No one likes to pay taxes, so tax day typically attracts a range of right-wing Republicans, kooks, and demagogues, all of whom tell us how awful we have it. Herewith a short citizen’s guide (that is, a citizen’s guide that’s short rather than one for short citizens) responding to th predictable charges:
1. “Americans pay too much in taxes.” Wrong: The United States has the lowest taxes of all developed nations.
2. “The rich pay too much! The top ten percent of income earners pay over 72 percent of all income taxes!” Misleading: The main reason the rich pay such a large percent is they’ve become so much richer than the bottom 90 percent in recent years. If you look at what they pay as individuals — the percent of their incomes over and above the highest rate below them — you’ll see a steady decline over the years. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower was president, the marginal rate on the highest earners was 91 percent (after deductions and tax credits, closer to 50 percent); by 1980 it was still up there, at 70 percent (an effective rate of closer to 45 percent); under Bill Clinton, it was 38 percent (an effective rate closer to 28 percent).
Look at the after-tax earnings of families and you’ll see what’s really going on. Between 1980 and 2000, the after-tax earnings of famlies at the top rose more than 150 percent, while the after-tax earnings of families in the middle rose about 10 percent. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 raised the after-tax incomes of most Americans by a bit over 1 percent — but raised the after-tax incomes of millionaires by 4.4 percent.
3. “The bottom 60 percent pay only 3.3 percent of the taxes!” Misleading again. Most Americans are paying more in sales taxes than they ever have. Property taxes have also been rising at a steady clip. And Social Security taxes have also risen (thanks to the Greenspan Commission), while earnings over about $100,000 aren’t subject to Social Security taxes. So-called “sin” taxes (mostly beer and cigarettes) have also skyrocketed. All of these taxes take a bigger bite out of the paychecks of people with lower incomes than they do people with higher incomes.
4. “Obama is raising your taxes!” Wrong. Obama is cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans, by about $400 per person a year — not a whopping tax cut, to be sure, but not a tax increase by any stretch. Only the top 2 percent will have a tax increase, but even this tax increase is modest. Basically, they go back to the rates they were paying under Bill Clinton (their deductions will be limited to 28 percent, which is only fair). And they won’t start paying this until 2011 anyway.
5. “The huge debts we’re wracking up will cause your taxes to rise!” Wrong again. When it comes to the national debt, as I’ve said before, the relevant statistic is the ratio of debt to the gross domestic product. The only sure way to bring that debt down and make it manageable in future years is to get the economy growing again — which requires that, in the short term, the government spend a lot of money (because consumers and businesses won’t). In the long term, the biggest source of concern is rising health-care costs. And that’s something Obama and Congress are aiming to tackle.
6. “We have a patriotic duty to stand up against Washington taxes!” Just the opposite. We have a patriotic duty to pay taxes. As multi-billionaire Warrent Buffett put it, “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to product in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling thirty years later.” President Teddy Roosevelt made the case in 1906 when he argued in favor of continuing the inheritance tax. “The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.”
An acquaintance from law school, now a partner in one of Washington’s biggest and wealthiest law firms, explained to me one day over lunch how he and his partners use tax rules to create offsetting taxable gains and losses, and then allocate the gains to the firm’s foreign partners who don’t pay taxes in the United States. That way, they keep the losses here and shelter their income abroad. I noticed he had an American flag lapel pin. “You’re supporting our troops,” I said, referring to his pin. “Yup,” he replied, entirely missing my point. True patriotism isn’t cheap. It’s about taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going.