Robert Samuelson reports:
As Tax Day — April 18 this year — approaches, we are confronted once again with the apparently enduring reality that Americans hate to pay taxes. Few political generalizations seem so indestructible. Gallup has long asked Americans whether their federal income taxes are too high. About 50 to 60 percent regularly say “yes.” The federal income tax is deeply unpopular. So goes the conventional wisdom.
Except that it’s not true or, at any rate, is too simple and incomplete. The tax system is not just a divider; it’s a uniter, too.
“Americans almost universally agree that taxpaying is a civic duty,” writes political scientist Vanessa Williamson in her new book, Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. To be a taxpayer is “a source of pride because it is evidence that one is an upstanding, contributing member of the community.”
Williamson studied existing surveys, conducted one of her own and interviewed 49 taxpayers in depth. What she concluded suggests a sizable revision of popular thinking, which emphasizes a profound dislike of taxes.
“Around four in five Americans . . . see taxpaying as a moral responsibility and tax evasion as morally wrong,” she writes of the various surveys. “This is a belief that is particularly strong in the United States” compared with many European countries, she finds. Americans have one of the world’s highest rates of tax compliance — an achievement aided by tax withholding.
In one of the interviews, Roy — a 61-year-old retired Republican postal worker from Ohio — puts it this way: “I feel like I am doing my part in supplying the needs and to help pay for things in this country that are needed. So, in a small way, I do feel like it’s my civic duty and that I’m responsible for paying taxes.”
Taxes are a bond as well as a burden. They’re a modern embrace of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous dictum: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Interestingly, Republicans more than Democrats feel that tax evasion is morally wrong. “Republicans believe strongly in paying taxes,” Williamson writes.
One reason popular opinion misses the unifying aspects of taxes is that public surveys are skewed, she argues. “Public opinion polls commonly assume that the only attitude Americans hold about taxes is one of enraged opposition,” Williamson writes. “Negative questions carry a value judgment and predispose certain answers.”
Still, it’s possible to take tax revisionism too far, as Williamson herself notes. Taxes — and the government programs they support — remain highly contentious issues at both the state and national levels. Somebody has got to pay; conflict is unavoidable.
In her interviews, Williamson found widespread resentment that both the very rich and the very poor (particularly immigrants) don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes. The animus against the poor affects both Republicans and Democrats, though Republicans more so.
(It’s also a bum rap, Williamson argues. Thanks to the payroll and sales taxes, almost everyone is a taxpayer in some form. She estimates that the poorest fifth of earners make 3 percent of the income and account for 2 percent of all taxes. It’s also true that high taxable thresholds mean that 44 percent of tax filers in 2016 didn’t owe federal income taxes, reports the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.)
Even if all Americans were satisfied with their present tax situation — clearly not the case — it does not follow that everyone would be happy if their taxes were raised. President Trump has promised tax reform but has yet to present a concrete proposal. When he does, it is almost certain to trigger a congressional donnybrook, because some taxpayers will be hit with increases to finance tax cuts for other taxpayers.
Bigger problems loom in the future. Sooner or later, we will have to raise taxes, because there is a huge and growing gap between the government’s spending commitments and its tax revenues. Although we are now near full employment, meaning the economy is near its physical capacity, the deficit is roughly $500 billion. Under present policies and assuming unrealistically no future recession, it will continue to rise.
How long this can continue is anyone’s guess, although the answer is probably not forever. By all means, let’s acknowledge the benefits of taxes. But let’s not assume that higher taxes will make government more popular. This seems dubious.
There is a bigger reason the book’s hypothesis is dubious. (In addition to conclusions based on 49 cherry-picked interviewees.) The San Diego Union Tribune reports:
“Most people have the same philosophy about taxes,” said Russell B. Long, the Louisiana senator who spent 15 years wrestling with tax policy as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”
His little rhyme has entered the popular lexicon because of its basic truth: Most people seem to be OK with higher taxes — provided someone else pays for most of them.
That’s one lens with which to view the latest Public Policy Institute of California public-opinion poll, which found strong optimism over the state’s budget situation following the 2012 approval of Proposition 30, which raised income taxes on the wealthy and slightly boosted sales taxes on everybody. Fifty-two percent of likely voters are inclined to extend those “temporary” tax hikes — and 54 percent like raising commercial property taxes.
During 1978’s tax revolt, Californians approved Proposition 13, which puts a cap on property taxes for residential and commercial buildings. A large percentage of Californians own homes, so it’s no surprise they want to keep the residential cap, but fewer own commercial properties and tend to favor a split roll that ties commercial rates to market values.
When asked about the Proposition 30 extension and split-roll issue at a Sacramento Press Club talk on Thursday, Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon said they deserve discussion. That’s not a “no.” Legislators are floating tax-hike (and new spending) trial balloons — and some public-sector unions are eyeing tax-raising measures for the 2016 ballot.
The left-leaning Calbuzz blog was heartened by the PPIC findings and argued “it will be fascinating to see if Californians baffle the Beltway crowd yet again by voting to tax themselves.” …
“The key is they want other people to pay taxes,” said Richard Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters. “That’s why they love Proposition 30. … Soak the oil companies more? Yes. Soak businesses? Yes. Tax me more? Wait a minute.” Rider said he’d love to see PPIC include this question on its next poll: “Do you think you should pay 10 percent more in taxes?”
Exactly. It is grossly hypocritical to support tax increases that (you think) have no effect on you. I would like to see Democrats taxed at a level of 100 percent of income and wealth. I am not a Democrat.
One of the flaws of Wisconsin’s Constitution is the fact it does not include a requirement that voters, not politicians, approve tax increases. The change in the law that requires voter approval to allow school districts to exceed state revenue caps (added to the long-standing requirement of voter approval for borrowing for school building projects) resulted in reportedly two-thirds of the April 4 school district referenda being approved, which proves that the system works. Any tax increase, state or local, in income, property or sales taxes should require voter approval by referendum.