Tax Freedom or Politics?

The average American must work 128 days this year to pay taxes, which puts Tax Freedom Day on May 9.

Or does freedom come earlier?

The Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, has picked the day for 25 years.

But at least one expert thinks the foundation exaggerates the tax burden. Freedom Day actually falls in April, holds Robert Greenstein, director of the more liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also in Washington.

The difference goes partially to the statistics and, perhaps, partially to the politics.

The Tax Foundation says it wants to provide information to citizens. Each year it wins considerable publicity by announcing the day just before tax filing deadline.

"It is hard for people in a democracy to know how much they are really paying in taxes," says foundation economist Patrick Fleenor.

The total tax burden, he says, includes not only federal individual income taxes but corporate income taxes, Social Security, Medicare, sales and excise taxes, other business taxes, and state and local taxes. Some of these taxes remain hidden to taxpayers.

Uncovering them sounds noble, but Mr. Greenstein sees an "ideological focus, conscious or unconscious." The foundation describes itself as having a "conservative philosophy in tax policy."

Mr. Fleenor, who measures the nation's effective tax rate as 35.2 percent, says, "We are not saying this is too high or too low. But there is no denying that government plays a bigger role in society than it has in the past."

This year, the foundation says, average Americans will work two days longer than in 1996, and a week longer than in 1993, to pay taxes.

And it's the burden on wealthy taxpayers that creates the trend.

The foundation uses averages to calculate Freedom Day. Mr. Greenstein calls that "misleading."

The foundation determines an average rate by dividing all taxes paid by the total of everyone's income.

However, the proportionately larger payments of the wealthy inflate the average. It makes the taxes paid by middle-class families appear higher than they really are, says Greenstein.

For these families, he says, the tax burden has "changed little" in recent years. The 1993 tax hike hit primarily the well-to-do, except for an increase in gasoline taxes, he says.

Using median family income is fairer, says Greenstein. At the median, half of all families earn more; half earn less. This may sound esoteric, but look at the differences.

The average overstates the income of the typical American household by 36 percent, Greenstein calculates, adding that when all federal taxes are considered, using averages rather than the median overstates the typical tax rate by 21 percent.

And he doesn't stop there, claiming the Tax Foundation goes even further in overstating the tax burden.

For example, it counts Medicare premiums to buy supplemental insurance coverage. But those premiums are voluntary.

It also counts intragovernment transfers as tax receipts, even though they do not involve collection of new taxes. These include money put into civil service and military retirement trust funds.

Greenstein notes another peculiarity, involving capital gains taxes. These are taxes paid on profits from the sale of investments.

The foundation counts those taxes but leaves the job half done. It ignores those profits as income.

All these exaggerate the tax burden; none lessen it, says Greenstein.

Fleenor defends his statistical methods but adds that changing the numbers "doesn't change the story."

Tax Freedom Day, he says, might retreat "a couple of days," but the upward trend in taxes remains.

Greenstein counters that taxes are likely to be lower in 1997 and beyond, not higher. He cites projections from the Congressional Budget Office and tax cuts by 16 states, with more to come.

He also criticizes the foundation for not noting that taxes flow back to Americans. "Workers directly support their aged parents or grandparents by paying Social Security and Medicare taxes and will themselves receive these benefits when they retire."

Taxes also pay for schools, roads, parks, police officers, fire-fighters, and air-traffic controllers. His list goes on.

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