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SHOW US THE FACTS (CONTINUED)! One savvy reader questioned the claim that rich folk pay 19 percent: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2004

SHOW US THE FACTS (CONTINUED): A reader finds it hard to believe—are the top fifth of earners so lightly taxed? He poses an important question (we round off his personal dollar amounts):
E-MAIL: In the November 19 posting you quoted David Kay Johnston: “For 2001 the government found that all taxes at all levels of government consume 19 percent of the incomes of the best-off fifth of Americans, those individuals and families whose average income was $116,666 that year. Down at the bottom the poorest fifth, whose average income was $7,946, paid 18 percent.”

I had a hard time reconciling that statement with my own experience. In 2001 my adjusted gross income was $260,000. My federal tax was $73,000. Self-employment tax was $7000. [Name of state] state income tax was $18,000. My total tax was $99,000, or 38 percent of my adjusted gross income. This number does not count state sales tax, real estate tax, airport taxes, and car rental taxes. I am not saying that I am overtaxed. I just don’t quite get that 19 percent figure that Johnston comes up with.

Based on his own experience, the mailer questions Johnston’s claim—his claim that the top fifth of earners pay only 19 percent of their income in taxes. For the record, Johnston says his claim is derived from an “annual consumer expenditure survey” by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/19/04 and 11/22/04).

Can Johnston’s claim really be accurate? For ourselves, we have no way of knowing. That’s why we said, this year and last, that citizens need more information about the way our tax system actually works. But let’s make one or two observations based on Johnston’s book, Perfectly Legal.

For the record, the e-mailer was positioned fairly high in the top fifth of earners in 2001. In 2000, the cut-off for the famous “top one percent” was $319,000. If the mailer’s reported experience is in any way typical, it might seem hard to believe that the top fifth shells out only 19 percent. But Johnston’s book makes an intriguing claim which may be relevant to the mailer’s question. According to Johnston, much tax policy is designed to help, not the rich or the merely well-off, but the so-called “super rich”—the super high earners who comprise the political donor class. Here’s a passage which speaks to this subject:

JOHNSTON (page 91): While Washington continues to ease the burden of taxes on the super rich, Congress is taking the opposite approach with the millions of Americans who make between $50,000 and $500,000. They make enough to be an attractive source of taxes, but not enough to join the political donor class and buy access to the senators and congresspeople. And what some of them are already finding out is that they are being squeezed to subsidize tax cuts for the rich.
That paragraph leads into Chapter 7, “The Stealth Tax,” the chapter in which Johnston presents the data our mailer questioned.

According to Johnston, well-off people like the mailer are being squeezed to subsidize the super-rich. Is our e-mailer paying heftier taxes so super high earners can pay much less? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know—and we’ll guess you don’t know either. These matters are rarely discussed in the mainstream press—even as propagandists maintain a drumbeat of tortured claims designed to convince us that the “top one percent” are paying much more than is equitable.

President Bush hopes to lower taxes on the rich once again. But what’s the actual shape of our tax system? Snoring journalists rarely say. This year, we need to find out.

GETTING TO YES: In Sunday’s Post, Alan Berlow offers a remarkable portrait of Alberto Gonzales, the president’s attorney general nominee. Specifically, Berlow reviews the advice Gonzales gave Governor Bush about Texas capital punishment cases. “The President’s Yes Man,” Berlow calls him, noting that Gonzales’ reviews were design to insure that Bush would never have to consider clemency. How bad was Gonzales’ work? Here is Berlow’s nugget:

BERLOW (11/21/04): Far from presenting an evenhanded or nuanced discussion of the case for and against clemency, Gonzales's execution summaries display a consistent prosecutorial bias. Not once does he attach a clemency petition in which the condemned put forward his or her best case for a reprieve. And Gonzales's summaries repeatedly play down or fail to report the most important issues at hand: claims of ineffective counsel, conflicts of interest, mitigating evidence, evidence never presented to a jury, even evidence of innocence. Not surprisingly, a disinterested observer relying solely on Gonzales's memos would probably do exactly what Bush did: deny clemency in every single case.
According to Berlow, Gonzales kept helping Bush get to yes. His piece is adapted from a longer report in Atlantic Monthly.

Berlow paints a deeply unflattering portrait of Gonzales’ work. But during Campaign 2000, someone else helped Bush “get to yes” with respect to his capital cases. That, of course, was the national press corps. Let’s recall the press corps’ conduct when Bush was faced with an especially awful case in June 2000.

The case was that of Gary Graham, executed on June 22. It was abundantly clear that the state of Texas didn’t know if Graham had committed the murder in question. And Graham had been “defended” by one of the drunken, sleeping lawyers for which the Texas system is famous. But the press corps refused to ask Bush why he didn’t intercede in the case—and even praised him for his admirable conduct. At the time, we even used the word “repulsive” to describe Mark Shields’ remarks on the case, and we think the word holds up today.

How did the press corps help Bush get to yes? For an overview of the Graham case, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/06/02. For a pair of real-time discussions, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/22/00 and 6/27/00. Berlow discusses Gonzales’ misconduct. But your favorite pundits grossly misbehaved too, a point you won’t be reading about in any Post op-ed columns.

THE SEVENTY PERCENT CONUNDRUM: HOWLER readers continue to rail against the deeply troubling hypocrites who dared object to that MNF skit. To these readers, those who see the world a different way simply have to be evil and wrong. One angry e-mailer lays out a challenge:

E-MAIL: Well, gee, Bob, after that thorough thrashing of your faithful readers, maybe you can tell us what you think are some of the reasons folks objected to the sex skit. It's easy to say “here at THE HOWLER we don't know.” Who isn't sick of phony moralists, regardless of their political persuasion?
It’s the world’s oldest law in these matters: Everyone (else) has to be phony!

We’ll be frank. We’ve been amazed by some of the e-mails we’ve received from those faithful readers. In truth, you have to be a special fool not to know an obvious fact—not to know that sincere people might have found that skit out of place. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. But some readers are determined not to know it.

But back to the e-mailer’s challenge! Why might some folks have objected to the MNF skit? Duh! For the reason these people have endlessly stated—because they were watching the program with their kids, and found the skit inappropriate. As we’ve said, you don’t have to agree with that judgment, although we ourselves are inclined to. But if you want to be a sentient being on the planet Earth, you have to be able to consider the possibility that people who found the promo inappropriate aren’t hypocrites, liars, sexists, sleazeballs or racists. You have to consider the possibility that there’s more than one way to react.

Some of our readers simply can’t do it. It lies far above their poor power to add or detract. But the political problem with that shortcoming is found in this morning’s New York Times. Adam Nagourney describes one result of the latest Times/CBS survey:

NAGOURNEY (11/23/04): The poll also found pervasive concern about what Americans view as the corrosive effect Hollywood and popular culture have on the nation's values and moral standards. Seventy percent said they were very or somewhat concerned that television, movies and popular music were lowering moral standards in this country.
“Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that Hollywood was lowering the standard of popular culture,” Nagourney reports. Can these people all be sleazeballs and hypocrites? Regarding that question, some faithful readers are quite skilled at getting to yes.