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US already moving toward a flat tax

Bigger tax breaks for wealth produces a system in which the middle class pays about the same as the rich.

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Billionaires are paying not much more taxes, proportionately, than those Americans who are merely prosperous.

It's a sign that, even without the formal adoption of a so-called "flat tax," America's tax system is getting flatter.

Ever since the introduction of the modern income tax in 1913, US policy has been guided by the notion that the rich should pay a larger of their income in federal taxes, since they arguably owe something extra to a government that protects their greater wealth, and to a society that has helped them prosper.

But a debate has long waged over just where to draw the line, with populists pushing to "soak the rich" and conservatives arguing that a too-progressive tax structure creates a disincentive for the creation of jobs and wealth that benefit the whole nation.

Chalk up President Bush as not just a tax cutter but also a tax flattener. Under Mr. Bush and a Republican Congress, big tax cuts since 2001 have given major tax reductions to those wealthy individuals presumed, up to now, to be able to afford paying a bigger chunk of their income in taxes. By one measure of the federal, state, and local tax burden, just 3.4 percentage points separate the effective tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of earners from the other 99 percent of American households.

"That's the goal of the president and Congress - to shift the tax and debt burden to middle-income Americans," charges Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), a liberal Washington think tank that crunched the numbers.

The comment may be unfair to a president who has cut taxes for all income groups, and has not publicly espoused such a goal. But his policies could have the effect of shifting greater tax burdens to the middle class.

If the Bush tax cuts are made permanent by Congress, by 2010 billionaires and millionaires will be paying a smaller percentage of their income in federal taxes than those in the upper middle class, according to a calculation by Brian Roach, an economist at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.

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