Sunday, August 31, 2008

Confusing wealth with income

by Richard W. Rahn

Which of the following families is "richer"? The first family consists of a wife who has recently become a medical doctor, and she makes $160,000 per year. Her husband is a small business entrepreneur who makes $110,000 per year, giving them a total family income of $270,000 per year. However, they are still paying off the loans the wife took out for medical school and the loans the husband took out to start his business, amounting to debts of $300,000. Their total assets are valued at $450,000; hence, their real net worth or wealth (the difference between gross assets and liabilities) is only $150,000.

The second family consists of a trial lawyer who took early retirement and his non-working wife. They have an annual income of $230,000, all of it derived from interest on tax-free municipal bonds they own. However, their net worth is $7 million, consisting of $5 million in bonds, a million-dollar home with no mortgage, and a million dollars in art work, home furnishings, automobiles and personal items.

The second family is clearly far better off financially than the first family, yet many in the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Barack Obama, want to increase taxes on the first (and poorer) family and not on the wealthier family. They have mis-defined "rich" by confusing a flow (income) with a stock (real net assets), and thus come to the wrong conclusion. They want to tax those (who make more than $250,000 a year) who are trying to become rich, while preserving the status for those who already have wealth.

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