Not Enough Americans Pay Income Tax. Should They?

Robert Goulder and Joseph J. Thorndike of Tax Notes discuss if more people should be paying income taxes and how efforts to change that have played out in the past.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Robert Goulder: Hello, everyone. I’m Bob Goulder, a contributing editor with Tax Notes. Welcome to In the Pages. Our featured article for this month was written by Joe Thorndike, also a contributing editor with Tax Notes.

The topic is a bit controversial. It’s this idea of whether Americans are paying enough income tax. The piece is titled “Do Taxpayers Make Better Citizens?” A rhetorical question that we shall strive to answer.

Joe, welcome to the show.

Joseph J. Thorndike: Thanks for having me.

Robert Goulder: It’s 2022 and we’re still talking about whether people who don’t pay income tax have skin in the game. Why do I feel like I’ve seen this movie before?

Joseph J. Thorndike: How many times Bob, right? Let’s take it back 20 years. In the early 2000s the Wall Street Journal ran this series of editorials about the “lucky duckies.” They were talking about people who weren’t paying income taxes. This was in the early Bush years and these editorials got a lot of press. It made a splash, especially among conservatives.

After that, you saw an uptick in Republican interest in talking about those people who weren’t paying income taxes. You started to see candidates take that on as an issue, and some interest in the Bush administration in dealing with it. I think Rick Perry made it an issue in one of his campaigns.

And then, famously, Mitt Romney made it an issue. There was that undercover video where he talked about the 47 percent who aren’t paying income tax. It proved to be a disaster for him.

We have certainly been down this road before. Every year we see news stories about who’s paying, who’s not paying. I don’t think we’re going to see an end to that. This is a popular story. It resonates with people. So, yes, we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again.

Robert Goulder: The instigator, if you will, for this current round is a Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. He has this 11-point plan to “Rescue America.” One of his bullet points is about making sure that everybody pays at least a little bit of income tax. He doesn’t say how he’d do that.

Before we get into policy, I want to look at the statistics. Your article goes over these numbers. What do they tell us?

Joseph J. Thorndike: On some level Scott is not wrong. He’s not wrong in the numbers, but those numbers jump around and don’t necessarily mean what people think they mean.

Are half people in the country not paying income taxes? Well, yes, roughly speaking. Extremely roughly speaking. And that’s not a crazy number. During the pandemic it’s been more than half because the economy tanked. People lost their jobs and incomes declined. That means a lot of people were below the income threshold for paying income taxes.

Also, Congress enacted relief payments as part of their pandemic response packages. These were packaged as refundable tax credits that wiped out tax liabilities for a lot of people. The number of people not having to pay income taxes jumped to more than 60 percent in 2020. That’s a big number, but that’s kind of a blip because of the pandemic.

According to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, who have run the numbers on this, it’s headed down. That number should be under 60 percent for the 2021 tax year. And by 2026 they think it will be under 40 percent. You might think 40 percent is the number and even that’s too big, and fair enough.

But before we get too worked up about 60 percent, 50 percent, 40 percent, or anything else, we should consider that almost all of the people in that group do pay some other kind of federal tax. That’s the part that’s misleading. Not just the percentage itself, but idea that these people are paying other taxes.

Like payroll taxes, in particular. A lot of people pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes. They also pay federal excise taxes, like the gasoline tax. There’s a tax people might be thinking about right now. They’ll also pay taxes on alcohol and tobacco and other excise taxes. And that’s not to mention the state and the local taxes these people are paying.

It’s not right to imply that these people are freeloaders simply because they don’t pay one kind of federal tax. These people already have skin in the game, it’s just not income-tax-skin.

Lastly, just because these people don’t pay tax in a given year doesn’t mean they didn’t pay tax the previous year, or that they won’t pay tax in the next year. People move in and out of non-payer status. If you don’t have skin in the game now, you might have had it yesterday, and you might have it tomorrow.

So, again, these numbers are not quite what they seem. It doesn’t mean that half the country is just skating by, without any tax liability ever. It’s not that simple.

Robert Goulder: This doesn’t happen by accident, correct? We’re not talking about people who have committed some error or omission when they completed their tax return. These are legitimate tax breaks that Congress has given them, right?

Joseph J. Thorndike: That’s very much true. When we’re talking about non-payers, we are not talking about cheaters. We are not talking about tax evaders. We’re talking about people who have no net tax liability because elected officials decided that they shouldn’t have any net tax liability. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t earn enough. That’s like when those people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Sometimes it’s because they receive refundable credits that cancel out whatever taxable income they might have had. Credits like the earned income tax credit, for instance, or the child tax credit, or the child dependent care credit. Those pandemic relief credits — which went to basically everybody — wiped out the tax liability for many families. Families with children, especially. These were designed as tax credits; they could have been designed differently. They might have mailed checks and not framed the relief as tax credits.

That is where a lot of this comes from, and those are deliberate decisions on the part of policymakers. Lawmakers create these credits because they think they’re a good idea. If you don’t like the effect those credits have on the taxpaying status — the fact they’re turning them into non-payers — then you should complain to your lawmaker about the credits. Not about the people who are taking advantage of those credits.

I’m guessing that when you have a credit available to you, you’ll probably claim it. I know that I would. I’m wondering how many of the people out there who feel outraged about the “half” of the country who aren’t paying taxes sent back their pandemic credits? Their pandemic checks that were automatically deposited into bank accounts? I’m guessing not many people returned the money. So, I think it’s unreasonable to complain that half the people aren’t paying when most of us went ahead and accepted those tax credits.

That’s basically my point. That’s honestly my point about most tax provisions people get outraged about. We should spend less time complaining about the taxpayers who are taking advantage of them, and more time complaining about the policymakers who put those things in the tax law. If there’s any culpability here it belongs to lawmakers. And I’m not suggesting there is any culpability because a lot of the credits, I think, are good policy.

Robert Goulder: When we dig down it becomes a question of whether we want the income tax to be a “mass tax” that applies to everyone, or a “class tax” — almost like a de facto wealth tax — that applies mostly to those at the upper end of the income strata?

As a historian, Joe, you understand the lineage of the income tax better than almost anyone. Tell us, over the course of the past 100-plus years, what is the better understanding of the income tax? Mass tax or class tax? Or is that a flexible concept that has changed over time?

Joseph J. Thorndike: It’s definitely changed over time. It still has some of the original qualities associated with it. It starts out as a rich person’s problem. It was very much designed to be a rich person’s problem.

We’re going to set aside the Civil War income tax for now because it’s just too moldy and oldy for us to really worry about. But let’s look at the 20th century tax that shows up in 1913. Very narrow, very light. The top rate was only 7 percent on the very richest people.

It’s designed to balance out the broad base taxes on consumption that regular non-rich people were paying, and that’s what’s funding the federal government for the most part. They want some sort of tax that is the more painful for rich people to balance the scales of justice. There were just a single-digit percentage of people paying the tax at that point. Back then it was 4 or 5 percent. A very small number of taxpayers. Then it grows quickly after enactment.

It’s enacted in 1913. Then World War I comes along and they start to expand the tax and raise the rates. The top rate goes from 7 percent to 77 percent in just four years. At the same time, the number of people paying it grows and it probably reaches something like 15 percent of the public by the end of World War I. That’s still a pretty narrow tax base by today’s standards. A lot less than the “half” we’re complaining about now.

So it’s still a rich person’s problem; still designed to balance the scales of justice. That’s the way the tax is seen in its origin. It has broad support based on that, but not everyone is happy.

The Republicans were not so happy with the tax. They looked at it and said, “Hey, this is class legislation. We don’t like it. We think more people should be paying this tax.”

One of those persons, in particular, was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. He’s Treasury Secretary all the way through the 1920s. They say three presidents served under Andrew Mellon. In 1926 he complains about an effort to make the income tax even narrower. The Democrats want to return to something closer to the 1913 version and Mellon objected.

Here’s a quote: “As a matter of policy it is advisable to have every citizen with a stake in his country. Nothing brings home to a man the feeling that he personally has an interest in seeing the government revenues are not squandered, but intelligently expended.” That’s the skin in the game argument.

That’s almost 100 years ago. You see some of these arguments that we hear now, they’re exactly the same ones we heard a long, long time ago. We’re still fighting over what this tax is supposed to be doing.

If you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you another quote. Mellon comes out in 1926 and says, “Hey, we need to have enough people paying because lots of people aren’t paying.” Here’s how one newspaper responded. The Omaha World-Herald says, “We pay taxes on our coats, on our shoes and socks, on our hats, on our shorts and underwear, on the food on the breakfast-table, on the materials from which our homes are constructed, on the furniture in them, on the vehicles we ride in. . .” Same point you hear today; we pay all these other taxes.

Those are all excise taxes which they’re paying at the time. Don’t these payments entitle us to feel, equally with Mellon, that we have a stake in our country? It’s the same argument that we’re making now, which is that this skin in the game argument is not fair. We have skin in the game already. This is why history really is relevant, because if we think we can escape it we’re wrong.

Also, I’ll just say that it wasn’t strictly a partisan argument. There were Democrats on this side of the argument too. Cordell Hull, who was considered the father of the income tax and is Democrat, he too thought it should be broader because he thought it was healthier for democracy. There was a legitimate debate about how broad it should be. It continued all through the 1920s.

I will give you one more quote because I cannot resist. It comes from Edwin Seligman, who is one of the original economists to champion the income tax. He says, “It will not do to have all the rights on one side and all the allegations on the other. If you’re developing a community where only one class pays the taxes and the other class because of its immense numbers votes the expenditures, you are opening the door for all sorts of political abuses.”

Some people think Seligman was a conservative and other people think he was a progressive. I think he was kind of both, and that quote probably puts it more on the conservative side in that moment.

It encapsulates a legitimate argument. I’m not prepared to come down strongly on either side of it, because I think both sides have a legitimate point. There really is an issue of citizenship. I think it’s wrong to scapegoat non-payers as somehow less upstanding, or as lesser citizens. But it’s also reasonable to ask if it’s healthy for our democracy and our tax system to have these people not participating in this element of our democracy? That’s reasonable to ask.

Robert Goulder: Let’s fast forward to today. We’ve got Scott from Florida with his 11-point “Rescue America” package. He says everyone should pay a little bit of tax.

If you have a pool of people who are non-payers, and then you want to transform them all into taxpayers — correct me if I’m wrong — that implies a tax hike. And not a small one because we’re talking about millions of households.

The last time I checked the Republican agenda was that you don’t raise taxes. Yet here you have a conservative Republican senator who, if you connect the dots, implies the need for a tax hike. What do you make of that?

Joseph J. Thorndike: I think it’s not so implied. He’s pretty much stated it outright. At one part point he said it’s not for the faint of heart, his proposal.

And let’s start by saying that it’s not actually a proposal. This is a talking point. Anything we can say about it involves making assumptions about what he actually means — because all he said is that half of the people aren’t paying and they should pay something. We could interpret that in all sorts of ways and some of them are more alarming than others.

It might imply the elimination of all refundable credits, for instance. For those of you playing along at home, a refundable credit means that if the credit exceeds the amount you owe in taxes they’re going to cut you a check for the excess. If we interpret it that way, that means they will no longer cut you a check for the excess. The credit might wipe out any taxes that you owe, but you’re not getting any money back. That would be a big change and it would cost a lot of people, especially poorer people, a lot of money.

That is the way the Tax Policy Center interpreted the proposal when they did their estimate, but that’s just a guess really. I think there are other ways to interpret his idea that are somewhat less alarming. They might be more symbolic than substantive. And I’ll give you some thoughts on that as we go along, because some of those I could get on board for.

But I have a hard time getting on board the idea of wiping out all refundable credits. At this point it’s fair to say that Scott hasn’t thought through this idea — or if he has, he hasn’t shared that with the rest of us. He’s just put out a thought, an idea, an impulse, an impression. A gut feeling hoping that it will resonate with people, which is a roll of the dice on his part. I’m not sure he’s going to find that it’s shared by a lot of people.

I don’t think it’s worth trying to read the tea leaves and figure out what he’s really thinking because I don’t know that he has thought it through.

Robert Goulder: What other prominent Republicans have jumped on the bandwagon? What about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.? And are other people in the party telling him to hush up and not talk about this?

Joseph J. Thorndike: It’s hard to know exactly what they’re telling him in private. What was evident for all to see is that McConnell basically turned his back on him in public when it came time to discuss this. As soon as Scott walked away from the microphone, he essentially said we’re not going to be doing any of that.

I think Scott obviously has ambitions for higher office. And people like McConnell have ambitions for a Senate majority. Those ambitions don’t always line up with one another and those people don’t necessarily read the political winds the same way.

So, no, I don’t think a lot of Republicans are jumping on this bandwagon.

Robert Goulder: You’ve used this term a couple times: fiscal citizenship. It comes across well in your article, but I’m wondering if the concept would extend if we substituted the duty of paying income tax with the tedious task of preparing your annual tax return.

If you tapped into the soul of the American populace and asked them which is the singular act, related to the tax code, that binds us all together as one people — it’s not that we all pay taxes, but that we all file returns.

Is it legitimate to substitute a compliance obligation for a payment obligation, and call that your skin in the game?

Joseph J. Thorndike: That’s definitely possible, so I’m not saying no. One person’s fiscal citizenship might not look like someone else’s. For me, that is definitely a big part of it. It may not be quite all of it, but it’s definitely part of it.

Let’s jump into this, though, because I love this concept of fiscal citizenship. It’s really important to me. Honestly, it’s kind of the reason why I work at Tax Analysts. It is what’s kept me here all these years.

And it takes us back to this question about the historical nature of the income tax as a mass tax or a class tax. A lot of that old argument, as the prior quotes suggest, concerns fiscal citizenship.

What is this concept? By my definition, fiscal citizenship is that web of rights and responsibilities that bind the citizen to the state, and the state to the citizen. The income tax is one of the principal instruments of that relationship and it has been for more than a century.

I think fiscal citizenship is both substantive paying and performative: the filling out your returns and filing them. That performative thing; I think cultural historians would look at that and call it a ritual. It used to be even more of a ritual. It’s sort of a quasi-public ritual.

It’s shared in certain public ways, especially in the annual tradition of tax filing. There used to be that rush to the post office on April 15. They used to have bands playing at the post office. They’d keep it open until midnight and everyone would go down there. It was like a party atmosphere.

Well, the post office is barely open on Saturdays nowadays, so we don’t do that anymore. And electronic filing has taken all the fun out of tax filing, or actually made it possible for those of us to do it at the last second. Like most people, I don’t do my own returns anymore. But it’s still a tradition that we carry out in private, preparing our returns in private, but something we discuss in public. And we talk about it in public a lot.

Starting later this month, the media is going to be filled with stories about tax filing. Around April 15 there’s going to be a huge burst of those stories, even though most of us pay our taxes piecemeal all through the year. It’s taken off our paycheck every month and this April 15 thing is just a reckoning. In a lot of ways the actual paying has already been done, either through withholding or through estimated taxes.

Even though so much has changed because of technology, I think April 15 is a sort of national anti-holiday that we all share, and we all sort of non-celebrate together or mourn together. I think that’s still important. That moment matters. It’s a moment in which we recognize fiscal citizenship and take stock of our obligations.

It’s also a moment when we take stock of the state’s obligations to us, because at that moment we’re all a little bit irritated. We sit there and we think, “What am I getting for this? Am I getting my money’s worth, because I do believe that paying tax is an exchange of money for services at some level?”

That is the social contract. People look at that moment and think, “What am I buying?” As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I am buying civilization with this.” Well, is the civilization I’m getting worth it to me? That moment is a good one in both senses. Here’s what I owe the state, and is the state giving me back what it owes me? In both ways that is a healthy moment.

Both parties might find that something to like about that. If you’re a big-state Democrat, you like the idea that people feel an obligation to the community and they’re writing the check to support the community. If you’re a small-state Republican, you might like the idea that it’s that moment when everyone turns a critical idea on big government and questions whether that’s good. This is a healthy exercise.

I hate to be an idealist about this sort of thing, but I think this is a moment where taxes actually do something good for the world, when they make everybody think seriously about government.

So, yes, I like tax filing. It’s irritating and nobody enjoys it, but that’s kind of the point. That’s why I like your idea. Tax filing is important. Is that enough? Well, I think it might be enough, but it doesn’t have to necessarily be all of it.

Here’s the thing, we could interpret Scott’s proposal somewhat differently. We could say that people who are getting refundable credits have to file anyway. Filing is how you get your refundable credit, but we could also say you also have to make a little payment. You have to choose a number: $25, $50, or $100. I think in the Tax Policy Center’s estimate is that they wanted a net liability of $100.

But this is not a net liability I’m talking about. Let’s call it a filing fee. When you file your taxes, you have to send a $25 payment in with those taxes, exclusive of anything you may or may not owe for your taxes. And that applies whether or not you’re getting any money back from the government in the form of a refund. I have recognized that if you’re getting an EITC payment it might net out.

But I think the act of writing the check matters. It’s symbolic.

This idea is not original to me. They actually cooked up this idea when Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York. They seriously considered it. Then the filing fee was going to be $2 and the idea was so that people would participate materially in that process. And it’s a lot of extra work. The IRS would have to cash the extra check, just so they can write another check later on.

But you know what, I think it’s worth it to send the message. And I want to give a shout-out to someone else who’s made this same kind of suggestion. I don’t know that he suggested a filing fee, but he’s made the same suggestion that we should try to set aside the refundable credits over here from the taxes due over there. That’s Larry Zelenak, a law professor at Duke University.

He has said the same thing, which is that maybe we should define a lot of these programs, like the EITC or other refundable credits, outside of the income tax. They could still be administered by the IRS and they could still look and feel in almost every way as they currently do, but we would not describe them as offsets to your tax bill. We’d simply move them out of the tax system.

That way we would preserve the symbolic element of people’s tax paying, but still run these important social programs through the agency. The idea would not be to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. Rather, the idea would be that symbolism matters for its own sake.

I really think Larry is right. And Larry recognizes that’s a lot of extra work for the IRS; I do too. But that’s the price we’d pay. I think it would be worth the extra work. That’s a long answer to your question.

Robert Goulder: If we had a federal consumption tax and we’re all paying a boatload in VAT, as other countries do, then there’s a different image of fiscal citizenship. They commonly say that VAT isn’t a visible tax, but does it need to be?

Why can’t a shared consumption tax burden satisfy our notion of fiscal citizenship? It lacks the same symbolism, but has the same economic contribution.

Joseph J. Thorndike: If you presented that idea to Scott, what do you think he’d say?

Robert Goulder: He’s not going to like VAT.

Joseph J. Thorndike: I think he’d say that VAT is French for big government.

Robert Goulder: That’s exactly what he would say.

Joseph J. Thorndike: And then, the next thing he would say is just what you just said, which is that VAT is not visible enough. That has always been a curious complaint to me about the VAT, because whenever I have traveled in a country that has a VAT I always think it’s pretty darn visible.

Robert Goulder: It’s printed on the sales receipt.

Joseph J. Thorndike: It shows up on the receipt, so I never fail to notice the VAT. I don’t buy the non-visibility argument about the VAT.

I think the reason it would be problematic here is one of legacy. We’ve defined the income tax for so long as an element of citizenship, that having people not participate in it is a problem of itself. It would be hard to clear that hurdle by creating a VAT. And the VAT is often dedicated to certain spending programs in countries where it’s used.

And honestly, that is the same answer a lot of people give regarding non-payers for the income tax. When I say, “Oh, they pay payroll taxes,” they are like, “Yes, but their payroll taxes pay for social security which they get back, so that doesn’t count. That’s a different kind of tax.”

I don’t think that argument holds water, ultimately, but it does muddy the waters let’s say. That would probably be an issue with the VAT, because if it ever appeared in this country it would likely be directed pay for certain programs, and that might muddy the water.

I don’t think you’re wrong that it could be defined in those terms. It could be framed in that way as an element of fiscal citizenship. And I think in European countries it does function that way, because it supports social programs which are designed in a socially conscious way.

But in the United States, with its long history of relying on the income tax, it would be pretty hard to change the symbolism.

Robert Goulder: I want to ask you about FDR. Correct me if I’m wrong. There’s an old legend that FDR’s advisors pitched him on a broad based federal consumption tax. We won’t call it a VAT because VATs weren’t around in the 1930s.

FDR stews over the idea and eventually comes to the conclusion that if everyone is going to have skin in the game, it shouldn’t be through a consumption tax base. It needs to be the income tax base.

But you’re the FDR guy. Tell us, what would FDR do?

Joseph J. Thorndike: Well, what’s great about FDR is that he was from New York, not New England, but he reminds me of that old saying about New England. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a while it’ll change.

There’s some truth to that about FDR. If you don’t like what he had to say about something, just wait a while and it’ll change. That’s not entirely true, but on the subject of taxation it’s sometimes true.

For instance, I talked about how Democrats favored a narrow income tax targeting the rich. FDR was totally that kind of Democrat. He liked his income taxes to be heavy, narrowly targeted, focused on rich people. And the early New Deal and the middle New Deal were really all about that.

But by the late 1930s when World War II was beginning to show up on the horizon for the U.S. In 1939 war is being fought and FDR is already thinking, “We might end up in that war.” He’s starting to think about, “How are we going to pay for that kind of thing? Also, how are we going to prevent inflation if we end up in that war?”

He starts to contemplate other kinds of taxes might be necessary. The two obvious ones on the table are some kind of broad based sales tax. Back in that day they were really talking about a retail sales tax or a manufacturer’s sales tax levy at the manufacturer level. That, on one hand, or a broader income tax. And what Roosevelt did is he had to choose between these two options. And he chose the income tax.

But he couldn’t just raise taxes on the rich because they were already paying high rates, 70 percent or something like that in the late 1930s. He couldn’t raise it high enough to raise enough money. So he had to contemplate a broader tax and he started talking about why it might not be a bad idea to broaden the income tax.

In 1939 a reporter asked him about this, because it’s sort of in the air, and FDR says we’ve got to broaden the base a little bit. It won’t bring in much revenue, but it does give added responsibility of citizenship. That’s Mellon; that’s the same argument all over again.

This is Roosevelt, but he sounds like Mellon. It’s crazy. And then two years later we’re on the verge of getting into the war and he says he’s convinced that the overwhelming majority of our citizens want to contribute something directly to our defense and that most of them would rather do it with their eyes open than do it through a general sales tax, or through multiplication of what we have known as nuisance taxes.

This is FDR specifically saying visibility matters, the income tax is more visible than any kind of sales tax would be.

He goes, “In other words, most Americans in the lowest income brackets are willing and proud to chip in directly even if their individual contributions are very small in terms of dollars.” He’s trying to make the case that these people have skin in the game. They want to have skin in the game. They want to do it visibly. This is a familiar argument for Republicans to be making, but FDR is making it by the early 1940s because the conditions have changed.

This was an era when Americans are already talking about shared sacrifice because we’re not in the war yet, but it’s starting to look like we might be. And then, certainly as soon as the attack on Pearl Harbor happens, this sort of argument ramps up dramatically. Roosevelt hated the sales tax, had always hated the sales tax, and he had to choose when it came up to this moment.

Are you going to go with that hated thing you’ve been railing against for all these years? Or, are you going to compromise a little bit on what kind of tax the income tax should be?

It was an easy choice for him. He regarded the income tax as altogether fair. He hated the sales tax so much that he got the Treasury Department to write him a memo called the “Evils of the Sales Tax.” He really loathed it. He thought it was unfair in every possible way.

Again, an easy choice even though it required some sort of ideological flexibility because the world was changing. He probably would not have been a huge fan of your value added tax. Luckily for him he didn’t have to make that choice.

Robert Goulder: Final question, Joe, and it’s a bit conceptual. Fundamentally, are we asking too much of the income tax?

You’ve got people who want it to be a mass tax, and then you have people who look at the world today and see income inequality as a huge problem and they’d prefer if the income tax were strictly a class tax.

I’d suggest the income tax can be one or the other, but it can’t succeed at both. Yet, in some ways, we’re asking it to be both. What would you say to that?

Joseph J. Thorndike: Forced economy would be the first thing. I would say, to some extent, it can be both. It depends though on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Can it be a wealth tax? No. It really can’t be a wealth tax. It’s never going to be the instrument for remaking the world and attacking the structures of economic inequality. I don’t think it’s ever going to do that. If you want to do something like that you’re going to need a different kind of instrument. And even then it’s going to be hard to do it all on the tax side.

That is one of the lessons of history, that many of the big changes in restructuring the way that the world works, and the way an economy works, happen on the spending side of the equation. I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations about what taxation might actually do for them. A lot of progressives have unrealistic expectations.

But that being said, it doesn’t mean that the income tax can’t do both in the sense it can be used to tax people across the full income spectrum.

You can have an income tax that is broad, that taxes people from the low-end to the high-end because that’s what a progressive rate structure is for. That you can have very light rates at the low-end, to zero, in fact. And very high rates at the high end. And there 150 years of research and theorizing on tax fairness that suggest that that is entirely possible, and it is entirely fair.

Now, people will argue, and have argued for that 150 years, about whether that’s true or not.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think that the income tax is flexible enough to do that. That was why people liked it so much, because it had that flexibility. It could be used to tax everyone. And, in fact, that’s exactly why they went for it during World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression — because they thought it was the answer. It was the best tax because it was so flexible.

Robert Goulder: There you have it. Everything you wanted to know about federal income taxes and having skin in the game. The author is Joe Thorndike, and the article is titled, “Do Taxpayers Make Better Citizens? Rick Scott Thinks So.” You can find it in Tax Notes.

Joe, thank you for being on the show and good luck doing your taxes this year.

Joseph J. Thorndike: Yeah, tell that to my accountant.