Apr 13 2009

Understanding the difference between progressive and regressive taxes

Published by at 4:22 am under Macroeconomics,Politics,Taxes

Barack Obama and Joe Biden: The Change We Need | Taxes

The following was published in the Chicago Tribune’s “Voice of the People” page on October 29, 2008 in the midst of the US presidential race:

Redistributing wealth
On my way to lunch recently, I passed a homeless guy with a sign that read “Vote Obama; I need the money.” I laughed. In a restaurant my server had on an “Obama 08” tie. Again I laughed. Just imagine the coincidence. When the bill came, I decided not to tip the server and explained to him that I was exploring the Barack-Obama-redistribution-of-wealth concept. He stood there in disbelief while I told him that I was going to redistribute his tip to someone who I deemed more in need—the homeless guy outside. The server angrily stormed from my sight. I went outside, gave the homeless guy $10 and told him to thank the server inside as I’ve decided he could use the money more. The homeless guy was grateful. At the end of my rather unscientific redistribution experiment, I realized the homeless guy was grateful for the money he did not earn, but the waiter was pretty angry that I gave away the money he did earn even though the actual recipient deserved money more. I guess redistribution of wealth is an easier thing to swallow in concept than in practical application.

—A. Hart, Forest Park

The comment reflects a general contempt for the concept of taxation, specifically progressive taxes, or those that tax high income earners at a higher rate than those who earn low incomes. The idea behind a progressive tax, of course, is that higher income earners have income left over after they have provided themselves with the necessities of life, therefore should bear a larger burden of the nation’s tax revenue, which thereby enables the government to “re-distribute” wealth from the nation’s higher income earners across all levels of society through the provision of public goods.

The federal income tax in the United States is progressive in that the higher one’s income, the higher the percentage he or she pays to the US government. As seen in the table below, America’s poor will pay as little as 0-10% in income tax, while the nation’s richest households can pay up to 35%.


Opponents of progressive income taxes, which are also known as direct taxes because they are taken directly from a person’s income, argue that such a tax system creates a disincentive to work among American households. They argue that progressive income taxes penalize hard work and innovation, since the higher a worker’s productivity, the more of his income he must relinquish to the government.

One commonly misunderstood fact about the US income tax, however, is that it is a marginal tax system, meaning that when a person goes from, say the 25% to the 28% bracket, he does not pay 28% on ALL of his income, only on the marginal income above  $82,250 (according to the 2009 column above).  The implication is, therefore, that the average tax paid by an American will at any level of income be lower than the marginal tax. Below is a graphical representation of this concept. [source: http://aufrecht.org/pictures/images/858554/tax400.png]


It is the re-distributive intentions and effect of a progressive income tax system such as America’s (and every other country, click here to see tax rates from around the world) that has led to such intense opposition to the US tax system. Many in America’s government have proposed a “fair tax” that does away with America’s current direct tax system in favor of a nation-wide indirect, or sales tax on most goods and services. Watch the video below:


The fair tax is a indirect tax, meaning it is levied not directly on peoples’ income but indirectly on the purchase of goods and services in the economy, and is described as follows:

The sales tax rate, as defined in the legislation, is 23 percent of the total payment including the tax ($23 of every $100 spent in total—calculated similar to income taxes). This would be equivalent to a 30 percent traditional U.S. sales tax ($23 on top of every $77 spent before taxes).[4] The effective tax rate for any household would be variable due to the fixed monthly tax rebates that are used to “untax” purchases up to the poverty level.[3] The tax would be levied on all U.S. retail sales for personal consumption on new goods and services.

The two guests argue that the fair tax “is the only tax that totally untaxes the poor; the poor get a free ride totally across the board at the federal level under this plan.”

However, a national sales tax is a “regressive tax” meaning that as a percentage of income, the fair tax places a larger burden on lower income earners than higher income earners. An example is useful:

  • Two shoppers walk into a computer store. One earns $50,000 a year, the other $100,000 a year.
  • Both are looking at a computer that costs $2,000. Under the fair tax, $460 of the purchase price of this computer will go to the government as tax.
  • $460 represents .92% of the income of the shopper who earns $50,000 per year.
  • $460 represents .46% of the income of the shopper who earns $100,000 per year.
  • The higher income earner pays a lower percentage of his income to the government in tax than the low income earner, making this a regressive tax.

One of the four macroeconomic goals governments aim to achieve in their policy making is more equal distribution of income. The fair tax, despite the arguments its advocates make, does not achieve a more equal distribution of income in America. It does place a smaller tax burden on the rich than the current system, but on the other hand America’s lower income earners bear a relatively larger burden of tax.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are taxes necessary? Why? What are some of the “public goods” tax revenues are used to provide in America and your country?
  2. Discuss the claim that a progressive tax system stifles innovation, entrepreneurship and incentive to work.
  3. On whom does the largest burden of a sales tax (like the fair tax) fall? Is a sales tax “fair”? Why or why not?

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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