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Taxing "the rich"

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There's been a lot of talk about "taxing the rich" recently. The idea seems to be that taxes from "the rich" can provide more revenue to the government without any negative economic consequences. Usually "the rich" are people making more than $250,000 in income, and the proposal is to increase their marginal rate to at least the old marginal rate of 39.6%.

But who are "the rich", really? Well, there are probably very few single people who make over $250,000 - less than 10% of the returns in the top tax bracket are filed by singles, as opposed to over 40% of all returns - so it's mostly likely a married couple. And most likely it's a married couple who both work - like two doctors or two lawyers - so that their combined income comes in above $250,000, even though neither of their individual incomes does.

So let's take a look at the situation one of these couples is in. The husband, say, is a specialist physician making $180,000 a year after adjustments to income like malpractice insurance. The wife is a general practitioner making $140,000 a year after adjustments. The total is $320,000 a year, which puts the couple well above the $250,000 cutoff proposed for "the rich".

So what's the wife's effective take home income from working? Well, she makes $140,000 per year. $69,460.70 of that is paid in taxes - $44,737.50 federal, $7420.00 Massachusetts state, $17,303.20 self employment. She pays a nanny $20 an hour for the 50 hours per week that she works, plus for her 2 hours a day commute; subtracting a $3000 child care credit, that's $57000. Leasing a BMW is $500 a month - the nanny uses the Cayenne to cart the kids around during the day - so that's another $6000 a year.

After subtracting all those work related expenses, she actually only takes home an extra $7539.30 in disposable income per year - barely more than 5% of her taxable income. No wonder most mothers in the U.S. stay home rather than work! But that's okay, our doctor enjoys her job and enjoys helping people. It's true that she'd rather stay home with the kids, but that's only worth $500 a month - $6000 a year - to her since her work is also rewarding. $7539.30 is enough to keep her working - barely.

Now, let's bump up the tax rate on the half of her income that causes the couple's combined income to come in above $250,000. We'll bump the rate from the present 33% to the former top rate of 39.6%. Her taxes increase by $4620. Her disposable income drops to $2919.30. That 6.6% increase in taxes may not have seemed like a big number, but it cuts our doctor's effective take home income by more than half!

Here's the kicker. Taking home $2919 is no longer enough to keep her working. So she quits, fires the nanny, and stays home to take care of the kids. That means she not only quits paying that extra $4620 in taxes - she also quits paying the original $44,737.50 in federal taxes as well. The government is also out the social security taxes, the state taxes, and the taxes the nanny paid.

Now, not everyone in that situation will quit. Some will go ahead and pay the extra taxes - maybe they feel that a different kind of work during the day will make them be fresher for the kids and appreciate them even more when they're home. But not a lot have to quit to make the supposed revenue benefit of the tax increase disappear, or even become a revenue loss.


Statistics on returns of various types that were in various tax brackets are here: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/05inrate.pdf

Nanny rates are $17-$25 per hour: http://www.tandcr.com/candidate/articleSalary.html

Doctors work an average of 51 hours a week: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a1tbL9.eTmrk

Estimates for doctors' incomes vary all over the place. The above link suggests that GPs make $173k per year. A comment at this link puts malpractice insurance at $34k per year: http://www.hcplive.com/primary-care/articles/doctor-average-hourly-wage-2772

My spreadsheet for calculating this stuff: http://www.powderhouse.com/~wdew/articles/psychohistory/taxing_the_rich.xls
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On September 3rd, 2010 05:05 am (UTC), dcltdw commented:
I feel like this misses a bunch of subtle points:

1, child care only comes from the wife's income?
2, anyone who is working 51 hours is probably not doing it for the money.
3, paying $20/hr * 50 hours/wk is within the family's control. My point being, there are knobs people control to change their spending habits (e.g., how much you spend on coffee, or child care, or restaurants, or new cars, or fruity drinks at the bar, etc) as times get better or worse (pay raises, tax increases, economy takes off or crashes).

I believe your argument is, "if taxes go up enough, then one person in a two-earner family will quit, because the net return isn't worth it". I think your argument has some validity to it -- clearly, there's not a single point where, all of a sudden, everyone quits, whereas if it were 1% less than that, everyone would stay. But I'm not sure your analysis captures your point correctly.


If I'm reading this correctly, the IRS link you provided doesn't compare returns across many years for the highest income earners. I see on pg 15 that the $1M+ returns went from 148,635 returns in 2004 to 192,359 in 2005, but that's only two points. My anecdotal understanding is:

1, that that number has been both increasing and sharply rising, which
2, is an ongoing trend of a shift of wealth to the most rich, and
3, it's a tax on those people that would be the big benefit.

A few caveats I should note that I'm glossing over:
1, I am failing to account for all the variables introduced by the stock market (my weak understanding is that those making over $1M are largely making it via the stock market, rather than in direct salary).
2, the most rich have the resources to find tax loopholes and/or lobby Congress to create them, so there may be no net benefit after all.
3, Anecdote != data. :)


Thanks for doing the research and crunching the numbers. I wish this were much more common. Of course, people will disagree over interpretations (as I am), but I feel it's a great way to enable discussion.
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On September 3rd, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC), greyautumnrain replied:
child care only comes from the wife's income?

You only need paid child care if both parents work, therefore when calculating whether the second income is worth it you have to weigh child care costs against the salary of the parent who would otherwise stay home, usually (but not always) the woman. I didn't think this needed explaining.

paying $20/hr * 50 hours/wk is within the family's control

I take it you think this is a lot for child care? If so, I must inform you that you are sadly deluded. I've priced daycare in this area. The one in Davis Square is $450/week per child. The one at my work is $83/day per child. A nanny is a bargain by comparison. (You can get home-based daycare for $300/week per kid, but I am unwilling to use daycare that operated out of someone's home because I know they routinely take more kids than regulations allow.) Someone I know who lives in San Diego pays her nanny $15/hour, BUT the woman is an illegal immigrant; she's tried to find a nanny with a green card but hasn't been able to. I don't think it's a stretch to believe that you can't find a legal nanny for much less than $20/hour. Childcare is expensive.
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On September 4th, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC), twe replied:
Ours is only $65/day, but it's in Medford, and definitely less expensive than most places I looked.

I would totally, gladly quit my job if it were more cost effective to do so, though.
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On September 4th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC), greyautumnrain replied:
Yeah, it's still a net win for me to have a job too. (Of course you're technically single which changes the equation.) The worry is that when raising taxes on the two doctor and two lawyer families doesn't bring in the expected revenue that the government will then raise taxes on our bracket, which would put me in the unpleasant position of working at a net loss just so we can get health insurance.
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On September 3rd, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Hopefully greyautumnrain clarifies two of your three "subtle points".

On the remaining one, when I was working 50+ hours a week, I was most certainly in it for the money. Many salaried professionals are routinely expected to work much longer than 40 hour weeks. The 51 hours per week figure is for the average doctor, and I think it's naive to think the average doctor doesn't want to be paid.

With respect to the IRS document, you are looking at the AMT (alternative minimum tax) figures, which are irrelevant to this particular discussion. The relevant figures are on pp. 20-21 of the PDF, numbered 27-28 because the PDF starts on p. 8.
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