One of the sad constants of American political debate is that, anytime the tax rate on the rich is to be either raised or lowered, Republicans will repeat a certain statistic. To wit, “The Stat” is that the highest-earning one percent of taxpayers pay 40 percent of all income taxes. Conservatives consider this fact a dispositive justification either against any proposal to increase taxes on the rich, or in favor of any plan to reduce it. Over just the past day, I have seen it circulating — here, here, here, everywhere.
It is a figure that has been repeated a million times on Fox News diatribes and in College Republican lectures sponsored by aging billionaires. It is one of the handful of debate-enders, like “Ronald Reagan defeated communism” or “gun controls don’t stop crime,” that any good Republican apparatchik has at his fingertips.
The Stat is literally true. But it is deeply misleading — so misleading, in fact, that it routinely fools even the people who are citing it into thinking it indicates something other than what it actually means.
The first problem with The Stat is that it makes no reference to the proportion of income the rich earn. The juxtaposition between one percent and 40 percent is meant to convey the idea that a small number of people are carrying a gigantic and disproportionate burden, but the figure lacks any context when it omits how much money they earn in the first place.
Indeed, it turns the fact that rich people account for a massive share of the income pool into a reason to see them as mistreated. One common move for polemicists brandishing this figure is to note that the share of taxes paid by the rich is “up sharply” over the past couple decades — which it is, on account of rich people claiming a larger share of the national income. The logic implied by The Stat is that the bigger the proportion of income earned by the richest one percent, the more imperative it is to reduce their tax rates, so that they don’t pay too high a share of the tax burden.
Second, and worse still, The Stat ignores the fact that income taxes are just one component of the federal tax system, and federal taxes are just one component of the total tax system. The federal tax system is far more progressive than state and local taxes, which rely heavily on regressive burdens like sales taxes. (It’s harder to impose progressives taxes at the state or local level, since rich people moving to a different town or state is relatively easy, while leaving the country is more burdensome.)
What’s more, even within the federal tax system, income taxes are just one, relatively progressive, component. For most workers, the biggest tax they pay isn’t income tax but payroll tax, the line marked “FICA” on your pay stub, which finances Social Security and most of Medicare. That tax is regressive and primarily applies to the first $142,800 of wages.*
The trick of describing only the share of income taxes paid by the richest one percent is to make people think it means all taxes. Even professional movement conservatives make this mistake. Here’s Jay Nordlinger:
Another right-wing column published the other day makes the same error, first using the “income tax” qualifier, then slipping out of it to assert, falsely, “the top 1% paid more in taxes in 2018 than the bottom 90%” — an extremely common error by conservatives.
Republican politicians, including George W. Bush, have made the same error. The Stat is technically limited to income taxes for a reason — it’s describing a narrow category of taxation that is especially progressive. But it only works because it makes the listener believe it describes all taxes. The trick works so well it fools the people repeating the stat.
The actual truth about the American tax system is that it is slightly progressive. The richest one percent earn about 21 percent of the income and pay 24 percent of the taxes:
Nordlinger helpfully summarizes the conservative notion that the rich are taxed to the limit and cannot pay any more. Of course, we have plenty of recent experience with taxing rich people at higher levels. Restoring the Clinton-era top tax rate of 39.6 percent obviously did not stop the rapid growth seen under Clinton. The Trump tax cuts for business owners and heirs to large fortunes were supposed to encourage more business investment but clearly failed to do so. There are gaping loopholes in the tax code for the wealthy that allow massive fortunes to escape any taxation at all.
A great deal of evidence supports the notion that the tax system could increase the burden on the very rich with little or no economic drag. That idea also happens to be extremely popular. Because it is popular, conservatives feel special urgency to insist it cannot be done. But it can.
*The original version of this column erroneously understated the level of wages subject to FICA. Medicare taxes apply to a larger portion of wages than Social Security.