the national interest

I Will Try To Be Nice This Time

Honest decent businessman
Kindly recheck your figures. Photo: Aldra/iStockphoto

My defense of meanness may have inadvertently allowed Veronique de Rugy to change the subject of our dispute away from her demonstrably false arguments and onto a more subjective dispute about being mean. And she feels compelled to keep arguing, so, in the nicest way I know how — which is still, admittedly, not very nice — let me explain. It’s actually an extremely simple point that she is determined to obscure.

De Rugy wrote a column arguing that the U.S. has a more progressive tax system because rich Americans pay a higher share of the tax burden than do rich people in other countries:

Contrary to common belief, the United States already has a more progressive tax system than do the most industrialized democracies worldwide. The nearby chart uses data from a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the share of taxes (both personal income and payroll taxes combined) paid by the richest 10 percent of households in 24 industrialized countries. The bars represent the share of the total taxes collected that are paid by top earners in these 24 countries.

The richest 10 percent of U.S. households (those making $112,124 or more) contribute a greater share of taxes (45.1 percent of all income taxes) than their counterparts in any other industrialized nation.

This widely-circulated argument is completely fallacious. As I pointed out in my reply, the amount of taxes paid by the rich is a function not only of their relative tax rate but also their relative share of the income. If rich people earn a far larger share of the income in the U.S., which they do, then they may pay a higher share of the tax burden even if the U.S. income tax system is less regressive.*

I don’t see how anybody can deny that. Indeed, I don’t see de Rugy or her copious defenders even attempting to deny it. Instead, de Rugy keeps writing multiple replies attempting to change the question.

One thing she’s doing is suggesting other measures of progressivity that might show the U.S. is extremely progressive. That is an interesting question. It’s not, however, the subject of the dispute. As I wrote in my item, “I could not find a comprehensive comparison of the tax rate paid by the richest Americans against all other industrialized democracies.” I am not claiming to have the definitive answer to the question of where the U.S. ranks in terms of progressivity. It’s a very hard question, in part because there are many ways to define the relative terms. Clive Crook argues that, by the definition he finds most relevant — I’d dispute it, but never mind — the U.S. tax code really is unusually progressive.

That’s fine. But that is not the subject of the dispute. Likewise, if Clive Crook were to argue that he is the most handsome man in the world because he owns an Oxford shirt, and I were to respond that this is a fallacious argument, then it would be beside the point if Crook summoned some other measure to prove he really is the most handsome man in the world.

Here’s what I am saying. You can’t claim that the proportion of taxes paid by the rich is a good measure of the progressivity of the tax code. If de Rugy wants to actually address the substance, as she claims she does, she has to argue one of the following:

  1. That it’s valid to say that the proportion of taxes paid by the rich, without accounting for the income share of the rich, is a fair measure of the progressivity of a tax system.
  2. That de Rugy did not in fact argue point #1 above.

I don’t see how she can possibly claim either of these. The first is false by a plain understanding of the definition of the terms involved (“progressivity” is defined as a question of relative tax rates, not a question of relative tax payments), and #2 is false by a plain reading of her column.

Now, if de Rugy’s frantic efforts to change the subject amount to a tacit confession that her original argument was false, and she will endeavor to cease recirculating (she has done it before) this totally wrong claim, then that would be very nice.

Now, I should probably make my own confession here. It’s possible that, by pairing my critique of de Rugy’s error (which I would describe as an extremely elementary error) with a broader disparagement of her credentials, I have made it impossible for her to actually concede error. Or possibly she genuinely does not understand the problem here. I’m not sure. My general experience is that the conservative movement is filled with polemicists who repeat very basic statistical fallacies like this, and seem immune to correction regardless of the level of politeness that correction takes. But, she is an individual and deserves the chance to be judged on her own terms.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated “if the U.S. income tax system is less progressive.”

I Will Try To Be Nice This Time