Tag Archives: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

When Fact-Checking Fails the Truth

PolitiFact came into existence 13 years ago, with a simple mission: Try to discern the factual basis, or lack thereof, underlying statements and claims from political candidates. Dig through the bullshit, uncover the facts, and determine the truth.

It’s a great idea, but it’s very tricky in practice. It assumes that there is an absolute truth buried under the mountain of political bullshit. But what if there is no such truth? In the political arena, “facts” and “Ideology” are tightly interwoven. For instance, Vermont tends to rank near the bottom of the 50 states, or near the top, depending on what’s being measured. If you tried to determine where Vermont “really” ranks, you’d be dancing into a minefield.

In recent years, VTDigger has been part of the PolitiFact network, generating its own fact-checking pieces in an effort to help voters sort through political statements. Its latest effort, unfortunately, illustrates how PolitiFact-style analysis can lose sight of the truth in its search for “facts.”

In last week’s Digger debate, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman floated his proposal for a temporary wealth tax aimed at the top five percent of earners — those who reaped the most benefit from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. The revenue would fund one-time investments that, Zuckerman says, would more than pay for themselves in economic growth.

Scott counter-claimed that Zuckerman’s “wealth tax” would reach all the way down to households earning $159,000 or more, which he characterized as “middle class.”

Well, as I pointed out in my debate blog, Vermont’s median income is $60,000, a long way from $!59K. Also, if your definition of the “middle class” reaches all the way up to the 95th percentile, there’s something wrong. Unless you’re saying the “middle class” includes everyone between the fifth percentile and the 95th.

“Think about two teachers, married teachers,” Scott said. But according to a 2019 Digger article, the average teacher salary in Vermont is a touch over $60,000. It’s possible for a teacher to earn $80,000, but it’s very uncommon.

Scott indulged in some misleading rhetoric, in other words. And yet, somehow, Digger concluded that Scott’s argument was “True,” the highest possible rating.

And the headline on the story was the real whopper: “Would Zuckerman’s wealth tax on the top 5% impact the middle class?”

The answer to that question is clearly, unequivocally “No.” And Scott’s claim, as restated in the headline, would properly be evaluated as “False.”

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Slicing the baloney with Art Woolf

Expert-for-Sale-or-Lease Art Woolf has outdone himself in this week’s Burlington Free Press column. And that’s saying something, because just about every emission is a small shining jewel of cherrypicked statistics and unexamined dogma.

This week’s, though, hoo boy.

Herr Doktor Professor Woolf. Not exactly as illustrated.

Herr Doktor Professor Woolf. Not exactly as illustrated.

Maybe he’s been reading this blog, because today’s column is a 300-word attack on the idea of taxing the rich. His argument relies on the unlikely, and irrelevant, assertion that rich folks’ incomes are too volatile to be a dependable source of tax revenue.

Which may be true for individual taxpayers, whose incomes shuttle between well-off, rich, and filthy stinkin’ rich depending on the stock market, the purchase or sale of costly assets, and the convenient laundering of wealth to screw the taxman. (Woolf doesn’t mention the many, many tax advantages of being wealthy, and how they might cause volatility in rich folks’ tax payments.)

Woolf spends most of his column puttering around the definition of “rich,” and showing (with carefully chosen numbers) that these folks pay an impressive share of our total income tax revenue.

Well, of course they do. They earn an even more impressive share of our total income.

Not to mention that while our income tax system is fairly progressive, our total tax system is not. Sales taxes hit hardest on the poor and working classes; property taxes hit the middle class. And the income tax isn’t as progressive as it should be.  The rich may pay 40% of Vermont’s income tax revenue, but they sure as hell don’t pay 40% of our total (state and local) intake.

Now, if you look at statistics that Woolf conveniently ignores — total taxation as a percentage of income — you see that the rich pay lower effective tax rates than everybody else in Vermont. Here’s a chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that I’ve posted before, but it’s relevant here:

ITEP 2014 tax chart


Take all of our state and local taxation together, the richest Vermonters pay a smaller share than anybody else. Woolf conveniently ignores these figures. And he evades the obvious question they pose:

Did they pay their fair share? That’s a question a philosopher, not an economist, can answer.

Wrong, Perfesser. It doesn’t take a philosopher, or even an economist, to look at that chart and conclude that they don’t pay their fair share.

Woolf’s actual premise, that the state can’t depend on revenue from top earners, is irrelevant. Nobody is arguing for confiscatory taxation. Nobody is arguing that soaking the rich should be the foundation of our tax system. The real argument is fairness: are the rich paying enough? The answer, clearly, is no.

The revenue volatility is one of many serious problems caused by income inequality. The solution to the volatility is a fairer economy — one that doesn’t concentrate the wealth at the top end. A fairer economy would also be a stronger and more stable economy, since supply and demand would be in balance.

Why have our economy and our public finances struggled since the Great Recession? Because there are too many people who can’t afford to buy stuff, and consumer activity is by far our strongest economic driver. That’s why programs like food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit provide more economic stimulus than any corporate tax break or across-the-board tax cut: when working people get a little extra cash, they immediately fritter it away on things like food, housing, and heat.

But I digress. Woolf’s argument is misleading and intellectually dishonest. His conclusion is irrelevant to the actual public policy question in play. He also leaves us without a hint of an alternative solution to wealth inequality, unfair taxation, and an economy slumping due to a lack of consumer demand.

Tax deductions: the big kahuna

This is the third in a series of posts about the January 27 meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, which explored the tax expenditures and deductions available under the state’s tax code. Part 1 concerned tax expenditures; part 2 focused on the tax deduction for medical expenses as an indicator of the widespread distress caused by our pre-Obamacare health system. 

It’s no secret that state lawmakers are looking for ways to raise some extra revenue without causing too much pain. One area under close examination is the tax code, and all the ways we allow people and businesses to limit their tax liability.

Some tweaks are possible in the tax expenditure side of things. But tax deductions actually offer a better opportunity to make our tax system fairer while giving the money tree a modest shake.

It’s an underreported fact that the wealthy actually get the best deal in our supposedly progressive tax system. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the wealthy pay the lowest per-capita share of state and local taxes combined, and they pay the lowest actual income-tax rate of any group besides the poor. Top earners are subject to an income tax rate of 8.95%, but the amount they actually pay is only 5.1%.

The single biggest reason for that disparity? Our generous rules on taxable income and tax deductions. A couple of examples from the category of Bet You Didn’t Know… (all information from the Joint Fiscal Office; tax figures are from the 2011 tax year)

— “Interest You Paid” is tax deductible. For most of us, that means mortgage interest. But it also applies to vacation homes — and boats. That chiefly benefits the wealthy. Renters, who tend to be at the bottom of the income scale, don’t benefit from the mortgage deduction.

— Property taxes are deductible. Including property taxes paid in other states. Again, that benefits those sufficiently well-off to own multiple properties.

— Charitable contributions can be deducted up to 50% of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Only the wealthy can support anywhere near that level of giving. And, given the proliferation of ersatz foundations, it’s easy for a person of means to effectively launder money through a nonprofit. (For example, check out the nonprofit empire spawned by the Koch brothers.)

The power of this virtually unlimited allowance? Among Vermont taxpayers with incomes over $1 million, the average charitable deduction — the average — was $131,360. That’s a lotta stops at the Sally Army bell-ringer.

But here’s the biggest eye-popper of them all. If you add up all the average deductions for Vermont’s million-dollar class, you get $528,000.

That’s right: the average million-dollar taxpayer claimed deductions worth more than half their income.

And that’s how 8.95% turns into 5.1%.

The numbers for those earning less than $1 million are not quite so appalling, but the upper and upper middle classes clearly benefit from our current tax code. The primary reason: our permissive rules on tax deductions and taxable income.

Setting limits

The 2011 standard deduction in Vermont was $5,800 for a single taxpayer, $8,500 for a head of household, and $11,600 for a married couple filing jointly. Peanuts by comparison. I bring this up because Betcha Didn’t Know that 10 of the 50 states don’t allow itemized deductions. Everyone gets the standard — no more, no less.

That option could be on the table. It would bring the effective tax rate for top earners much closer to statutory levels. The resulting revenue could be used to cut taxes on the middle class, who get hit hardest by Vermont’s tax system; or they could be used to close the budget gap without sacrificing state services.

I’m not expecting anything that radical from our frequently timorous Legislature. But as recently as two years ago, the House passed a bill that would have capped itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard. That bill died in the Senate, mainly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition.

Yes, our Democratic Governor blocked the path to a fairer tax code. Wait, let me double-check… Yep, he’s a Democrat. Says so, anyway.

If that bill had passed, members of the Million-Dollar Club would have seen their deductions capped at $29,000 — a far cry from $528,000.

The situation may be different this year, as the state faces a large budget gap and Shumlin has deliberately soft-pedaled his anti-tax stance. During his budget address, he stated his opposition to “raising income, sales, and rooms & meals tax rates” — very deliberately emphasizing the word “rates,” which had not been part of his boilerplate in the past.

If that wasn’t signal enough, Shumlin’s budget proposed an end to the tax deduction for state income taxes paid in the previous year. And with that, as Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel told me, “He put the whole discussion about itemized deductions on the table.”

Ancel would not commit to revisiting the deduction-capping bill, but it’s clearly on her mind. “It [would have] made the tax system more fair,” she says. She may get a second bite at the apple this year, and thanks to our budget situation it might actually pass muster with the Governor. One can only hope.

If the Governor is worried about the wealth gap, he could maybe do something about it

Gov. Shumlin’s budget address began with a bit of boilerplate that’s been a recurring feature in his recent public remarks: bemoaning the wealth gap in America.

At a time when the wealth gap between the people at the top and everyone else is more extreme than since before the Great Depression, Vermonters hear about the recovery both in Vermont and nationally; they hear about our state’s low unemployment numbers; and they wonder: Why aren’t I seeing it? Why is my family being held back?

The bemoaning is appreciated, but when he does so little about the wealth gap, it comes across as an empty rhetorical gesture — the last ghostly trace of a progressive agenda.

Okay, I don’t expect Peter Shumlin to single-handedly fix our profoundly unbalanced economy. But there’s one big thing staring him in the face that would help the middle class and help close the state’s budget gap.

Raise the effective tax rate on top earners. Not the actual rate, but the effective rate.

Yes, I’ve said this before; and yes, Shumlin blocked a House proposal to do just that a couple years ago. But our tax system has gotten worse since then, and our budget shortfall has grown.

Just look at this chart.

ITEP 2014 tax chart

Sorry, I should have warned you: seeing that chart may result in nausea and vomiting.

According to figures released this week by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), Vermont’s tax system hits the working and middle classes the hardest, while top earners pay the least of all (as a percentage of their incomes).

In the past, the Governor has praised the fairness of our tax system. He should never, ever do that again until he fixes it.

Not only has he failed to do so… not only has he blocked efforts to do so… but during the last two years, Vermont’s tax system has actually gotten worse. Here’s the ITEP chart from two years ago.

ITEP 2012 tax chart

Compare the two charts: Higher shares of family income for the bottom 60%, and lower shares for the very top. No relief for the middle class, despite the Governor’s rhetoric.

In many ways, our state tax system is relatively progressive, but there are problems. The sales tax is extremely regressive; the property tax hits the working and middle classes the hardest. And as Paul Cillo of the Public Assets Institute points out: 

“The regressive property tax is Vermont’s largest single revenue source supporting state and local public services, and the Legislature has been shifting more and more public costs onto the property tax.”

And while income tax rates are very progressive, the actual taxes paid are much less so. Vermont’s tax rate for top earners is 8.95% — but because of generous rules on taxable income and deductions, those top earners pay an effective rate of only 5.1%. 

In addition to the fairness issue, the disparity puts pressure on Vermont’s budget, as PAI points out:

If the nation fails to address its growing income inequality problem, states will have difficulty raising the revenue they need over time. The more income that goes to the wealthy (and the lower a state’s tax rate on the wealthy), the slower a state’s revenue grows over time.

What have we seen throughout the past several months? Income tax receipts coming in lower than expected, forcing cuts in the budget. Hmmm.

There was one modestly progressive tax proposal in the Governor’s speech: he wants to end a tax deduction for state and local taxes paid in the preceding year, a tax break that mostly benefits upper tiers.

Otherwise, he left our unfair, broken, and inadequate tax system untouched.

Just about every time he opens his mouth, he talks about how Vermonters are taxed to the limit of their ability to pay. This is clearly true for most Vermonters, but clearly untrue for the most fortunate among us.

There is a glimmer of hope. Shumlin yesterday took a tiny step away from his past opposition to raising income, sales, or rooms and meals taxes:

You have heard many times over the past four years my opposition to raising income, sales, and rooms & meals tax rates to fund state government.

When he delivered this line, he gave the word “rates” some extra oomph. And making the income tax fairer wouldn’t require a change in rates; it’d just mean closing loopholes and limiting deductions.

Reasonably. I’m not calling for confiscatory taxes on the rich; I’m just calling for them to pay their fair share in an economy that has bestowed most of its benefits on them.

How about it, Shap?

‘Tis the season for hyping politically convenient survey results

This time, it’s a survey from the completely unbiased HAHAHAHA CNBC comparing the business climates of the 50 states. Here’s a shocker: Vermont didn’t do very well, coming in 42nd in the nation.

One clue that there might be something funky with this survey is the fact that all the Northeastern states were clustered at the bottom: New York 40, New Jersey 43, Pennsylvania 44, Maine 45, Connecticut 46, and Rhode Island dead last.

The only Northeastern states to get out of the doldrums were New Hampshire, tied with Arkansas for 30th, and that business-hating socialist hotbed of Massachusetts at 25.

Right off the bat, I’ve got to believe there’s some sort of built-in regional bias. And with Massachusetts the star performer of the region, it’s hard to see how much of an impact Vermont’s liberal tax-spend-and-regulate environment would have; we can’t be that much worse than Massachusetts. Indeed, the rankings are such a mixed bag that it’s hard to identify useful trends: some factors favor robust social investment (infrastructure, education), some have a clear geographic bias (availability of transportation), some favor large states, some small.

Of course, that didn’t stop VTGOP Chair “Super Dave” Sunderland from glomming onto the survey like Paula Deen on a stick of butter.

Well, there’s the VTGOP analysis, in its full 140-character glory. What say we take a closer look at this survey?

Vermont’s rankings tended toward the extremes. There were ten categories in all. We were near the top in Quality of Life and Education. We were in the middle on a few things (including the oft-criticized Business Friendliness, #31), but right near the bottom on Cost of Doing Business, Cost of Living, Infrastructure & Transportation, and Workforce.

All right, so we’ll take credit for Quality of Life and the excellent education system that the Republicans would like to undercut (gubernatorial candidate Scott MIlne calls for as much as a 30% slash in public school funding). But let’s see why we fare so poorly in those four major categories. CNBC lists the criteria in each category, although there’s no explanation of how the criteria are evaluated and weighted, so it’s only of limited utility.

Cost of doing business. Criteria include state and local tax burden (income, property, business, gasoline), utility costs, wage rates, and rental costs for commercial space.

Why I don't feel sorry for the overburdened rich. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Why I don’t feel sorry for the overburdened rich. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Regarding taxes, first of all I’d note the absence of sales tax, which hits middle- and lower-class residents hardest. For included taxes, CNBC used the official tax rates. However, some of our tax rates are artificially high compared to taxes actually paid. This is especially true for top income earners. Vermont’s official top income tax rate is 8.95%, which is on the high side; but because of generous rules on eligible income, top earners pay an effective rate of only 5.2%. And when you combine all taxes, the top 20% pay a smaller share than any other group.

As for utility costs, yes, they’re relatively high. That’s partly because of Vermont’s relatively aggressive adoption of renewables, but also because of our relative lack of home-grown sources. We don’t have any of our own coal, oil, or natural gas.

On wage rates, well, I’d just as soon have better wage rates than some “business-friendly” states like Texas and Utah and Nebraska. Ditto rental costs: I’m glad we put reasonable limits on commercial development. It’s part of the price we pay to keep our “Quality of Life” score high. (If, like Scott Milne, you’d like to see Vermont look more like the West Lebanon, NH commercial strip, then you’re entitled to your opinion. I guess.)

Cost of Living. A fairly straightforward category. Some of the low ranking is due to social choices (energy and development, see above) and some is inherent in being a small, rural, cold place (food, heat).

Infrastructure & Transportation. This category is a little funky. “Quality of roads and bridges” is only a small part of it. CNBC’s top criteria:

We measure the vitality of each state’s transportation system by the value of goods shipped by air, waterways, roads and rail. We look at the availability of air travel in each state, the quality of the roads and bridges, the time it takes to commute to work and the supply of safe drinking water.

Well, hell. Vermont’s never going to score well on most of that. We don’t produce a lot of goods, so we don’t transport much. We don’t have much of a transportation infrastructure because we’re so small: only a couple freeways, a lot of winding two-lane roads, very little rail or air. And our commute time is long because we’re rural.

Workforce. This is another funky one. Along with education level of employees and number of available workers (we struggle on that one), CNBC puts a lot of stock in right-to-work laws and toothless labor unions. Again, if that makes us a bad place to do business, it’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make.

There’s one more crucial piece you need to understand about the CNBC ranking. Not every category gets equal weight. In fact, the most heavily weighted category, Cost of Doing Business, is worth 450 points, while Education is worth only 150 points and Cost of Living only 50.

CNBC’s weighting system pushes Vermont farther down the rankings because we generally score worse on the heavily-weighted categories than on others.

Some of the weighting is reasonable, and some of it is standard fiscal-conservative dogma. Education, in particular, seems to be very important to a lot of Vermont businesses, and yet it carries little weight in CNBC’s rankings.

But then, it’s depressingly normal for the business world to focus on the immediate and short-term, instead of the long-term. You’d think that businesses would be smart enough to realize that a little short-term pain (enough tax revenue to support infrastructure, education, and social services) is more than justified by the longer-term gain of doing business in a strong, stable environment rich in social capital.

The survey is somewhat useful if you look beyond the mere rankings and use it to evaluate your state’s strengths and weaknesses. And if you make thoughtful decisions on which factors are worth improving, and which things you’d like to keep the way they are. Even if they don’t absolutely maximize the business climate.