The argument against raising taxes on people making more than $X

The general argument against raising taxes on people making more than $X (no matter what value anyone fills in for “X” in the argument) is this:

“We can’t possibly raise taxes on people making more than $X, because that is unfair to the people who are making just a tiny bit more than $X. Some of them might be well-off, but there are some people who are making just a little bit more than $X who are small business owners, running expensive businesses, and their businesses are just barely getting by. Because having the limit be $X is unfair to some people making a little more than $X, you have to raise the boundary to something higher.”

Of course, if you suggest a higher value of X, they can still use the same argument again. On and on, ad infinitum.

Whenever I’ve heard this, I’ve always felt it seemed vaguely familiar somehow. I just figured out where I’ve heard it before.

When I used to teach at UCLA, my system for grading was to add up a student’s total points from various things over the course of the term—mid-term exam, final exam, essay score, any quizzes or homework—and then figure out how to convert that overall score into a letter grade based on the overall distribution of scores in the class.

My reasoning would be that some terms my essays or final exams might be harder than others. I never re-used exam questions or essay topics. So if the average of the entire class is lower in one term compared to the class that I had the previous term, I figure I just created more difficult exams. I don’t want to punish the students for that.

Grade CurveSo, I would come up with some kind of rule like, “From one standard deviation below the standard deviation to one standard deviation above the mean is a C, from the first to the second standard deviations above the mean is a B, from the first to the second standard deviations below the mean is a D, and everything left over is either an A (for things at the top of the scale) or an F (for things at the bottom).

That way I would come up with cut-off points.  I would have to make a decision at some point that would say something like (for example): “Anyone whose total score is 358 points gets an A- and anyone whose total score is 357 points gets a B+.”

Of course, every term, this created havoc with the minds and feelings of some students. There would always be a student or two on the “cusp” who would think it was unfair that they got a B+ (or a C+, or a D+), instead of being one grade-category higher, because they were just a single point away from the boundary.

The thing is, I totally understood their feelings. This is an emotional topic. I might have been less sympathetic when the boundary was between A-/B+ than when it was over a C-/D+, but I still understood where they were coming from. It tugged at my heart-strings.

But the fact is, there is nothing I could possibly do about the situation. If I raised the boundary by 1 point, it would make that person feel better and would launch a new set of students into my office during office hours whose grade scores were “on the boundary” who now thought it was unfair. No matter where that boundary was, some students would feel the sting of being right on the border and not quite making the next level up.

So I heard their pain… but the fact that they felt bad ultimately wasn’t a good argument for making a change. What could I do? … apart from maybe storming the office of the President of the University and demanding that the entire school stop using letter grades. (I’m sure that would have gone over well.) The fact is, the boundary had to go somewhere, and the fact that  “there are some people who are upset with this boundary” isn’t an argument for changing it.

This scenario is exactly the same as the arguments against raising taxes on people making more than some-particular-income-level, $X. It will always be true that “there exist” some people who will be borderline cases and will feel like they are being unfairly “punished” compared to their peers who made just a tiny bit less than they did.  It sucks for them, and I understand.

But that’s not an argument.  It’s not a reason to move the cut-off point.

So unless you are planning on arguing against tax brackets entirely (which some people do), the “What about the poor boundary-condition people?” argument is just not a logical one to use.



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  1. MM says:

    As a teacher, I think that’s an excellent analogy!!

  2. Neal Miller says:

    The base argument is flawed, since it shows a lack of understanding of how tax brackets work.

    To keep numbers simple, let’s say that the tax bracket for $30,001-$45,000 is 20%, and for $45,001-$60,000 is 35%. On the surface, it sounds like Person A, earning $45,000 annually, would pay only $9,000 in taxes, and Person B, earning $45,100 annually, would pay $15,785.

    Clearly, this is unfair and wrong – but it’s not how it works. Person B would pay 20% on the first $45,000, and then 35% on the additional $100, for a total of $9035, which is only slightly higher than what Person A paid. The vast majority of his income was taxed at the lower rate, and only the “overflow” was taxed at the higher rate.

    You don’t fall into a single tax bracket, unless it’s the lowest one.

    However, I’m not sure how such a model could be applied to grading systems.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      That’s a very good point! The rate of a tax bracket only applies to the portion of income falling within it’s range, or the “overage” that exceeds the limit of the bracket below, as you say. And I think you’re right to point it out — a LOT of people misunderstand that basic point.

      Unfortunately, I think the “grading” analogy starts to fail once you take that into consideration. 😉 Alas.

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