Jonathan Chait

In Which I Rise To the Public's Defense

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Jonathan Bernstein bemoans public ignorance about tax levels:

Half of American households don't pay income tax, and half of the American people believe that they, themselves, pay too much income tax.

I realize that households aren't quite the same as people, but either way one of two things is true: either virtually everyone who pays any federal income tax at all thinks that they pay too much, or a whole lot of people who pay zero income taxes believe they pay too much.  A quick look at Gallup's crosstabs make it clear that the answer is the latter, since the "pay too much" answer turns out not to vary much by income.  That's right -- 44% of those who make $20K a year or less believe they pay too much in federal income tax, and 41% of those who make between $20K and $30K believe they pay too much in federal income tax.  The vast majority of those people do not pay a single penny in federal income taxes.

I mean, forget about asking people what they know about government and public affairs.  If they don't know that they, themselves, don't pay any income tax...you know, I don't even know how to complete that sentence.

While I bow to nobody in my low estimation of public knowledge, I think there's actually a less depressing interpretation here. Most people make no distinction between "income tax" and taxes, period. That's why conservatives constantly harp on how much "income tax" is paid by the rich. They know full well that the vast majority of the audience will read "income tax" as "tax." Indeed, conservative elites themselves often fall for their own rhetorical trick, getting a piece of information about "income taxes" and then restating it as "taxes."

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