Do Americans Want To Tax The Rich Because They're Ignorant?

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JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 22, 2010

Do Americans Want To Tax The Rich Because They're Ignorant?

"Verum Serum" has a post accusing yours truly of hypocrisy. I'm going to go through the argument because it reveals a common vein of misinformation that tends to circulate on among conservatives.

On Friday, I pointed out that the American public thinks upper-income earners pay too little in taxes. Why is this hypocritical? Verum Serum explains:

You see, Chait, like just about everyone else on the left, threw a hissy fit over Sarah Palin’s use of “death panels” in her critique of ObamaCare. It was an insult to our (meaning Chait’s like-minded readers) intelligence.

But when it comes to this post about Republican hubris, Chait is happy to throw out the Gallup poll without bothering to point out how badly (and intentionally) misinformed the respondents are. Who actually pays taxes?

What follows is the standard right-wing chart showing that rich people pay a large share of income taxes. "Wonder why Jonathan Chait doesn’t feel the need to educate America about this?," Verum Serum asks, "Could this be an example of hypocrisy?"

I'm not really sure why this could be considered "hypocrisy." The argument seems to be that I "threw a hissy fit" about Sarah Palin's death panels claim -- Verum Serum actually links to a colleague's item, not mine, but never mind -- but didn't correct the American public's ignorance about the tax burden.

A few problems strike me with this claim. Let's grant that the poll I posted, showing that Americans think the rich should be paying a higher share of the tax burden, is an example of public ignorance. It seems to me that disapproving of politicians who spread untruths does not obligate one to correct public ignorance every time it appears. In the context of discussing the reality of public opinion, I should be permitted to present facts about public opinion as they are without forfeiting my right to object to politicians who mislead the public.

And, of course, the poll I cited was not at all an example of public ignorance. It was an example of the public disagreeing with right-wing preferences. The question asked whether the rich are paying "their fair share" of the federal tax burden. "Fair" is a subjective judgment, not a question of objective truth.

Finally -- and here we're getting to the common right-wing trope -- the chart that Verum Serum presents as "reality" about the tax burden is actually incorrect. It shows that the highest-earning 10% of taxpayers pay nearly 70% of income taxes. However, income taxes do not represent the whole of the federal tax base. The question I cited asked whether upper-income people pay their fair share of federal taxes. Federal taxes also include payroll taxes, which are considerably more regressive than income taxes.

Pretending that income taxes account for all federal taxes is a classic trick of right-wingers who want to mislead their readers into believing that the tax code is more regressive than it really is. This trick is a staple of conservative rhetoric on taxes, being employed by almost every major figure on the right from George W. Bush on down. (You can see Republican economist Greg Mankiw -- who has tenure at Harvard! -- use it here.)

But even if you do the correct figure, including all federal taxes, you still have a highly slanted picture. The claim that the top X% of income earners pay Y% of the total tax burden is supposed to make any disproportionate burden seem unfair. But unless you believe in a poll tax, where every citizen owes the same sum regardless of ability to pay, then hearing what share of the tax burden the top X% pay tells you nothing. Any informative figure has to include what share of the income each group earns.

So here you go, courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office:

Keep in mind that the slightly progressive character of the federal tax code is somewhat counteracted by state and local taxes, which are highly regressive. If you look at the total tax burden, the distribution is just barely progressive.

I'm not saying that Americans believe what they do about taxes because they're deeply informed. On most policy issues, most Americans are pretty uninformed. But there's little reason to think that providing them with more information would change their beliefs.

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posted in: jonathan chait, republican, america, george w. bush, greg mankiw, jonathan chait, sarah palin, harvard

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