Daily Howler logo
WHERE HAS OUR SIDE BEEN ALL THESE YEARS! A letter in today’s New York Times raises an obvious question: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, APRIL 23, 2011

Where has our side been all these years: A letter in today’s New York Times raises an obvious question: Where has the liberal world been for the past twenty-five years?

The letter comes from a fellow in Boston. He is troubled by the idea that the nation’s highest earners should perhaps have to pay higher taxes. As he states his case, he recites a persuasive talking-point—a talking-point the right has pimped for a good many years.

The talking-point is a Hannity favorite. Unchallenged, it can be quite persuasive:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/23/11): The indignation of those on the left to the mere mention of tax cuts on high-income earners continues to puzzle me. Charles M. Blow’s argument that high-income earners are not paying their fair share of taxes is not supported by the facts.

To begin with, the tax cuts enacted by Congress in 2001 and signed into law by President George W. Bush lowered marginal tax rates for all income earners, not just the “rich.” Millions of low-income earners were dropped from the federal income tax rolls as a result, shifting the tax burden up the income scale.

As of 2006, 46 million American households paid no federal income tax. Those with incomes of $89,500 and up in 2006, representing the top 40 percent of income earners, paid 99.2 percent of all federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Incredibly, the top 1 percent of income earners paid 39.1 percent of all federal income taxes.

If 1 percent of the population pays 39.1 percent of all federal income tax receipts and 40 percent of the population pays nothing, which group is the glutton? Which is the plunderer?

“The top 1 percent of income earners paid 39.1 percent of all federal income taxes!” This fact strikes the writer as being incredible. It undermines the idea that high-end earners should perhaps have to pay higher taxes.

Again, this talking-point is quite familiar; Sean Hannity recites this point in much the way average folk breathe. But is this talking-point perhaps a bit misleading? Here at THE HOWLER, we have discussed this talking-point for years. We have begged the liberal world to start responding, in easy-to-understand ways, to such persuasive claims in a wide array of policy areas.

Just this week, Jonathan Chait did just that, in this accurate, mostly well-written post. We’ll recommend that you read the whole thing, but basically Chait makes the following point: If you consider all levels of taxation—federal, state and local—our tax system is barely progressive at all. According to Chait, upper-end earners pay only slightly more in overall taxes than would correspond to their share of the nation’s income.

Chait illustrates this point with a graph. According to the graph, the top one percent earn roughly 23 percent of all income—and they pay roughly 24 percent of all taxes! That represents the tiny degree of “progressivity” built into our overall tax system.

On the one hand, we were pleased to see Chait’s post. (Although an evaluation of overall fairness is only starting at this point.) On the other hand, we were a bit startled. Chait writes a smart, high-end, policy-oriented blog at the New Republic. (We read it every day.) At this late date in the nation’s intellectual disintegration, can the things he says here really be news to his high-end readers? Can it really be true? That the people who read Chait’s blog don’t already understand these points?

If so, your nation’s liberal/progressive project is even more challenged than we would have thought.

We strongly recommend Chait’s post, but it’s odd that he had to write it. We’d very much like to see liberal writers discussing delivery systems for such information—discussing ways to get this type of information in front of average voters. But is our side really so far behind that we still have to develop this information for those who sit near the top of the liberal intellectual world?

Is our side really this clueless?

We strongly recommend Chait’s post, but it illustrates a point we’ve been making for years. In the political wars of the past twenty years, our side’s intellectual leaders have largely sat on the sidelines—quiet, polite, uninvolved, unconcerned. Through platforms likes Hannity’s, average voters endlessly hear that the top one percent are being drained: Why, they pay 39 percent of all taxes! Hannity rarely bothers with matters of technical accuracy, as the letter-writer did. Of course, even when a letter states that it is discussing “federal income taxes,” few readers will know how the data would look if all taxes got thrown on the pile.

For decades, the other side has pimped this sort of jive, in almost all policy areas. (European-style health care failed everywhere it has ever been tried! The Social Security trust fund doesn’t exist—it has already been spent!) For the most part, your “career liberal intellectual leaders” have sat politely by, saying very little about this. For the most part, it’s obvious why this has occurred—your “career liberal intellectual leaders” are themselves part of the insider big-money system. Some of them have grown fat and lazy and disconnected in their cushy, upper-end jobs. Some of them know they must shut their mouths to stay viable within the system.

They have performed as the Washington Generals. You still accept them.

Why?

A question about our side’s competence: As you can see at the link, Chait’s graph concerns “Shares of Income and Taxes Paid.” Part of the graph shows “share of total taxes paid.”

Question: Does that mean total federal taxes? Or does it mean total federal, state and local taxes? The graph doesn’t say—and neither does Chait. Not exactly.

Have we grown a bit lazy over the years? From our rather comfortable perches, do we grasp the ways things get misunderstood by the average person?

Once again, we recommend Chait’s post. But why does our side fumble ahead with clarification as the other side works so hard to pimp its misleading lines?