Taxation in the United States is a complex system which may involve payments to at least four different levels of government:
The federal government is now financed primarily by personal and corporate income taxes. While it was originally funded via tariffs upon imported goods, tariffs now represent only a minor portion of federal income. There are also non-tax fees to recompense agencies for services or to fill specific trust funds such as the fee placed upon airline tickets for airport expansion and air traffic control. Often the receipts intended to be placed “trust” funds are used for other purposes, with the government posting an IOU (‘I owe you’) in the form of a federal bond or other accounting instrument, then spending the money on unrelated current expenditures.
The federal government collects several specific taxes in addition to the general income tax. Social Security and Medicare are large social support programs which are funded by taxes on personal earned income. Estate Taxes are taxes on inheritance. Net long-term capital gains, including certain types of qualified dividend income, are taxed preferentially.
Federal excise taxes are applied to specific items such as motor fuels, tires, telephone usage, tobacco products, and alcoholic beverages. Excise taxes are often, but not always, allocated to special funds related to the object or activity taxed.Local government is typically financed by value-based property taxes, mainly on real estate. Additional taxes may be in the form of fixed sales taxes. Local government fees such as building permit fees may reflect the added capital cost and operating costs of services such as schools and parks. Local governments may also collect fines (parking and traffic tickets), income tax, gross receipts or gross payroll tax, or a portion of sales taxes (such as meal taxes) collected by the state. In California, seeds, bulbs, starter plants and trees obtained from a garden center are taxed if adjudged for decorative purposes while plants for food production are untaxed, as is food in California.
The Federal Tax code is complex. This complexity generally arises from two factors: the use of the tax code for purposes other than raising revenue, and the feedback process of amending the code.While its main intent is to provide revenue for the federal government, the tax code is frequently used to direct the behavior of businesses and individuals in an attempt to achieve social, economic, and political goals. For example, the tax law provides a deduction for mortgage interest in order to encourage home ownership. A theoretically pure income tax would not allow this deduction, which is not an expense incurred for the production of income.
Because the government uses the tax code as an instrument of social policy, the code as a whole appears to lack a coherent organizing principle. This lack of a coherent organizing principle has become magnified over time, due to the interplay between successive legislative amendments and regulatory changes to the law and the private sector responses to those amendments and changes. For instance, suppose that Congress enacts a tax credit to encourage a particular type of activity. In response, a group of taxpayers who are not the intended beneficiaries of the credit re-order their affairs, or the superficial aspects of their affairs, to qualify for the credit. Congress responds by amending the code to add restrictions and target the credit more effectively.
In general, the U.S. income tax is highly progressive, at least with respect to individuals that earn wage income. As of 2001, the top 1 percent of individual taxpayers paid approximately 23 percent of all federal taxes. The top 5 percent paid approximately 39 percent, and the top 10 percent paid 50 percent of all federal taxes. The bottom 20 percent of taxpayers paid a little over 1 percent of all federal taxes. Moreover, the progressivity of the U.S. tax system has gradually increased over recent decades. The top 20 percent of taxpayers paid approximately 56 percent of all taxes in 1980, and this figure gradually has risen to 65 percent, as of 2001. In recent years, however, a reduction in the tax rates applicable to capital gains has significantly reduced the income tax burden on non-wage income. In this regard, the general structure of the U.S. tax system has begun to resemble a partial consumption-tax regime.
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