Almost nobody likes tax day, but people may look back nostalgically on tax day 2010 and those of earlier years because, almost certainly, taxes are going up in the future, and they may go up a lot. With hindsight, tax day 2010 may seem almost dreamy.
Why? For starters, almost half of U.S. households aren't paying any income taxes on their 2009 earnings. The exact figure is 47 percent, says the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, two think tanks. Among elderly households, 55 percent pay no income tax; among all households with children (including those headed by single parents), the nonpaying share is 54 percent. By contrast, only 38 percent of married couples filing jointly don't pay. (Of course, this doesn't mean people pay no federal taxes; about three quarters of households pay more in Social Security payroll taxes than in income taxes.)
The personal exemption and standard deduction, combined with the child tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, shield many poor and middle-class families from the income tax. In 2009 they got extra protection from President Obama's Making Work Pay tax credit, which was $400 for single workers (phasing out at $75,000 of income) and $800 for a couple (phasing out at $150,000 of income). Without that credit, probably only 40 percent of households or less wouldn't have paid income taxes. President Obama has proposed that the credit be renewed for 2011. But given the massive federal budget deficits, there's a good chance that the credit will someday expire.
So that's one pressure for higher taxes. But it's peanuts compared to the real threat: an aging America. As almost everyone knows, the huge baby-boom generation is edging—or collapsing—into retirement. Its first members, born in 1946, turn 65 in 2011, when they will qualify for Medicare. Some have already taken Social Security as early as 62 at a reduced rate. Boomers collecting benefits, combined with uncontrolled health costs, are the underlying engine for rising federal spending and endless budget deficits.
To which there's at least one obvious solution: raise taxes. By all estimates, the budget outlook is daunting. The latest projections of the Congressional Budget Office reckon the cumulative deficits under President Obama's policies to be $12.7 trillion from 2009 to 2020. In 2020 the estimated annual deficit will be $1.25 trillion, or 5.6 percent of the economy (gross domestic product), despite assumed "full employment" of 5 percent. And the deficits get larger with every succeeding year. Given unavoidable uncertainties, these precise projections are likely to prove wrong. But their basic message seems incontestable: there's a large and growing gap between the government's promises and the existing tax base.
How big a tax increase would be needed to close the gap? Well, huge. To put things in perspective, all federal taxes (income, payroll, and excise) averaged 18.1 percent of GDP from 1970 to 2009. Under CBO's assumptions about Obama's policies, taxes in 2020 would already be slightly higher, at 19.6 percent of GDP. But on top of that, there'd need to be a further tax boost approaching a third to balance the budget, because spending is projected at 25.2 percent of GDP. Needless to say, this would be the largest tax burden in U.S. history, even including World War II.
A recent study by Rosanne Altshuler, Katherine Lim, and Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center shows what this would mean for income tax rates. Their study uses earlier and somewhat more optimistic CBO projections. Moreover, the study assumes only that the budget deficit is cut to 2 percent of GDP—not that it's balanced. Still, income tax rates would have to rise sharply to reach even this goal. If all income tax rates were increased proportionately, today's lowest rate of 10 percent would go to 15 percent and the highest rate of 35 percent would go to 52 percent. If only today's top two tax rates of 33 percent and 35 percent were raised, the new top rates would be 86 percent and 91 percent. At those astronomical levels, the study says, the well-off and wealthy would work less and pursue aggressive tax avoidance. Tax revenues would suffer.
These bleak estimates demonstrate why politicians of both parties have avoided confronting the government's long-term budget deficits. Anything they might do—raising taxes or cutting retirement benefits such as Social Security and Medicare—risks a public backlash. Some experts urge new taxes, such as a value-added tax or energy taxes. Others talk of "broadening" the income-tax base by eliminating or reducing tax breaks (deductions, credits, or exemptions). But of course, none of these steps would be popular. Hardly anyone wants to pay higher taxes, and most big tax breaks (the home-mortgage interest deduction, credits for college tuition, the charitable deduction) benefit major constituencies.
Almost all the pressures on taxes are in the same direction: up. It will be hard for President Obama to keep his promise not to raise taxes on households with incomes below $200,000 (for singles) and $250,000 (for couples). It will be hard for economic conservatives or the tea party to achieve meaningful tax reductions. Just about everyone will be tempted to deplore federal budget deficits—and do nothing about them. But this escape route may close; many economists warn that endlessly large deficits risk big jumps in interest rates. Someday, higher taxes may be unavoidable.
So, the lesson for tax day 2010 is simple: enjoy it while you can. It's not going to get any easier.
Robert Samuelson is also the author of The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence and Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.