Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

New tool puts tax rates in historical context

SHOWCASE | April 13, 2011

The Remapping Debate website's device compares tax rates over the years, adjusting for inflation and translating the numbers into 2010 dollars.

By Craig Gurian

Want to be able to compare how the federal government treats taxable income today with how it taxed that income in any year during the post- World War II period? Remapping Debate has developed a new interactive tool to allow you to do just that.

The timing, we think, is fortuitous: Tax Day is almost upon us, House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and the GOP have laid out a vision of program cuts and tax cuts, and President Obama is poised to lay out his own vision of…program cuts and (mostly) tax cuts (on the corporate side, he has already explained in his State of the Union that he wants to use revenue yielded from closing unwarranted loopholes to lower rates further). He is expected to make at least a nominal effort to seek to get rid of the tax break for the wealthiest Americans he surrendered on late last year (a resolution that the press insistently, and mistakenly, referred to as “compromise”).

It’s no surprise that a lot of the coverage will be of the horse-race variety, and that much of that will fail to recognize that the likelihood of “winning” bears at least a little relation to the extent to which each side’s talking points are supported by evidence.

At Remapping Debate, we don’t think that it’s enough to report that the GOP has repeated 10,000 times that tax rates are too high, that President Obama has responded that he is “looking forward to having a conversation on that,” and that conservative Democratic Senators are worried about straying too far from the GOP line. 

When one poses a question as to whether the federal income tax burden is higher than it ought to be — let alone crushingly high — we think it’s useful to have some actual data to put those tax rates into historical context.

So our new interactive tool adjusts for inflation and translates all tax brackets into 2010 dollars. Select any amount of taxable income, select a filing status (married filing jointly, single, etc.), and select any year from 1945 on to compare with 2011.

The tool will report the tax for the year selected, for 2011…and graph the amounts that would have been due for every year in the period.

As we note in the text accompanying the data visualization, there are a number of obvious limitations in using the tool.  For example, the additions and subtractions to gross income (that yield adjusted gross income) change over time.  The deductions that are available to yield taxable income from adjusted gross income also vary over time.  The tool, however, only addresses taxable income, and thus doesn’t account for those changes.  Likewise, the difference between ordinary income and capital gains (the latter currently gets preferential treatment) is not accounted for.

Nevertheless, we think the data viz will be a handy tool to help put tax debates in perspective. Come to the site to see a couple of the initial observations that we’ve made using the tool, and, even better, use the tool to make your own observations.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.