Sunday, August 5, 2012

Who should be held harmless for deficit reduction?

At some point, once the unemployment rate really starts to fall, the US needs to get on a steady-state path to deficit reduction.  A question worth asking is what part of the income distribution should contribute to this reduction.  Certainly the one percent should make the major contribution, but it is hard to see how it can close the gap by itself.

The current budget deficit is about $1.3 trillion.  According to IRS SOI data for 2009 (the most recent available), households in the top one percent paid income taxes of $318 billion in that year (see Table 5).  Because that was an anomalous year, let's go back to 2007, when the top one percent paid the most is had paid under current law, which was $451 billion. If we adjust that for five years of CPI growth, that translates to about $497 billion in current dollars.  This means that doubling taxes on the top one percent would get us less than halfway toward closing the budget gap.

Of course, lower unemployment will mean less money going to unemployment insurance, and will add to the number of taxpayers, and these will help reduce the deficit.  But the taxing the one percent alone will not be enough--so how low do we go?  I would certainly hold the bottom two quintiles harmless--whatever mix of tax and spending changes come along, that group should be left no worse off than before (because they received no net benefit from the policies of the past decade or so).  How one divides it up among the rest?  I am not sure.