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The One Percent: Off With Their Heads!

By Ed YardeniMarket OverviewMay 04, 2021 11:59PM ET
The One Percent: Off With Their Heads!
By Ed Yardeni   |  May 04, 2021 11:59PM ET
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Socialists promote policies that they claim will lead to greater income equality. History shows that most countries that have embraced socialism have achieved income equality: Almost everyone is poorer than before socialism was imposed on them for their own good. Purchasing power is depressed for most people, and the quality of the goods and services they can purchase is poorer too.

Socialists often declare that the rich don't pay their “fair share” of taxes and must pay more so that the proceeds can be redistributed to boost the incomes of the poor. The problem is that the fair share that the rich must pay never seems to be enough.

Higher and higher taxes on the rich result in fewer and fewer of them. Eventually, the only fat cats left are the socialist elites, who always get richer as most of the rich in the private sector get poorer. Needless to say, the poor also get poorer as a result.

In the US today, progressive politicians claim that the “One Percent” of taxpayers are compensated too much and don't pay their fair share of taxes. It's hard to deny that a few CEOs, especially the ones heading up technology and financial companies, get paid too much relative to the pay of their workers.

Many professional athletes and Hollywood celebrities earn even more than top-paid CEOs. So the progressives could be right, but let’s see what the latest available data through 2018 shows:

Number of tax returns

The total number of all the tycoons on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, and on the playing fields—including everyone with adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeding $500,000 a year—was 1.65 million taxpayers in 2018, exactly 1.1% of the 153.8 million taxpayers who filed individual income tax returns that year, according to the latest available data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (Fig. 1). Adjusted gross income is income from all sources before subtracting deductions and exemptions.

By the way, the number of returns showing AGI of $500,000 and over has more than doubled since 2009. The rich have been getting richer, and there are more of them. What you won't hear from progressives is that the same can be said for all the other income groups other than taxpayers earnings less than $50,000, clearly showing that there are fewer low-income tax filers!

Their headcount has dropped 6.1 million since they peaked at a record 95.0 million during 2011. Since 2009, the number of returns filed by taxpayers with AGI of $50,000-$100,000 rose 5.0 million, $100,000-$200,000 rose 7.6 million, and $200,000-$500,000 rose 3.7 million.

Adjusted gross income

During 2018, AGI in the US totaled $11.6 trillion. The AGI of the One Percent was $2.5 trillion during 2018, accounting for 21.7% of the total, up from 13.9% during 2009 and exceeding the previous high of 21.7% during 2007 (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3). Over that same period, the share of taxpayers reporting less than $100,000 in AGI fell from 50.7% to 36.6% of total AGI.

That’s outrageous: The One Percent earned over 20% of all national AGI during 2018! Off with their heads!

Not so fast, Robespierre.


Collectively, during 2018, the One Percent paid $639 billion in income taxes, or 25.3% of their AGI (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). That amount represented a record 41.5% of the $1.54 trillion in federal income taxes paid by all taxpayers (Fig. 6).

That’s up from 29.8% in 2009. Meanwhile, the rest of us working stiffs, the “Ninety-Nine Percent,” picked up only 58.5% of the total tax bill during 2018.

What should be the fair share for the One Percent? Instead of about 40% of the federal government’s tax revenue, should they be kicking in 50%? Why not 75%?

They would be less rich, but everyone else would be richer—unless paying more in taxes caused the One Percent to work less hard or leave the country, sapping their incentive to keep creating new businesses, jobs, and wealth here in America.

Taxing math

To repeat, during 2018 the One Percent reported $2.5 trillion in AGI, which accounted for 21.7% of total AGI. They paid $639 billion in income taxes, which was 25.3% of their AGI but accounted for 41.5% of total income taxes paid to the IRS.

I’m sure there are plenty of progressives who believe that the One Percent should pay at least 50% of their AGI in income taxes. That would have amounted to an extra $600 billion in their tax bill for a total of $1.25 trillion in 2018.

Total tax revenues would have been $2.1 trillion, with the One Percent’s fairer share of that at 60%. There would have been plenty more tax revenues for the government to spend and redistribute.

So let’s tax the rich much more! But if their fair share is raised again and again by the progressives, what will we do when the rich are all gone?


By the way, we can slice and dice the IRS data to see how Former President Donald Trump’s tax reform affected individual income tax receipts during 2018 compared to 2017, i.e., before and after tax reform.

The law retained the old structure of seven individual income tax brackets, but in most cases, it lowered the rates. The top rate fell from 39.6% to 37.0%, while the 33% bracket dropped to 32%, the 28% bracket to 24%, the 25% bracket to 22%, and the 15% bracket to 12%. The lowest bracket remained at 10%, and the 35% bracket was also unchanged.

The number of tax returns increased 0.6% from 152.9 million to 153.8 million, while AGI rose 5.7% to $11.64 trillion (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8). Total individual income taxes paid fell 4.3% to $1.54 trillion as the average tax rate fell from 14.6% during 2017 to 13.2% during 2018, which was the lowest since 13.1% during 2012 (Fig. 9 and Fig. 10).

The IRS data shows the following declines in the average tax rates (based on AGI) for the following income groups:

  • $0-$50,000 (down 0.1ppt from 0.7% to 0.6%)
  • $50,000-$100,000 (down 1.4ppt from 8.9% to 7.5%)
  • $100,000-$200,000 (down 1.5ppt from 12.6% to 11.1%)
  • $200,000-$500,000 (down 2.6ppt from 19.2% to 16.6%)
  • $500,000 and over (down 1.4ppt from 26.7% to 25.3%)

Three cheers for the Five Percent!

These numbers suggest that the biggest winners were in the $200,000-$500,000 AGI group, accounting for 4.5% of all tax returns in 2018. They aren’t in the One Percent. They are in the “Five Percent,” the upper middle class with many of them owning their own businesses, which tend to employ lots of people.

Arguably, their tax break provided them with more cash to expand their businesses, which certainly explains why the labor market was so strong in 2018 and 2019.

The Biden administration has pledged that the tax increases it intends to enact will only hit taxpayers earning more than $400,000 per year. The problem is that lots of these people tend to have their own businesses.

The latest data available show there were just under 32 million pass-through businesses in 2013, almost 20 times the number of C corporations. There are surely many more such proprietorships today.

An increase in their tax bills reduces the cash that they have to invest in growing their businesses. One way or another, a tax increase on them will hurt the wages and employment opportunities of lots of people earning much less than $400,000. Tax increases on the rich inevitably trickle down to the rest of us.

But at least there will surely be more income equality.

The One Percent: Off With Their Heads!

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The One Percent: Off With Their Heads!

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