Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded diatribe against the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes revealed a lot of things about him, one of them being the degree to which he has come to share the paranoia of the rich that has flowered in the Obama era. The paranoia is very weird, not least because the rich have actually prospered under Obama while vast swaths of the populace have struggled, which is in character with the broader explosion of inequality over the last few decades. The recording also shows the degree to which Romney has joined the imaginary world of persecution inhabited by rich conservatives and undergirded by made-up facts.
Most of these myths take the form of wildly misleading statistics about the tax system. Taxes at all levels of government account for $4 trillion a year. Many of those taxes — most state and local taxes and federal payroll taxes — tax the poor and middle class at a higher rate than the rich. In part to compensate, the federal income tax does the opposite, hitting the rich at higher rates. The overall total is somewhat progressive:
Now, it is perfectly fair to argue that taxes should be less progressive or should not be progressive at all. But since that is not a popular position to advocate, and also because it fails to capture the feelings of persecution that have seized wealthy conservatives, the right has instead constructed its own pseudo-facts.
Reason has a new poll out showing that Americans think the rich pay too much in taxes. Well, it doesn’t really show that. What it shows, according to the poll, is that 57 percent of Americans think “the top 5 percent of earners shouldn’t have to contribute more than 40 percent of the total federal income taxes paid to government.” That is higher than the actual share of federal income taxes paid by the top 5 percent.
Of course, this is a trick. Even tiny changes in the wording of a question can swing the result of a poll, so advocacy groups periodically issue polls with questions designed to produce results congenial to their point of view. This particular poll does a couple familiar tricks. It asks about “federal income taxes,” which are one of the most progressive parts of the tax code, and ignores the effect of other taxes, which fall more heavily on the poor and middle class. Its question about what share of federal income taxes the richest 5 percent ought to pay also fails to note what percentage of the income they earn. Kind of hard to answer that question without knowing, isn’t it? And most Americans dramatically underestimate the level of income inequality that exists. So, combine the trick of asking about “federal income taxes,” which most people don’t understand represents merely a quarter of the tax system that is unusually progressive, along with not informing them of the level of income earned by the rich, and you have, in effect, a pseudo-poll, a predetermined answer disguised as a question.