It would be a huge mistake to imagine that the cumulative, cascading burden of many tax rates on the same income will leave the middle class untouched. Take a teacher in California earning $60,000. A current federal rate of 25%, a 9.5% California rate, and 15.3% payroll tax yield a combined income tax rate of 45%. The income tax increases to cover the CBO’s projected federal deficit in 2016 raises that to 52%. Covering future Social Security and Medicare deficits brings the combined marginal tax rate on that middle-income taxpayer to an astounding 71%. That teacher working a summer job would keep just 29% of her wages. At the margin, virtually everyone would be working primarily for the government, reduced to a minority partner in their own labor.
Nobody—rich, middle-income or poor—can afford to have the economy so burdened. Higher tax rates are the major reason why European per-capita income, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is about 30% lower than in the United States—a permanent difference many times the temporary decline in the recent recession and anemic recovery.
Some argue the U.S. economy can easily bear higher pre-Reagan tax rates. They point to the 1930s-1950s, when top marginal rates were between 79% and 94%, or the Carter-era 1970s, when the top rate was about 70%. But those rates applied to a much smaller fraction of taxpayers and kicked in at much higher income levels relative to today.
There were also greater opportunities for sheltering income from the income tax. The lower marginal tax rates in the 1980s led to the best quarter-century of economic performance in American history. Large increases in tax rates are a recipe for economic stagnation, socioeconomic ossification, and the loss of American global competitiveness and leadership.