaration of Independence did not evaporate with the forming of a new, representative government.

During the confrontation with France in the late 1790's, the Federal Government imposed the first direct taxes on the owners of houses, land, slaves, and estates. These taxes are called direct taxes because they are a recurring tax paid directly by the taxpayer to the government based on the value of the item that is the basis for the tax. The issue of direct taxes as opposed to indirect taxes played a crucial role in the evolution of Federal tax policy in the following years. When Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1802, direct taxes were abolished and for the next 10 years there were no internal revenue taxes other than excises.

To raise money for the War of 1812, Congress imposed additional excise taxes, raised certain customs duties, and raised money by issuing Treasury notes. In 1817 Congress repealed these taxes, and for the next 44 years the Federal Government collected no internal revenue. Instead, the Government received most of its revenue from high customs duties and through the sale of public land.

The Civil War

When the Civil War erupted, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861, which restored earlier excises taxes and imposed a tax on personal incomes. The income tax was levied at 3 percent on all incomes higher than $800 a year. This tax on personal income was a new direction for a Federal tax system based mainly on excise taxes and customs duties. Certain inadequacies of the income tax were quickly acknowledged by Congress and thus none was collected until the following year.

By the spring of 1862 it was clear the war would not end quickly and with the Union's debt growing at the rate of $2 million daily it was equally clear the Federal government would need additional revenues. On July 1, 1862 the Congress passed new excise taxes on such items as playing cards, gunpowder, feathers, telegrams, iron, leather, pianos, yachts, billiard tables, drugs, patent medicines, and whiskey. Many legal documents were also taxed and license fees were collected for almost all professions and trades.

The 1862 law also made important reforms to the Federal income tax that presaged important features of the current tax. For example, a two-tiered rate structure was enacted, with taxable incomes up to $10,000 taxed at a 3 percent rate and higher incomes taxed at 5 percent. A standard deduction of $600 was enacted and a variety of deductions were permitted for such things as rental housing, repairs, losses, and other taxes paid. In addition, to assure timely collection, taxes were "withheld at the source" by employers.

The need for Federal revenue declined sharply after the war and most taxes were repealed. By 1868, the main source of Government revenue derived from liquor and tobacco taxes. The income tax was abolished in 1872. From 1868 to 1913, almost 90 percent of all revenue was collected from the remaining excises.

The 16th Amendment

Under the Constitution, Congress could impose direct taxes only if they were levied in proportion to each State's population. Thus, when a flat rate Federal income tax was enacted in 1894, it was quickly challenged and in 1895 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state.

Lacking the revenue from an income tax and with all other forms of internal taxes facing stiff resistance, from 1896 until 1910 the Federal government relied heavily on high tariffs for its revenues. The War Revenue Act of 1899 sought to raise funds for the Spanish-American War through the sale of bonds, taxes on recreational facilities used by workers, and doubled taxes on beer and tobacco. A tax was even imposed on chewing gum. The Act expired in 1902, so that Federal receipts fell from 1.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product to 1.3 percent.

While the War Revenue Act returned to traditional revenue sources following the Supreme Court's 1895 ruling on the income tax, debate on alternative revenue sources remained lively. The nation was becoming increasingly aware that high tariffs and excise taxes were not sound economic policy and often fell disproportionately on the less affluent. Proposals to reinstate the income tax were introduced by Congressmen from agricultural areas whose constituents feared a Federal tax on property, especially on land, as a replacement for the excises.

Eventually, the income tax debate pitted southern and western Members of Congress representing more agricultural and rural areas against the industrial northeast. The debate resulted in an agreement calling for a tax, called an excise tax, to be imposed on business income, and a Constitutional amendment to allow the Federal government to impose tax on individuals' lawful incomes without regard to the population of each State.

By 1913, 36 States had ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. In October, Congress passed a new income tax law with rates beginning at 1 percent and rising to 7 percent for taxpayers with income in excess of $500,000. Less than 1 percent of the population paid income tax at the time. Form 1040 was introduced as the standard tax reporting form and, though changed in many ways over the years, remains in use today.

One of the problems with the new income tax law was how to define "lawful" income. Congress addressed this problem by amending the law in 1916 by deleting the word "lawful" from the definition of income. As a result, all income became subject to tax, even if it was earned by illegal means. Several years later, the Supreme Court declared the Fifth Amendment could not be used by bootleggers and others who earned income through illegal activities to avoid paying taxes. Consequently, many who broke various laws associated with illegal activities and were able to escape justice for these crimes were incarcerated on tax evasion charges.

Prior to the enactment of the income tax, most citizens were able to pursue their private economic affairs without the direct knowledge of the government. Individuals earned their wages, businesses earned their profits, and wealth was accumulated and dispensed with little or no interaction with government entities. The income tax fundamentally changed this relationship, giving the government the right and the need to know about all manner of an individual or business' economic life. Congress recognized the inherent invasiveness of the income tax into the taxpayer's personal affairs and so in 1916 it provided citizens with some degree of protection by requiring that information from tax returns be kept confidential.

World War I and the 1920s

The entry of the United States into World War I greatly increased the need for revenue and Congress responded by passing the 1916 Revenue Act. The 1916 Act raised the lowest tax rate from 1 percent to 2 percent and raised the top rate to 15 percent on taxpayers with incomes in excess of $1.5 million. The 1916 Act also imposed taxes on estates and excess business profits.

Driven by the war and largely funded by the new income tax, by 1917 the Federal budget was almost equal to the total budget for all the years between 1791 and 1916. Needing still more tax revenue, the War Revenue Act of 1917 lowered exemptions and greatly increased tax rates. In 1916, a taxpayer needed $1.5 million in taxable income to face a 15 percent rate. By 1917 a taxpayer with only $40,000 faced a 16 percent rate and the individual with $1.5 million faced a tax rate of 67 percent.

Another revenue act was passed in 1918, which hiked tax rates once again, this time raising the bottom rate to 6 percent and the top rate to 77 percent. These changes increased revenue from $761 million in 1916 to $3.6 billion in 1918, which represented about 25 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even in 1918, however, only 5 percent of the population paid income taxes and yet the income tax funded one-third of the cost of the war.

The economy boomed during the 1920s and increasing revenues from the income tax followed. This allowed Congress to cut taxes five times, ultimately returning the bottom tax rate to 1 percent and the top rate down to 25 percent and reducing the Federal tax burden as a share of GDP to 13 percent. As tax rates and tax collections declined, the economy was strengthened further.

In October of 1929 the stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression. As the economy shrank, government receipts also fell. In 1932, the Federal government collected only $1.9 billion, compared to $6.6 billion in 1920. In the face of rising budget deficits which reached $2.7 billion in 1931, Congress followed the prevailing economic wisdom at the time and passed the Tax Act of 1932 which dramatically increased tax rates once again. This was followed by another tax increase in 1936 that further improved the government's finances while further weakening the economy. By 1936 the lowest tax rate had reached 4 percent and the top rate was up to 79 percent. In 1939, Congress systematically codified the tax laws so that all subsequent tax legislation until 1954 amended this basic code. The combination of a shrunken economy and the repeated tax increases raised the Federal government's tax burden to 6.8 percent of GDP by 1940.

The Social Security Tax

The state of the economy during the Great Depression led to passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. This law provided payments known as "unemployment compensation" to workers who lost their jobs. Other sections of the Act gave public aid to the aged, the needy, the handicapped, and to certain minors. These programs were financed by a 2 percent tax, one half of which was subtracted directly from an employee's paycheck and one half collected from employers on the employee's behalf. The tax was levied on the first $3,000 of the employee's salary or wage.

World War II

Even before the United States entered the Second World War, increasing defense spending and the need for monies to support the opponents of Axis aggression led to the passage in 1940 of two tax laws that increased individual and corporate taxes, which were followed by another tax hike in 1941. By the end of the war the nature of the income tax had been fundamentally altered. Reductions in exemption levels meant that taxpayers with taxable incomes of only $500 faced a bottom tax rate of 23 percent, while taxpayers with incomes over $1 million faced a top rate of 94 percent. These tax changes increased federal receipts from $8.7 billion in 1941 to $45.2 billion in 1945. Even with an economy stimulated by war-time production, federal taxes as a share of GDP grew from 7.6 percent in 1941 to 20.4 percent in 1945. Beyond the rates and revenues, however, another aspect about the income tax that changed was the increase in the number of income taxpayers from 4 million in 1939 to 43 million in 1945.

Another important feature of the income tax that changed was the return to income tax withholding as had been done during the Civil War. This greatly eased the collection of the tax for both the taxpayer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However, it also greatly reduced the taxpayer's awareness of the amount of tax being collected, i.e. it reduced the transparency of the tax, which made it easier to raise taxes in the future.

Developments after World War II

Tax cuts following the war reduced the Federal tax burden as a share of GDP from its wartime high of 20.9 percent in 1944 to 14.4 percent in 1950. However, the Korean War created a need for additional revenues which, combined with the extension of Social Security coverage to self-employed persons, meant that by 1952 the tax burden had returned to 19.0 percent of GDP.

In 1953 the Bureau of Internal Revenue was renamed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), following a reorganization of its function. The new name was chosen to stress the service aspect of its work. By 1959, the IRS had become the world's largest accounting, collection, and forms-processing organization. Computers were introduced to automate and streamline its work and to improve service to taxpayers. In 1961, Congress passed a law requiring individual taxpayers to use their Social Security number as a means of tax form identification. By 1967, all business and personal tax returns were handled by computer systems, and by the late 1960s, the IRS had developed a computerized method for selecting tax returns to be examined. This made the selection of returns for audit fairer to the taxpayer and allowed the IRS to focus its audit resources on those returns most likely to require an audit.

Throughout the 1950s tax policy was increasingly seen as a tool for raising revenue and for changing the incentives in the economy, but also as a tool for stabilizing macroeconomic activity. The economy remained subject to frequent boom and bust cycles and many policymakers readily accepted the new economic policy of raising or lowering taxes and spending to adjust aggregate demand and thereby smooth the business cycle. Even so, however, the maximum tax rate in 1954 remained at 87 percent of taxable income. While the income tax underwent some manner of revision or amendment almost every year since the major reorganization of 1954, certain years marked especially significant changes. For example, the Tax Reform Act of 1969 reduced income tax rates for individuals and private foundations.

Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1970s the United States experienced persistent and rising inflation rates, ultimately reaching 13.3 percent in 1979. Inflation has a deleterious effect on many aspects of an economy, but it also can play havoc with an income tax system unless appropriate precautions are taken. Specifically, unless the tax system's parameters, i.e. its brackets and its fixed exemptions, deductions, and credits, are indexed for inflation, a rising price level will steadily shift taxpayers into ever higher tax brackets by reducing the value of those exemptions and deductions.

During this time, the income tax was not indexed for inflation and so, driven by a rising inflation, and despite repeated legislated tax cuts, the tax burden rose from 19.4 percent of GDP to 20.8 percent of GDP. Combined with high marginal tax rates, rising inflation, and a heavy regulatory burden, this high tax burden caused the economy to under-perform badly, all of which laid the groundwork for the Reagan tax cut, also known as the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.

The Reagan Tax Cut

The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which enjoyed strong bi-partisan support in the Congress, represented a fundamental shift in the course of federal income tax policy. Championed in principle for many years by then-Congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY) and then-Senator Bill Roth (R- DE), it featured a 25 percent reduction in individual tax brackets, phased in over 3 years, and indexed for inflation thereafter. This brought the top tax bracket down to 50 percent.

The 1981 Act also featured a dramatic departure in the treatment of business outlays for plant and equipment, i.e. capital cost recovery, or tax depreciation. Heretofore, capital cost recovery had attempted roughly to follow a concept known as economic depreciation, which refers to the decline in the market value of a producing asset over a specified period of time. The 1981 Act explicitly displaced the notion of economic depreciation, instituting instead the Accelerated Cost Recovery System which greatly reduced the disincentive facing business investment and ultimately prepared the way for the subsequent boom in capital formation. In addition to accelerated cost recovery, the 1981 Act also instituted a 10 percent Investment Tax Credit to spur additional capital formation.

Prior to, and in many circles even after the 1981 tax cut, the prevailing view was that tax policy is most effective in modulating aggregate demand whenever demand and supply become mismatched, i.e. whenever the economy went in to recession or became "over-heated". The 1981 tax cut represented a new way of looking at tax policy, though it was in fact a return to a more traditional, or neoclassical, economic perspective. The essential idea was that taxes have their first and primary effect on the economic incentives facing individuals and businesses. Thus, the tax rate on the last dollar earned, i.e. the marginal dollar, is much more important to economic activity than the tax rate facing the first dollar earned or than the average tax rate. By reducing marginal tax rates it was believed the natural forces of economic growth would be less restrained. The most productive individuals would then shift more of their energies to productive activities rather than leisure and businesses would take advantage of many more now profitable opportunities. It was also thought that reducing marginal tax rates would significantly expand the tax base as individuals shifted more of their income and activities into taxable forms and out of tax-exempt forms.

The 1981 tax cut actually represented two departures from previous tax policy philosophies, one explicit and intended and the second by implication. The first change was the new focus on marginal tax rates and incentives as the key factors in how the tax system affects economic activity. The second policy departure was the de facto shift away from income taxation and toward taxing consumption. Accelerated cost recovery was one manifestation of this shift on the business side, but the individual side also saw a significant shift in the enactment of various provisions to reduce the multiple taxation of individual saving. The Individual Retirement Account, for example, was enacted in 1981.

Simultaneously with the enactment of the tax cuts in 1981 the Federal Reserve Board, with the full support of the Reagan Administration, altered monetary policy so as to bring inflation under control. The Federal Reserve's actions brought inflation down faster and further than was anticipated at the time, and one consequence was that the economy fell into a deep recession in 1982. Another consequence of the collapse in inflation was that federal spending levels, which had been predicated on a higher level of expected inflation, were suddenly much higher in inflation-adjusted terms. The combination of the tax cuts, the recession, and the one-time increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending produced historically high budget deficits which, in turn, led to a tax increase in 1984 that pared back some of the tax cuts enacted in 1981, especially on the business side.

As inflation came down and as more and more of the tax cuts from the 1981 Act went into effect, the economic began a strong and sustained pattern of growth. Though the painful medicine of disinflation slowed and initially hid the process, the beneficial effects of marginal rate cuts and reductions in the disincentives to invest took hold as promised.

The Evolution of Social Security and Medicare

The Social Security system remained essentially unchanged from its enactment until 1956. However, beginning in 1956 Social Security began an almost steady evolution as more and more benefits were added, beginning with the addition of Disability Insurance benefits. In 1958, benefits were extended to dependents of disabled workers. In 1967, disability benefits were extended to widows and widowers. The 1972 amendments provided for automatic cost-of-living benefits.

In 1965, Congress enacted the Medicare program, providing for the medical needs of persons aged 65 or older, regardless of income. The 1965 Social Security Amendments also created the Medicaid programs, which provides medical assistance for persons with low incomes and resources.

Of course, the expansions of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid required additional tax revenues, and thus the basic payroll tax was repeatedly increased over the years. Between 1949 and 1962 the payroll tax rate climbed steadily from its initial rate of 2 percent to 6 percent. The expansions in 1965 led to further rate increases, with the combined payroll tax rate climbing to 12.3 percent in 1980. Thus, in 31 years the maximum Social Security tax burden rose from a mere $60 in 1949 to $3,175 in 1980.

Despite the increased payroll tax burden, the benefit expansions Congress enacted in previous years led the Social Security program to an acute funding crises in the early 1980s. Eventually, Congress legislated some minor programmatic changes in Social Security benefits, along with an increase in the payroll tax rate to 15.3 percent by 1990. Between 1980 and 1990, the maximum Social Security payroll tax burden more than doubled to $7,849.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986

Following the enactment of the 1981, 1982, and 1984 tax changes there was a growing sense that the income tax was in need of a more fundamental overhaul. The economic boom following the 1982 recession convinced many political leaders of both parties that lower marginal tax rates were essential to a strong economy, while the constant changing of the law instilled in policy makers an appreciation for the complexity of the tax system. Further, the debates during this period led to a general understanding of the distortions imposed on the economy, and the lost jobs and wages, arising from the many peculiarities in the definition of the tax base. A new and broadly held philosophy of tax policy developed that the income tax would be greatly improved by repealing these various special provisions and lowering tax rates further. Thus, in his 1984 State of the Union speech President Reagan called for a sweeping reform of the income tax so it would have a broader base and lower rates and would be fairer, simpler, and more consistent with economic efficiency.

The culmination of this effort was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which brought the top statutory tax rate down from 50 percent to 28 percent while the corporate tax rate was reduced from 50 percent to 35 percent. The number of tax brackets was reduced and the personal exemption and standard deduction amounts were increased and indexed for inflation, thereby relieving millions of taxpayers of any Federal income tax burden. However, the Act also created new personal and corporate Alternative Minimum Taxes, which proved to be overly complicated, unnecessary, and economically harmful.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act was roughly revenue neutral, that is, it was not intended to raise or lower taxes, but it shifted some of the tax burden from individuals to businesses. Much of the increase in the tax on business was the result of an increase in the tax on business capital formation. It achieved some simplifications for individuals through the elimination of such things as income averaging, the deduction for consumer interest, and the deduction for state and local sales taxes. But in many respects the Act greatly added to the complexity of business taxation, especially in the area of international taxation. Some of the over-reaching provisions of the Act also led to a downturn in the real estate markets which played a significant role in the subsequent collapse of the Savings and Loan industry.

Seen in a broader picture, the 1986 tax act represented the penultimate installment of an extraordinary process of tax rate reductions. Over the 22 year period from 1964 to 1986 the top individual tax rate was reduced from 91 to 28 percent. However, because upper-income taxpayers increasingly chose to receive their income in taxable form, and because of the broadening of the tax base, the progressivity of the tax system actually rose during this period.

The 1986 tax act also represented a temporary reversal in the evolution of the tax system. Though called an income tax, the Federal tax system had for many years actually been a hybrid income and consumption tax, with the balance shifting toward or away from a consumption tax with many of the major tax acts. The 1986 tax act shifted the balance once again toward the income tax. Of greatest importance in this regard was the return to references to economic depreciation in the formulation of the capital cost recovery system and the significant new restrictions on the use of Individual Retirement Accounts.

Between 1986 and 1990 the Federal tax burden rose as a share of GDP from 17.5 to 18 percent. Despite this increase in the overall tax burden, persistent budget deficits due to even higher levels of government spending created near constant pressure to increase taxes. Thus, in 1990 the Congress enacted a significant tax increase featuring an increase in the top tax rate to 31 percent. Shortly after his election, President Clinton insisted on and the Congress enacted a second major tax increase in 1993 in which the top tax rate was raised to 36 percent and a 10 percent surcharge was added, leaving the effective top tax rate at 39.6 percent. Clearly, the trend toward lower marginal tax rates had been reversed, but, as it turns out, only temporarily.

The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 made additional changes to the tax code providing a modest tax cut. The centerpiece of the 1997 Act was a significant new tax benefit to certain families with children through the Per Child Tax credit. The truly significant feature of this tax relief, however, was that the credit was refundable for many lower-income families. That is, in many cases the family paid a "negative" income tax, or received a credit in excess of their pre-credit tax liability. Though the tax system had provided for individual tax credits before, such as the Earned Income Tax credit, the Per Child Tax credit began a new trend in federal tax policy. Previously tax relief was generally given in the form of lower tax rates or increased deductions or exemptions. The 1997 Act really launched the modern proliferation of individual tax credits and especially refundable credits that are in essence spending programs operating through the tax system.

The years immediately following the 1993 tax increase also saw another trend continue, which was to once again shift the balance of the hybrid income tax-consumption tax toward the consumption tax. The movement in this case was entirely on the individual side in the form of a proliferation of tax vehicles to promote purpose-specific saving. For example, Medical Savings Accounts were enacted to facilitate saving for medical expenses. An Education IRA and the Section 529 Qualified Tuition Program was enacted to help taxpayers pay for future education expenses. In addition, a new form of saving vehicle was enacted, called the Roth IRA, which differed from other retirement savings vehicles like the traditional IRA and employer-based 401(k) plans in that contributions were made in after-tax dollars and distributions were tax free.

Despite the higher tax rates, other economic fundamentals such as low inflation and low interest rates, an improved international picture with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the advent of a qualitatively and quantitatively new information technologies led to a strong economic performance throughout the 1990s. This, in turn, led to an extraordinary increase in the aggregate tax burden, with Federal taxes as a share of GDP reaching a postwar high of 20.8 percent in 2000.

The Bush Tax Cut

By 2001, the total tax take had produced a projected unified budget surplus of $281 billion, with a cumulative 10 year projected surplus of $5.6 trillion. Much of this surplus reflected a rising tax burden as a share of GDP due to the interaction of rising real incomes and a progressive tax rate structure. Consequently, under President George W. Bush's leadership the Congress halted the projected future increases in the tax burden by passing the Economic Growth and Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2001. The centerpiece of the 2001 tax cut was to regain some of the ground lost in the 1990s in terms of lower marginal tax rates. Though the rate reductions are to be phased in over many years, ultimately the top tax rate will fall from 39.6 percent to 33 percent.

The 2001 tax cut represented a resumption of a number of other trends in tax policy. For example, it expanded the Per Child Tax credit from $500 to $1000 per child. It also increased the Dependent Child Tax credit. The 2001 tax cut also continued the move toward a consumption tax by expanding a variety of savings incentives. Another feature of the 2001 tax cut that is particularly noteworthy is that it put the estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes on course for eventual repeal, which is also another step toward a consumption tax. One novel feature of the 2001 tax cut compared to most large tax bills is that it was almost devoid of business tax provisions.

The 2001 tax cut will provide additional strength to the economy in the coming years as more and more of its provisions are phased in, and indeed one argument for its enactment had always been as a form of insurance against an economic downturn. However, unbeknownst to the Bush Administration and the Congress, the economy was already in a downturn as the Act was being debated. Thankfully, the downturn was brief and shallow, but it is already clear that the tax cuts that were enacted and went into effect in 2001 played a significant role in supporting the economy, shortening the duration of the downturn, and preparing the economy for a robust recovery.

One lesson from the economic slowdown was the danger of ever taking a strong economy for granted. The strong growth of the 1990s led to talk of a "new" economy that many assumed was virtually recession proof. The popularity of this assumption was easy to understand when one considers that there had only been one very mild recession in the previous 18 years.

Taking this lesson to heart, and despite the increasing benefits of the 2001 tax cut and the early signs of a recovery, President Bush called for and the Congress eventually enacted an economic stimulus bill. The bill included an extension of unemployment benefits to assist those workers and families under financial stress due to the downturn. The bill also included a provision to providing a temporary but significant acceleration of depreciation allowances for business investment, thereby assuring that the recovery and expansion will be strong and balanced. Interestingly, the depreciation provision also means that the Federal tax on business has resumed its evolution toward a consumption tax, once again paralleling the trend in individual taxation.

This history of the U.S. Tax System was retrieved from the U.S. Treasury website on September 25, 2010.

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project wants to resdesign U.S. currency in order to " rebrand the US Dollar, rebuild financial confidence and revive our failing economy." The project allowed submissions of alternative designs for U.S. currency. People were asked to vote on their favorite until Septemeber 30, 2010.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

GOP, Democrats offer dueling governing plans

In the September 23, 2010 article "GOP, Democrats offer dueling governing plans," Associated Press Writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis outlines the alternative plans for how to run the country.

Newt Gingrich on the GOP's 'Pledge'

Newt Gingrich on the GOP's 'Pledge'

GOP 'Pledge' vows cuts, repeal of health care law

In the September 23, 2010 article "GOP 'Pledge' vows cuts, repeal of health care law," Associated Press writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis explains that the pledge is rhetoric designed to persuade undecided voters to side with Republicans, who vow to cut taxes, government spending, budget deficits, and the public debt without acknowledging the inherent flaws in their logic (or math).

REVENUES - EXPENDITURES = Budget Balance (SURPLUS if positive, DEFICIT if negative).

When recent deficits have exceeded $1 trillion, advocating reductions to both revenues and expenditures will do little to reduce the deficits and will continue to substantially increase the public debt. Significant INCREASES in revenues are needed as well as dramatic cuts in major federal government spending programs (such as defense, Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid) that neither Republican nor Democrats seem prepared to support.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Unusual Worry: Is Inflation Too Low? Federal Reserve Worries Prices Not Going Up Fast Enough

In the September 22, 2010 article "Unusual Worry: Is Inflation Too Low? Federal Reserve Worries Prices Not Going Up Fast Enough," Associated Press economics writer Jeannine Aversa provides further evidence that the macroeconomic policy goal is LOW inflation, not NO inflation. Here is an excerpt:
The Fed, meeting for the last time before the midterm elections, said its measures show inflation is "somewhat below" desirable levels for the economy. That may sound strange, because inflation is often made out to be an economic evil.

And it can be, when it gets out of control. But its opposite can be even worse.

Once deflation takes hold, it can wreck an economy. Workers suffer pay cuts. Corporate profits shrivel. Stock values fall. People, businesses and the government find it costlier to pare debt. Foreclosures and bankruptcies rise.

And people spend less, convinced that prices will fall even further if they just wait. That trend has already emerged in the housing market. Many would-be buyers are standing on the sidelines, waiting for home prices to fall further.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The National Bureau of Economic Research declares the recession ended in June 2009.

Business Cycle Dating Committee, National Bureau of Economic Research

This report is also available as a PDF file.

CAMBRIDGE September 20, 2010 - The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research met yesterday by conference call. At its meeting, the committee determined that a trough in business activity occurred in the U.S. economy in June 2009. The trough marks the end of the recession that began in December 2007 and the beginning of an expansion. The recession lasted 18 months, which makes it the longest of any recession since World War II. Previously the longest postwar recessions were those of 1973-75 and 1981-82, both of which lasted 16 months.

In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity. Rather, the committee determined only that the recession ended and a recovery began in that month. A recession is a period of falling economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. The trough marks the end of the declining phase and the start of the rising phase of the business cycle. Economic activity is typically below normal in the early stages of an expansion, and it sometimes remains so well into the expansion.

The committee decided that any future downturn of the economy would be a new recession and not a continuation of the recession that began in December 2007. The basis for this decision was the length and strength of the recovery to date.

The committee waited to make its decision until revisions in the National Income and Product Accounts, released on July 30 and August 27, 2010, clarified the 2009 time path of the two broadest measures of economic activity, real Gross Domestic Product (real GDP) and real Gross Domestic Income (real GDI). The committee noted that in the most recent data, for the second quarter of 2010, the average of real GDP and real GDI was 3.1 percent above its low in the second quarter of 2009 but remained 1.3 percent below the previous peak which was reached in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Identifying the date of the trough involved weighing the behavior of various indicators of economic activity. The estimates of real GDP and GDI issued by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce are only available quarterly. Further, macroeconomic indicators are subject to substantial revisions and measurement error. For these reasons, the committee refers to a variety of monthly indicators to choose the months of peaks and troughs. It places particular emphasis on measures that refer to the total economy rather than to particular sectors. These include a measure of monthly GDP that has been developed by the private forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, measures of monthly GDP and GDI that have been developed by two members of the committee in independent research (James Stock and Mark Watson, (available here), real personal income excluding transfers, the payroll and household measures of total employment, and aggregate hours of work in the total economy. The committee places less emphasis on monthly data series for industrial production and manufacturing-trade sales, because these refer to particular sectors of the economy. Movements in these series can provide useful additional information when the broader measures are ambiguous about the date of the monthly peak or trough. There is no fixed rule about what weights the committee assigns to the various indicators, or about what other measures contribute information to the process.

The committee concluded that the behavior of the quarterly series for real GDP and GDI indicates that the trough occurred in mid-2009. Real GDP reached its low point in the second quarter of 2009, while the value of real GDI was essentially identical in the second and third quarters of 2009. The average of real GDP and real GDI reached its low point in the second quarter of 2009. The committee concluded that strong growth in both real GDP and real GDI in the fourth quarter of 2009 ruled out the possibility that the trough occurred later than the third quarter.

The committee designated June as the month of the trough based on several monthly indicators. The trough dates for these indicators are:

Macroeconomic Advisers' monthly GDP (June)
The Stock-Watson index of monthly GDP (June)
Their index of monthly GDI (July)
An average of their two indexes of monthly GDP and GDI (June)
Real manufacturing and trade sales (June)
Index of Industrial Production (June)
Real personal income less transfers (October)
Aggregate hours of work in the total economy (October)
Payroll survey employment (December)
Household survey employment (December)
The committee concluded that the choice of June 2009 as the trough month for economic activity was consistent with the later trough months in the labor-market indicators–aggregate hours and employment–for two reasons. First, the strong growth of quarterly real GDP and real GDI in the fourth quarter was inconsistent with designating any month in the fourth quarter as the trough month. The committee believes that these quarterly measures of the real volume of output across the entire economy are the most reliable measures of economic activity. Second, in previous business cycles, aggregate hours and employment have frequently reached their troughs later than the NBER's trough date. In particular, in 2001-03, the trough in payroll employment occurred 21 months after the NBER trough date. In 2009, the NBER trough date is 6 months before the trough in payroll employment. In both the 2001-03 and 2009 cycles, household employment also reached its trough later than the NBER trough date.

The committee noted the contrast between the June trough date for the majority of the monthly indicators and the October trough date for real personal income less transfers. There were two reasons for selecting the earlier date. The first was described above -- the fact that quarterly real GDP and GDI rose strongly in the fourth quarter. The second was that real GDI is a more comprehensive measure of income than real personal income less transfers, as it includes additional sources of income such as undistributed corporate profits. The committee's use of income-side measures, notably real GDI, is based on the accounting principle that the value of output equals the sum of the incomes that arise from producing the output. Apart from a random statistical discrepancy, real GDI satisfies that equality while real personal income does not.

The committee also maintains a quarterly chronology of business cycle peak and trough dates. The committee determined that the trough occurred in the second quarter of 2009, when the average of quarterly real GDP and GDI reached its low point.

For more information, see the FAQs and the more detailed description of the NBER's business cycle dating procedure at An Excel spreadsheet containing the data and the figures for the indicators of economic activity considered by the committee is available at that page as well.

The current members of the Business Cycle Dating Committee are: Robert Hall, Stanford University (chair); Martin Feldstein, Harvard University; Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard University; Robert Gordon, Northwestern University; James Poterba, MIT and NBER President; James Stock, Harvard University; and Mark Watson, Princeton University. David Romer, University of California, Berkeley, is on leave from the committee and did not participate in its deliberations.

[ NBER Home Page | More information ]

NBER, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138, 617-868-3900,

(September 20, 2010)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism

In the September 19, 2010 Salon article "The perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism," Glenn Greenwald suggests the exaggerations of political conservatives are much more egregious than those of progressives and Jon Stewart's implied similarity is misplaced.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rush Limbaugh falls for Wikipedia hoax

The article "Rush Limbaugh falls for Wikipedia hoax" provides further evidence that Wikipedia is an unreliable source for academic research. Information on Wikipedia can be false and unreliable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

How to Read the Current Job Market

The unemployment rate increased to 9.6% in August 2010, but that may be a good indicator for job prospects in the near future if you understand how the statistic is calculated. .In the September 3, 2010 U.S. News & World Report article "5 Key Lessons in August's Jobs Report," Liz Wolgemuth provides some insight into why an increase in the unemployment rate might be a good signal for economic recovery.
August's jobs report is shining a little light on the ploddingly dreary labor market. Private employers added more jobs than economists expected last month, and the Labor Department revised the data to show bigger private sector gains for June and July. In July, private employers added 107,000 jobs, rather than the 71,000 initially reported. The unemployment rate last month ticked up to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent in July, reflecting an increase in the size of the labor force.

This report offers some important lessons to help understand the current job market and how it's measured. Here are some things to keep in mind:

The headline number often doesn't mean much. The number of jobs lost or gained for the month will always be the first thing reported, but the truth is that it's often a very misleading figure. Let's look at August. Non-farm payroll employment fell by 54,000 jobs--that's the headline figure, and it's negative. More job losses are certainly the last thing anyone wishes to see at this point in the recovery. But if you look deeper, you'll see that the government cut 114,000 temporary census jobs last month. At the same time, total private sector employment increased by 67,000 jobs. Private-sector employment is the real barometer, not the sum of short-term government jobs.

Job numbers are just differences. Often, job data is reported in a way that can be confusing. Let's say a news report says "private sector employers added 67,000 jobs last month." That can sound a bit like all the private businesses in the country made just 67,000 hires altogether last month. In truth, American businesses hired millions of people last month. Consider that in June alone (the most recent month for which there is data) U.S. public and private employers made nearly 4.3 million hires. Retailers alone made 593,000 hires in June. The problem is that people lose or leave jobs in similar volumes. Economists call this "churn," and there's a lot of it--every month.

The long-term unemployed are missing out on the churn. Last month, there were 6.2 million people who had been out of work for six months or more. You might ask, given the millions of hires employers make each month, why some people have been unemployed for a year or two--or more: Wouldn't they eventually get caught up in the churn? This is one of the most troubling aspects of this recession. There could be several reasons. Many of the people struggling with long-term unemployment have found that their skills aren't matching up with what employers are looking for. Also, in general, the longer people are unemployed, the harder it is for them to find work, whether it's because they become stigmatized or because they are gradually become less aggressive job seekers. One possible policy response would be a tax credit for employers that hire a person who has been out of work for six or months or more.

A higher unemployment rate can actually be a good thing. Yes, this sounds ridiculous. Last month, the unemployment rate ticked up 0.1 percentage point to 9.6 percent. "It's worth noting that this was entirely attributable to a spike in the labor force--the household survey actually showed employment up 290,000 in August," Morgan Stanley economists Ted Wieseman and David Greenlaw said in morning note.

Consider an economy that's really in the dumps, with employers unwilling to hire. Hopeless job seekers run out of benefits and give up their job search instead relying on the income of a spouse or family member or another form of support. The people quitting their job search drive down the number of officially unemployed and shrink the labor force--and that can drive down the unemployment rate. Consider the opposite: Previously hopeless job seekers begin to see a better local job market, the headlines sound more promising, and their friends are beginning to find jobs, so they head back into the labor market. They pick up the phone and call a contact about an opening they spotted, or they fire off their resume online. They officially move back into the job market, but they aren't employed just yet--they're looking. This can drive the unemployment rate up, but it's a very positive thing for the economy that people are participating in the labor market again.

Back to August: "The labor force increased by 500,000 indicating that people are more encouraged about the labor market and decided to look for work boosting the jobless rate to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent," says Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University-Channel Islands.

Slow growth will have Washington seeking stimulus. This may be a better-than-expected jobs report, but the job growth is still very small. The economy needs to be adding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month to absorb new people entering the job market and put the unemployed back to work. So lawmakers may be looking for more stimulus. "There is a good chance that the Obama Administration will introduce a set of targeted economic stimulus programs," Sohn says. "Payroll tax relief to encourage new hiring for small businesses is a good possibility. State and local governments are laying off employees as revenue falls. Some assistance from Washington could stem job losses here." Shortly after the release of the August jobs report Friday, President Obama encouraged lawmakers to pass a $55 billion bill that would provide additional loans to small businesses. Housing stimulus may also be coming--along with more unemployment benefit extensions, Sohn says.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gerson Institute

According to its website, The Gerson Institute is:
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Founded by Charlotte Gerson (Dr. Gerson’s daughter) in 1977, we are the true source of information on the original, unmodified, proven Gerson Therapy. We refer people to licensed Gerson clinics and treatment centers, practitioners and caregivers. We also train health professionals, patients and others who want to learn this natural therapy. Visit our STORE for a wide selection of educational books, audio and video tapes.

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