Are Tax Rates on the Rise?

Originally published in the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin

May 18, 2011

Earlier this week, I pulled out my crystal ball and posed a few questions about future personal federal income tax rates – strangely, it became suddenly murky.  So I pulled out my history books instead and drew some conclusions.  Let me set the stage and give you some history.  Keep in mind since 2003 our bottom tax bracket has been 10 percent and our top tax bracket has been 35 percent.

Wars have historically been fantastic reasons to raise taxes.  In fact, our first national income tax was created to raise money for the Civil War.  After the Civil War the tax was abolished.  Although income taxes were permanently revived in 1913 (some people still questioning its legitimacy from their prison cells) a logical pattern seemed to develop– when our country needed money, tax rates went up; when it did not need money, tax rates went down.

In 1913 the bottom bracket was at 1 percent and the top bracket was at 7 percent – perhaps a special introductory rate. During World War I the bottom bracket moved as high as 6 percent and the top bracket shot up to 77 percent!  Then brackets fell dramatically until the depression in the 1930s.  The government needed money so brackets shot back up flowing right into World War II where they peaked in 1944 and 1945 with the bottom bracket at 23 percent and the top bracket (income over $200K) at 94 percent!  Rates dropped after World War II, but stayed relatively high with the bottom bracket not dipping below 14 percent and the top bracket not dipping below 70 percent until after 1980.

During the Reagan and H. W. Bush years dramatic changes took place (Reaganomics).  The bottom bracket dropped as low as 11 percent and the top bracket dropped as low as 28 percent.  The brackets rose a little during the Clinton years and then dropped again when W. Bush took the reigns.

Tax brackets are not everything, but to the extent they are an indicator, it is difficult to say we are overtaxed.  With the exception of a three year period in the late 1980s, the tax rates on our bottom and top tax brackets are both at their lowest levels since before World War II.  We have maintained this course during our worst economic decline since the 1930s while simultaneously fighting a war and spending at all-time highs.  Our logical pattern seems to have been broken.  Our national debt has been rising substantially to pay for our record-low tax brackets and our loose wallet.  The longer we as Americans continue to cast our vote beyond our means the more painful it will be.

So from my perspective, tax rates only have one direction to go – up.  Next issue, I will discuss the national debt.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA, 93950.  He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

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