Tax day has come and gone. And there is indeed a lot to complain about: our corporations and the wealthy have successfully minimized their own tax responsibilities, leaving us to support a powerful and profitable military-national-security-industrial complex at the expense of needed public services and social programs.
Let’s start with who pays taxes. Individuals and corporations both pay income taxes to the federal government. However, as the chart below shows, corporations have been able to take advantage of increasingly lenient income tax laws and a corporate friendly globalization process to significantly lower their tax obligations. If we add payroll taxes which are paid by individuals to support specific programs like Social Security and Medicare, the overall individual contribution is approximately 80% and the corporate share about 11%.
Lower corporate taxes were supposed to unleash the power of the market and make us all better off. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all they have done is boost corporate profits at the public expense.
Of course, income tax burdens are not equally divided among individuals. In fact, our federal income tax code has become increasingly favorable to higher income earners. As the next chart shows, the top marginal income tax rate has been dramatically reduced. The top marginal tax rate was 50 percent in the mid-1980s and even higher in the 1950s. Currently, the top rate is 39.6 percent; it is paid by individuals making more than $406,750 and couples making more than $457,600. And then there are tax breaks that disproportionately benefit top income earners.
The combination of more income going to top earners, lower top marginal tax rates, and specially crafted tax breaks cannot help but reduce federal tax revenues and drive up our federal deficits.
The payment of income taxes is one thing—how the federal government uses the money it receives is another. As we see next, military related activities absorb a heavy share of federal spending.
Direct spending on the military accounted for 27 cents of every dollar spent. Including spending for veterans benefits and approximately two-thirds of the interest on the federal debt adds another 16.05 cents, which brings the overall military total to 43.05 cents out of every dollar spent. This is a conservative estimate because it does not include spending on activities that fall under the broader heading of national security such as homeland security and certain “foreign aid” expenditures. No wonder our infrastructure and social programs are starved for funds.
Federal spending can be divided into non-discretionary and discretionary items. In the case of the former, spending is mandated by law, such as payment of the national debt. In the case of the latter, the federal government has discretion in how it spends our tax money. Looking just at discretionary spending reveals even more clearly the dominant position of the military in our budget priorities.
Moreover, political pressure keeps working to push the military share higher. Both House and Senate budget proposals call for spending some $530 billion on defense in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016. That is the most that can be spent without triggering automatic spending cuts due to sequestration. But – happily for the military – there is an exception to the sequestration process.
The exception allows Congress to authorize unlimited spending for current military operations or what is officially known as Overseas Contingency Operations. House and Senate proposals include more than $90 billion under this heading. Significantly, there is no similar exception when it comes to spending on non-military, discretionary items. Apparently our non-military needs don’t rise to the same level of urgency as our military ones.
A few key changes in the tax code and federal spending priorities and a better 2016 tax day is not hard to imagine.