Guest Post: The Three-And-A-Half Class Society

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

The Three-And-A-Half Class Society

The top 20% are supporting the entire Status Quo. This is an unstable arrangement.

The U.S. has a three-and-a-half class society. According to demographer Joel Kotkin, California has become a two-and-a-half-class society, with a thin slice of "entrenched incumbents" on top (the "half class"), a dwindling middle class of public employees and private-sector professionals/technocrats, and an expanding permanent welfare class: about 40% of Californians don't pay any income tax and a quarter are on the Federal Medicaid program.

I would break it down somewhat differently, into a three-and-a-half class society: the "entrenched incumbents" on top (the "half class"), the high-earners who pay most of the taxes (the first class), the working poor who pay Social Security payroll taxes and sales taxes (the second class), and State dependents who pay nothing (the third class).

This class structure has political ramifications. In effect, those paying most of the tax are in a pressure cooker: the lid is sealed by the "entrenched incumbents" on top, and the fire beneath is the Central State's insatiable need for more tax revenues to support the entrenched incumbents and its growing army of dependents.

Let's start our analysis of the three-and-a-half-class society by noting that the top 25% pay most of the Federal income tax, and within that "middle class" the top 10% pay the lion's share of all taxes.

The top 25% of taxpayers--34 million workers out of a workforce of 160 million and 140 million wage earners--pay almost 90% of all Federal income taxes. Where Do You Rank as a Taxpayer?

An adjusted gross income (AGI) of $66,193 or more puts you in the top 25% of earners. The top-earning 25% of taxpayers reported 65.81% of all AGI and paid 87.30% of total federal income taxes ( $755.9 billion).


How much do you need to make to be in the top 50% of earners? Just $32,396. Fall below that level and you are in the bottom half, along with nearly 70 million of your fellow taxpayers. All told, that group earned just 13% of the income reported on 2009 tax returns. And they coughed up 2.25% of all the income taxes paid.

The second class is made up of the working poor: 38 Million Workers Made Less Than $10,000 in 2010-- Equal to California's Population (The Atlantic magazine)

2011 real median household income was 8.1 percent lower than in 2007.

Only 104 million tax returns actually pay any Federal tax: Many Unhappy Returns? (America's aggregate 1040, from IRS tax data).

In 2009, the IRS reported 140.5 Million personal income tax returns were filed. From this starting point, 36.3 Million returns (or, one quarter of the total) are lost to the tax base because of losses, exclusions or deductions. By line 43, taxable income, only 104.2 Million returns survive. In aggregate dollar amounts, total income from all sources falls from $7.7 Trillion to $5.1 Trillion — a decline of more than one-third. This latter amount is what truly constitutes the tax base, since it is the income ultimately subjected to tax.

Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade’:

According to the Census figures, the median annual income for a male full-time, year-round worker in 2010 — $47,715 — was virtually unchanged, in 2010 dollars, from its level in 1973, when it was $49,065.

After including earned-income tax credits, the bottom 60% of households paid less than 1% of all Federal income taxes, and the households between 60% and 80% paid 13%.

The top 20% paid 68.7% of all Federal taxes: Income taxes, Social Security and Medicare, excise and corporate taxes. The top 10% of households paid fully 72.7% of all Federal income tax, the top 5% paid 60.7%, and the top 1% paid 38.8%.

Here are the source documents:

Historical Effective Federal Tax Rates, 1979 - 2005.

Tyranny of the Majority, Corporate Welfare and Complicity (April 9, 2010)

A number of commentators have noted that the incomes of the super-wealthy (which I define as the top 1% who own most of the productive assets of the nation) have risen even more than their taxes. They also note that the Social Security tax of 7.65% (employee and employer each pay 7.65%) is regressive, as those making $500,000 a year only pay tax on the first $108,000 of income: 47% Of American Families Pay No Income Tax! Really?

My conclusion is this: by heavily taxing earned income, the system extracts the highest taxes from the most productive citizens, leaving the less-productive with essentially no income taxes and the super-wealthy with the huge tax break offered to capital gains and other unearned income.

As I noted in Tyranny of the Majority, Corporate Welfare and Complicity (April 9, 2010):

In essence, this is a vote-buying scheme by the Status Quo: the top 1% control the policies of the State in alliance with the State's own Elites, and together they buy the complicity of the bottom 60% to passively accept their dominance.

In other words, the bottom 60% pay relatively modest taxes or are recipients of Central State aid and the top 1% who "own" the political process limit their taxes by favoring unearned income (what they collect from sales of securities, stock options, rents, etc.). Thus the productive quintile (top wage earners) pay the highest tax rates and most of the taxes.

It's a partnership of "Tyranny of the Majority" and "entrenched incumbents Elites." If the political Status Quo alienates the majority by making them pay more taxes, they risk losing power in the next election. If they alienate the top .5% who fund their multi-million-dollar campaigns, then they will also lose power. So they heap the tax burden on what remains of the middle class.

When that 20% rebels, falters or opts out, the system collapses for want of tax revenues. Not coincidentally, that happens to fit the Pareto Distribution: the 20% "vital few" exert outsized influence on the 80%--once the pressure cooker blows.