Who Pays the Taxes?

Every well-informed person knows that upper-income taxpayers shoulder a disproportionate share of the nation’s fiscal burden. The problem is that most people aren’t well-informed. The Wall Street Journal reports:

President Biden and Democratic tax raisers always say the rich don’t pay their “fair share.” Maybe one reason this line works politically is that most voters have no idea who really pays how much in taxes.

“To the best of your knowledge,” asked a new poll, “how much do you think the top 1% of taxpayers by income account for in terms of share of total federal income taxes paid: 1%, 12%, 42%, or 64%?”

The correct answer, as of 2020, is 42%. But less than a quarter of those surveyed guessed right. Twenty-two percent (including more than a third of Democrats) thought the top 1% of taxpayers paid only 1% of income taxes, which is wildly off the mark. Twenty-five percent suggested it was 12% of revenue. Nineteen percent shrugged and said they weren’t sure.

So more than a third of Democrats think we have a flat personal income tax. Would that it were true! I remember some years ago, when flat tax proposals seemed to be gaining momentum, and Democratic leaders and reporters rushed to inform people that, contrary to what they may have gleaned from past “news” coverage, upper income people pay vastly more than their pro rata share of income in taxes. Ergo, a flat tax would make the code less progressive. With any danger of a federal flat tax a distant memory, no such education campaign has recently been undertaken by Democratic Party media.

As a communications strategy, Republicans could apparently do worse than simply repeat the official IRS data over and over.

Sure, why not. Scott and I were doing that in op-eds back in the 1990s. Sadly, however, I think that “progressive” economic policies are driven not so much by a sense of fairness as by naked greed. Make the other guy pay for my benefits? Sure, why not!

Still, it couldn’t hurt to give Americans the facts (which is why the press doesn’t do it):

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they’d shift the tax burden “by having high earners pay more,” which suggests that the left’s “fair share” mantra has sunk in. But then see this question: “What do you think would be a fair top tax rate on income: 0%, 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, or higher?”

Seventy-one percent chose a figure of 30% or less. Only 5% of respondents said they want a top tax of 40%, and 8% opted for “higher.” Huh. As a reminder, the current federal income tax that Americans pay today has a top marginal rate of 37%. Add state and local income taxes, and the top marginal rate hits 50.3% in California and 51.8% in New York City.

Decades ago, I saw poll data that were almost exactly the same: the vast majority of Americans think that no one should pay more than a third of his income in income taxes. But the infernal combination of graft and press bias has prevented that consensus from being implemented. And, to be fair, I suspect that many millions would change their answers to that question if they understood that reducing the top tax rate to 30% or less would be a cut, and that the federal government would then have fewer dollars to fund programs that benefit them financially, at the expense of others.

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