Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who pays taxes? (continued)

A follow-up to my earlier post on Who pays taxes? — Right-wing propaganda vs. reality.

While Republicans almost monolithically refuse to consider raising taxes on rich people, on the grounds that this would be unfair and punitive as well as economically disastrous, a number of them have begun to propose raising taxes on the non-rich instead. (If you think I'm making that up, or exaggerating, read this informative piece by David Weigel in Slate ... and have a look at the second video clip in this post, too.)

This gambit involves the migration of a long-standing right-wing talking point from venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the right-wing blogosphere, where it remained relatively esoteric except for ideologues and policy wonks, to the unabashed sloganeering of Republican politicians, including Republican presidential candidates. Here is the way Michelle Bachmann formulated this talking point in August:
"Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing," said Bachmann. "We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar. Everyone should pay something, because we all benefit."
Note the characteristic slide from claiming that 47% don't "pay any federal income tax" to claiming that those deadbeats "pay nothing"—which, of course, ignores other federal taxes, excise taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and other state and local taxes.

This has long been a rhetorical trick used by pro-plutocratic propagandists: first claim that a certain proportion of non-rich Americans pay no net federal income tax (playing on the fact that "federal income tax" is a technical term which excludes the federal "payroll taxes" that all employed Americans pay on their income), and then pretend or insinuate that this means lots of non-rich Americans pay no taxes at all. If you ever feel tempted to fall for that line, go back here.

Is it really true that the wealthy (or, as they call them on Fox News, the "job creators") already pay a grossly disproportionate share of taxes? Is it really true that a large proportion of the non-rich "pay nothing"? I apologize for repeating myself, but the answers to both questions are no.

In a recent post, Jonathan Chait summed things up concisely:
Here’s the total picture. The highest-earning 1 percent take home 20 percent of the national income and pay 21 percent of the total taxes. Unfair to the rich? Exploitative? I suppose you could make the case. But I haven’t seen any conservative actually make it, as opposed to try to mislead their audience about the underlying facts.
OK, if you want to be picky, the highly informative chart to which we both referred gives those figures as 20.3% and 21.5%, respectively. But you get the idea. And the piece from which that chart is taken emphasizes, correctly, that "All Americans pay taxes."

But right-wing polemicists use a wide range of rhetorical tricks, evasions, and outright falsehoods to deny, distort, or obscure that inconvenient reality. I don't have the time or energy to keep up with all of them, but in two of his recent posts Jon Chait did a good job of surveying and debunking some frequent examples. Like everything Chait writes, they're worth reading. See here and here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Taxes aside, some right-wing propagandists actually try to argue that increasing economic inequality in the US is just a "myth"—which entails a truly heroic effort to deny the undeniable. Again, if you don't believe me, you can find a systematic examination and debunking of one representative example here.