It's no secret that sales taxes are a regressive way to raise revenues. And the heavy reliance on such taxes across the country explains why state tax systems tend to clobber the poor while asking little of the rich.
But here's something that most people don't know: Even sales taxes themselves are designed unfairly, taxing the sale of products but not the sale of services. If you go to Walmart and buy a flat panel TV, you'll pay sales taxes on top of the price. But if you go to a dentist to get your teeth whitened, you won't pay any tax on that service.
Sales taxes were first imposed in most states during the 1930s through the 1950s in an era when the modern service economy did not yet exist. It's fair to say that most policymakers back then never imagined that Americans would spend so much money on stuff like cosmetic surgery, pool maintenance, massages, lawyers, landscaping, pet grooming, life coaching, and on and on.
California is a great example. Sixty years ago, its sales taxes covered much of what was happening in that state's economy, providing Sacramento with 60 percent of all state revenues. Today it raises just 25 percent of revenues, and that shortfall helps explain California's budget woes.
As a bipartisan group, the Think Long Commitee for California, pointed out in a 2011 report:
California’s $2-trillion economy is no longer dominated by manufacturing and agriculture, but is primarily composed of services and information activities. Yet, California’s tax code is so outdated that nearly $1 trillion – that is, roughly half – of the state’s economic output is not taxed.
While we tax the sale of a donut eaten in a coffee shop, we don’t, for example, tax the sale of legal, consulting, accounting or architectural services. In essence, those who produce goods such as donuts or machinery are subsidizing those who produce services and information.
The average overall effective state and local tax rates by income group nationwide are 11.1 percent for the bottom 20 percent, 9.4 percent for the middle 20 percent and 5.6 percent for the top 1 percent.