Worthy of further investigation — what were tax rates in the 1960s?

From Christopher Balding:

The data itself tells an entirely different story from the idealized 91% tax rate.  According to Internal Revenue Service data, presented below on a graph, from 1966 to 1970 the effective tax rate of an average tax payer in the top 1% was 30.85%.  Throughout the time period in question, the effective tax rate of the average top 1% never exceeded 35%.

You will note that is “tax rate,” not “marginal tax rate.”  There is income shifting, and also deductions, but also important is the sheer fact of greater income equality.  Most income was not in the highest of tax brackets, nor was there — even for most of the relatively wealthy — a plausible way of getting very high up into those brackets.  (I thank Balding for some useful discussion over email, without holding him to any particular version of this interpretation.)  Here is an early MR post about how sometimes average tax rates matter more than (reported) marginal rates.

For later periods of time, here are some good tax visuals from the NYT.


Finally, someone is beginning to talk about effective tax rates, other than Warren Buffett. And, these effective tax rates do not include excludable income or deferrals (muni bonds, deferred income on 401k contributions) of those of us with wealth, even though the effective rate include rates on income taxed below the marginal rate (cap gains, etc.).

I wonder why people do not talk about effective rates.


I don't think this says what you say it does. Fashionable view: 1960s, 91% marginal rate, 2012, Buffett pays 15%.

The article points out that the effective rates for high income people in the 1960s was never above 35%. Most high income people today pay at ordinary income rates, which top out at 35%.

Pile on with (almost universal) higher state taxes now, and effective rates for high paid in the 1960s prolly aren't too different from today.

Now, let's turn to the middle class...

Neither side talks effectively about effective rates. But what I hear is the Democrats decrying Romney's effective rate while touting the high marginal rates of the past claiming that they didn't hurt. Maybe Republicans are doing the equal and opposite of that kind of dissembling, but I'm not perceiving it.

Any economist who says marginal rates don't matter for incentives is talking like a sausage. The question is: how much? Republicans, I think, are guilty of overplaying this. The smoking gun to me was the Clinton tax hikes in the 1990s, which Republicans solemny assured us would derail the economy.

Democrats are guilty of the much graver sin of selling the American people a European-style welfare state paid for by the rich, and, so far, the Republicans have been reluctant to point this out to the sainted middle class. It pains me to write this, but Europeans are more realistic about what financing such a state looks like- well, northern Europeans anyway.

I forget my timing, but didn't Clinton reduce the capital gains taxes while pushing the marginal rates on wages up? (I know he did both but I'm not sure they were simultaneous.) We all know it's easy for high-income people to change wages into capital gains, but his voting base may not.

Social Security is the foundation for a broad social welfare program the cover 90+% of the population, with 50% of the people getting cash benefits being non-workers which is paid for entirely by workers and not by the rich. I covered dependent children of the disabled or dead, the parent caring for the dependent children, the disabled worker and dependents, and yes, it also provides an old age benefit for which the old age benefits is covering dependents, not the worker, based on the "traditional family" that conservatives so tout as the foundation of society where only one worker exists and the wife cares for the children.

But when it comes to taxes, SSI is erased from existence so the claim can be made that everyone not working is a burden on just the 2% because the other 98% are all dead beats who don't contribute a penny to the welfare system.

Of course, when it comes to the only part of the first enumerated power of Congress, "defence", the rich seldom serve, but it is a sacred duty of workers to defend the rich against the pillaging and plundering hoards, basically because the individualistic stand on your own yeoman farmers owe their existence to the jobs created by only the rich who favor the workers with jobs and pay. Hey, if you go to any insurer and ask for protection, they will charge you one million times the premium they charge the person who has only one millionth the wealth to protect. And the Constitution defines defense as protection from threats DOMESTIC and foreign - one can see in many failed states the much greater threat posed by domestic forces. The rich have far more at risk and thus benefit from much higher utility of government than the typical person, and in economic terms should pay much more for those benefits.

And lots of rich people see such things as medical research as extremely valuable personally. Steve Jobs needed better medical science, but no matter his billions, he could not buy the medical treatment he needed. On the other hand, Dick Cheney did get the benefits of billions in government funded medical research and ongoing care which provided much needed data on what works and does not work. Even if Cheney knew what he needed, he could not have afforded to fund all the basic research and process fine tuning over the past 40 years when he was choosing in conservative terms to need a heart transplant last year - isn't that socialism fo the rich who choose to sick? Has Dick Cheney been screwed out of his tax dollars without a single benefit in return? I don't think so, and the worker making $300 a week and paying taxes at higher rates when FICA is included than Cheney needs a heart transplant, his odds are worse than Cheney's of getting one, even if he is 40,never smoked or drank but simply has bad luck.

Warren Buffett on the one hand claims his health is the result of good luck of his parents, but also notes his loaded dice of genes also benefited from having far fewer tosses of the dice because science and public policy have virtually eliminated the common diseases. How much is a decade of life worth to Buffett, and how do you price the fact he does live in Africa or other disease ridden place. Could Warren Buffett really afford to create the disease free environment in Africa all by his self so he has the freedom of movement he has in the US? If the benefit of tax funded public policy is so cheap, and the taxes too high, why haven't the Koch et al long ago picked up stakes and moved to Africa to create their own economy and society that is equally disease free? One must conclude that the Koch kind of people have calculated to costs and concluded paying taxes in the US is a bargain compared to the alternatives.

Effective rates were cut by the Bush tax cuts (considering cap gains, dividend income treatment) from an initial 29% effective rate to 21% (or lower if you include adjustments to AGI). I didn't see a burst of energy from this tax incentive from the top 1-2%, certainly not enough to avert a serious recession, and certainly not enough to justify borrowing money from China to pay for the cuts.

IRS series data, by the way, is available, and the Tax Foundation does a yearly report comparing years and income levels using IRS data.


The effective tax rate was 29% before the Bush Tax Cuts, and 21% thereafter.

but also important is the sheer fact of greater income equality.

Was this primarily due to higher demand for labor vs.managerial talent relative to today.

And what is the marginal sensitivity? Some margins take off like rocket ships (e.g. oil).

I don't know why anybody thinks that once upon a time, wealthy Americans paid over half or more of their income to the federal government. There were deductions, tax shelters, expense accounts, company cars, deferred compensation, offshore accounts, etc.

If you tax the profit from somebody's work at half or more, they will find a way to 1) stop working or 2) stop paying. You can set those rates at 99.9% and enshrine them in the Constitution--the cutoff for effective collection appears to be around one-third.

So who was paying tax at a rate over, say, 75%? Anyone?

Hollywood liberals and drug addled hippie rock musicians.

How many conservatives were really outraged at the high tax rates of the Beatles and the Who and Mick Jagger who were all destroying America's youth?

I don't recall anyone saying "John Lennon is taxed too much; if we lower his tax rates he will work harder and double the number of youth's corrupted by his music and example."

Sports stars were paid journeyman wages back then...

Did any conservative tax law foundation step up to defend Willie Nelson from the IRS confiscating his hard work..., or was he too liberal and deserved to be stepped on by the IRS?

Bad example: John Lennon moved to America to avoid the tax man (here's 1 for you, 19 for me.)

Imagine that!

Brian: you do recall "Taxman" was a Harrison composition. But yeh otherwise. And the tax exile firm of Jagger, Richards and Watts continues to fail to get due credit (after five decades in business) for defying socialist and/or left liberal taxation schemes in the UK to secure their rock 'n' roll royalty credentials all the while spouting their progressive socio-political agenda and consistently playing some really tight rhythmic tunes. --The lessons took, though: otherwise Obama troubadour B. Springsteen would not be the c. $200 million populist he is today.

I'm having a bit of a problem reading this as 1) Balding's seems to misread Krugman's "0.01 percent" as 1 percent and 2) he doesn't link to Krugman's original quote. Is he contradicting Krugman on the data used, or on the interpretation?

Umm... Has anyone noticed that Christopher Balding moved the goalposts on this one? Krugman said that "circa 1960", the effective tax rate on the "top 0.01 percent of Americans" paid an effective rate of over 70 percent. Balding changed from 1960 to the decade of the 60's, and from the top 0.01 percent to the top 1 percent. He's graph starts in 1966, after the 91% top rate was phased out, and by using the average of the top 1%, he's drastically cutting the share of income that would be affected by the top marginal rate anyway.

He says that. Why would we care about the 1960 goalposts anyway?

We'd care because Balding posts a quote from Krugman saying that the effective tax rate of an earner in the top 0.01% was over 70%, proceeds to assert that that claim is "odd" and then uses a data set that is irrelevant to Krugman's claim to try and contradict it?

Even the quote that Tyler pulled is misleading. The quote mentions the 91% tax rate, and then the effective rates over the 1966-1970 period, which is after the 91% rate had been phased out. I'm not sure whether this misleading is intentional or not, but either way, it's misleading.

Well, it is odd. The tax rate didn't change itself. Why did PK cherry pick 1960? They probably thought a 91% rate was 'broken' and thus fixed it. So, to imply that it's something we could just go back to is odd. And the fixation on putting ever more zeroes in front of the 1% is odd.

If your objective is to hang on everything dripping from PK's fountain pen, then I guess it sounds like an attack, but we don't. This Krugman narcissism is well out of hand.

I don't think the obsession with putting zeroes in front of the 1% is odd. Someone making $300K per year is living in a very different environment, and facing very different decisions at the margin than someone who is earning $10M or $100M. Marginal rates high enough to discourage the person making $300K might not have the same discouraging effect on the $100M earner.

Krugman's point is that there was a time where we had very high growth, combined with very high tax rates on the ultra-wealthy. I don't think he's suggesting the the high rates caused the growth, but that there's real revenue that can be had by taxing the ultra-wealthy, and that the rates aren't going to stifle growth. The right seem to suggest that if we raised rates on the ultra wealthy, the the economy would collapse. The historical evidence doesn't support that view.

Without getting into the positive and negative passions Krugman elicits from both sides, his "ever more zeroes" is not incidental - he uses it to talk about the way income equality has increased at all levels of the spectrum over the past few decades, which may have different implications from a scenario where top earners are growing more homogeneously. So, regardless of one's take on the implications, the shift between 1% and 0.01% really confuses the conversation, and I think rates as a failure to engage by Balding.

Fine, then say that 1960 is an anomaly or that there's no reason to focus on it or that we shouldn't focus on the very very rich (.001%), for whatever reasons you'd like to give. Don't say that Krugman said something that was untrue, because the price of tea in China isn't the same as the cost of jeans in Damascus. If he's wrong about the effective rate for the top .001% in 1960, then tell us what it is. If he's right about that, but that data point is misleading, then say why it's misleading.

No cherry-picking. "Circa 1960" means "around 1960. The top rate was around 90% from the end of WWII through 1963.

Byomtov - do you know of anybody from that era who actually paid 90% of their income to the government?

The Anti-Agnostic,

Of course not. No one did. The 91% was the top marginal rate, not the average rate.

Where did Krugman get his data to assert that the top .01% of Americans used to pay effective income tax rates of 70%? The idea behind his assertion would still be hilarious even if he was speaking the stone-cold truth.

How much revenue could such a tax possibly raise if 99.99% of taxpayers don't pay it? Who negotiates an employment agreement that will result in them paying 70% of their income to the government? Why wouldn't I just take the next year off and leverage some assets for cash flow? Or move myself or my money to any number of places where I won't be taxed at that rate?

Well, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are all happy to pay more taxes. As for the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, the country would be a better place if they got up and left so they couldn't continue to buy the Republican congressional delegation. But then, that never happens, and never has happened, and never will happen, because they will always want to be here.

From a quick search, it looks like the top 0.01% (about 15,000 tax units) earned about 5% of all income in 2008, with an average income of over $27M. Assuming they’re currently taxed at a rate of effective rate of 20%, then taxing them at an effective rate of 70% would raise over 200 billion per year. That’s assuming no shifting or hiding of income, which is obviously a huge assumption.

But here's what we know: even when the published rate was 70%, nobody actually paid it; they paid 35%. Do you have any data that suggests otherwise?

This wasn't that long ago. Does anybody remember anyone forking over 70% of their income to the IRS in a single year?

Okay, so two guys are happy to pay more taxes. Done.

Poor people have a 70% marginal tax rate... sorry, not tax rate -- have a large marginal discenentive to work.

As a person's income increase, the available transers and benefits available to them (food stamps, Medicaid, child care subsidies) taper off. At some threasholds the subisdy drops like a cliff, creating greater than 100% losses in benefits for an increase in wage.

I'd be curious on the source of Krugman's 70% effective rate on the 0.01% circa 1960.

Fixating on the 0.01% is even sillier than the 1% though, if the question is: where is the money coming from? I'm ok with whatever tax rate you like on the 0.01%, although at this point, let's be honest that this is about pure envy, rather than raising revenue.

It's more appropriate to consider the people who will actually pay higher taxes under Obama's plan- this is much more than a "millionaire's" tax or the 0.01% anyway, more even than the hated 1% I think.

The top .001% (1/100000) of the population could account for on the order of 1/200th to 1/30th of total tax receipts, depending on how much you tax them (that covers a range from ~10% to ~50% in effective rate). It's not obvious that this isn't about raising revenue.

The top 0.001% now? That's what, 1400 taxpayers? Let's say we can get another $10 million apiece from these suckers (I think this is optimisitc, but....) That's $14 billion. Not shabby.

What's this year's deficit? $1 trillion? Yup, looks like our work is done here.

Why would you expect anyone to, when the top *marginal* rate was 90%.

The NYT really cherry-picked their data set. The tax rate declines are not nearly so pronounced - and in many cases translate to overall INCREASES - if you start just after the first batch of Reagan cuts.

Yeah but, did you see that if you scroll over the charts, you can get the values for any year in between, which I think is pretty cool.

If you start in 1982, what you see is a general, parallel lowering of rates across groups until you get to $200+, then a spike upward.

At the very least, the idea that we used to have much more progressive taxation than we do now is plain wrong- progressivity doesn't appear to have changed much over several decades.


You are focusing on RATES and not EFFECTIVE TAX RATES.

Bill, look at the NYT thing. Those are effective rates.

Brian, RP's comments were not based on effective rates. He said: rates. The NYT article has both.

Pretty clear that PK misused the word "effective."
Looking at the chart at the link, it appears that the effective rate on the wealthy has fallen from about 31% to about 23%.

The CBO publishes effective tax rate data on different income segments from1979 forward.

They say data on the effective tax rate prior to 1979 does not exist.

I wonder how Balding can come up with an accurate estimate when CBO says it can not be dome from publicly available data.

Something does not sound right here.

Where did Krugman come up with it?

That's a rhetorical question, right?

mw said,

" Well, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are all happy to pay more taxes."

Could not be more wrong. They have very carefully structured their finances to avoid paying taxes especially the death tax.

If they were serious about paying more taxes they would support the following


(1) Whereas, the U.S. government is in desperate need of revenue.

(2) Whereas, Warren Buffett is worth tens of billions of dollars, almost all of which is destined for private foundations and thus will completely escape federal tax.

(3) Whereas, Warren Buffett has publicly proclaimed that he is undertaxed.

(4) Resolved, the U.S. government should pass legislation that gifts to foundations in excess of a $20 billion lifetime exemption will hereinafter be taxed at 55%, the normal inheritance tax rate.

There's nothing morally wrong with saying that you should do something only if all members of your class do it as well. For Buffett alone to give all his money to the government wouldn't help the U.S. deficit problem. But if he can use his pulpit to get all ultra-rich people to be forced to give some of their money to the government, it might make a big difference.

Think of it like:

1. I take the painful step, other people don't. Cost to me = large. Effect on the problem = negligible.

2. I take the painful step, others do as well (voluntarily or through coercion). Cost to me = large. Effect on the problem = meaningful.

Why is it morally wrong to pursue #2? I mean, assuming one believes (as Buffett does) that the problem is real and that the proposed solution would have a meaningful impact.

There’s nothing morally wrong with saying that you should do something only if all members of your class do it as well. For Buffett alone to give all his money to the government wouldn’t help the U.S. deficit problem.

He didn't say Buffet alone should give all his money to the government. Read the comment again.

Ok I will grant there is nothing wrong with him saying-if all the libs will quit saying b/c Buffet wants more taxes we should therefore raise taxes-it is more likely he is a crackpot than it is an accident he has structured his wealth to avoid taxes

What I find interesting is the effective tax rates paid when top marginal rates were 70-91% are compared to the top marginal rates of the 90s and the past decade while ignoring the effective tax rates of the 90s and 00s.

Classic attempt make a point about apples vs pears by comparing apple jam to pears instead of apple jam to pear jam.

If the effective rates was 30% in 1970 when the top rate was 70%, today the effective rate is 15% when the top rate is 35%.

The reason beyond deductions was the capital gains 50% exclusion - today there is no 50% exclusion, but instead a 15% cap. This means that in 1970, the poor widow might have paid 50% of 15% or 7% tax on savings spent to live, but today would pay the lower 10% tax rate but get no 50% exclusion for a 10% rate. The millionaire then paid 50% or 70%, but today pays 15% tops.

Another difference is capital gains needed to be held for five years to get the 50% exclusion, which makes sense if you are a capitalist like Buffett, but a real drag if you are a Mitt Romney involved in buying assets, dressing then up and then dumping them a year later before it becomes clear to everyone they are doomed.

Buffett admits that his worst investment was buying Berkshire Hathaway as a long term investment in shirts and clothing. As he realized his mistake he noticed the cah reserves in re, and figured out re was a great investment. As he puts it, if he had figured out the growth and return on reinsurance before he bought BH, he would have saved himself a lot of work and worry.

Mitt Romney would have never become a billionaire if he had bought BH - he would have liquidated the cash assets and dump BH for the quick buck. It was Buffett belief in holding assets that made his fortune. Mitt Romney dumped Staples twice for the quick profit instead of holding for the long term for greater profit.

This is in response to Geoff Olnyk:

Actually, a large part of Buffett's career was during the time when the marginal rates were extremely high. Maybe we could ask him if he ever paid them. I think the answer would be that he became a billionaire in part by rigorously structuring every transaction to minimize the tax consequences. Buffett is an old man with a billion dollars in liquidity if he needs it. If he had to pay those rates over his career you can bet he wouldn't have stayed in Omaha.

Has the Laffer Curve been discredited? I'll stick by my hunch. One-third of income is what you can realistically expect to collect before seriously impacting the utility of remunerative activity and people either stop working or stop paying and capital starts heading for the exits. Britain and France are finding this out. Those high marginal rates came with oodles of deductions and shelters. This is pure legislative gaming. Congress sets the rates and the special interests come crawling out of carpet with campaign donations and favors. That was one of the ideas behind TFRA: set realistic rates and minimize all the deductions and other crap.

Look, you might be right about what the actual maximum value of wealth you can extract from people is. (One third, one half, something.) And that's a discussion that can be had between reasonable people.

I just don't like this attitude of "Well if Buffett thinks that the ultra-rich should be paying higher taxes, why doesn't he start by paying higher taxes voluntarily!" It's the same thing as "If you are so concerned about climate change, why don't you get rid of your car and stop heating your house!" Only collective action actually does anything.

Yeah, funny how all those commonalities start popping up. Maybe you should start asking yourself why they do. Maybe it's because mass, coercive socialization of costs just cannot work given the limits of human nature and the physical universe.

Paul Krugman:
"The best estimates suggest that circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of American paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent, twice what they pay today."

Christopher Balding:
"The data itself tells an entirely different story from the idealized 91% tax rate. According to Internal Revenue Service data, presented below on a graph, from 1966 to 1970 the effective tax rate of an average tax payer in the top 1% was 30.85%. Throughout the time period in question, the effective tax rate of the average top 1% never exceeded 35%."

Krugman is clearly getting his data from this paper:


How Progressive is the U.S. Federal Tax System? A Historical and International Perspective
Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez
NBER Working Paper No. 12404
August 2006

Piketty and Saez's estimates show that the *average effective tax rate* on the top 0.01% ranged from 67.7%-75.0% over 1960-77. Over the same period the average effective tax rate on the top 1% ranged from 43.4%-47.2%.

Why is there a difference between Piketty and Saez's estimates and the IRS's? Piketty and Saez are including personal, corporate, payroll and estate taxes in their estimate. Thus the primary difference is due to corporate taxes, which Piketty and Saez assumes falls entirely on capital income. Excluding corporate taxes the average effective tax rate of the top 1% was 31.0% over 1966-70 and peaked at 34.1% in 1970. Similarly, excluding corporate taxes the average effective tax rate of the top 0.01% was 48.0% over 1966-70 and peaked at 55.3% in 1970.

Now, the question is, why couldn't Christopher Balding or Tyler Cowen simply have done what I've just done instead of pretending that Krugman doesn't understand the difference between marginal and effective tax rates? Is it because they're not up on the current tax incidence literature, or is it because they're more interested in playing childish games than in discussing facts?

Not quite on target of this article, but Mark Steyn has a really great paragraph in a recent posting:

"... a French intellectual who, apropos Mitt Romney's stump-speech warnings that we were on a one-way ticket to Continental-sized dependency, chortled to me,

_______"Americans love Big Government as much as Europeans. The only difference is that Americans refuse to admit it."______

"My Gallic charmer is on to something. According to the most recent (2009) OECD statistics: Government expenditures per person in France, $18,866.00; in the United States, $19,266.00. That's adjusted for purchasing-power parity, and, yes, no comparison is perfect,

_______but did you ever think the difference between America and the cheese-eating surrender monkeys would come down to quibbling over the fine print?______

In that sense, the federal debt might be better understood as an American Self-Delusion Index, measuring the ever-widening gap between the national mythology (a republic of limited government and self-reliant citizens) and the reality (a 21st century cradle-to-grave nanny state in which, as the Democrats' Convention boasted, "government is the only thing we do together.")."

Looks like Mark A. Sandowski just killed this post.

"Not quite on target of this article, but Mark Steyn has a really great paragraph in a recent posting: http://www.ocregister.com/opinion/percent-379256-government-spending.html"


I think what both American conservatives and liberals miss is that the these European governments are much more efficient with their money. Americans went thru a massive delusion after WWII, where they though throwing massive amounts of money at any problem would solve it in a great way.

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