Political Animal


November 21, 2011 11:25 AM A fair share

By Steve Benen

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked recently about why it’s wrong to ask the wealthy to sacrifice. “Come on,” he said. “The top 1% paid 38% of income taxes in America. How much more do you want them to pay?” On CNN yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told CNN something similar.

Perhaps now would be a good time to clarify matters. Is Boehner right that the top 1% pays 38% of income taxes? Actually, yes, that’s true, but it’s a lousy standard of measurement.

The problem with the talking point is all of the information it leaves out. The Washington Post ran a good “Reality Check” item the other day, noting that while the wealthiest of the wealthy pay 38% of income taxes, they’ve also seen their incomes soar in recent decades, while everyone else’s incomes have been stagnant.

Just as important, while these very Americans are paying a larger percentage of the nation’s overall income taxes, they’re also paying a smaller share of their personal income in income taxes.

It’s the kind of detail interviewers might want to keep in mind the next time a Republican guest relies on the talking point.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • bigtuna on November 21, 2011 11:38 AM:

    umm .. to clarify - the uber rich make most of their money via streams other than ordinary income - that is, in the form that most of us working stiffs earn money. Of course boner boy is playing with the terms. Repubs. have to to make thier lame case.

  • mk3872 on November 21, 2011 11:43 AM:

    You can probably simply this argument even further by simply stating that anyone with most basic 4th-grade level understanding of percentages realizes that Boehner's argument is laughably either ignorant or blatantly foolish.

  • walldon on November 21, 2011 11:44 AM:

    You might also add that the super wealthy pay a negligible share of Social Security and other payroll taxes.

  • kevo on November 21, 2011 11:45 AM:

    Look here Republicans - as early as kindergarten we can tell which of us will be willing to share the sand box and allow for free movement so long as no one gets too greedy and tries to take over too much space, or won't share the provided toys!

    Grow up Republicans and take pride in shared sacrifice! We're only asking for a return to a 39.6% income tax rate, but you can't seem to accept anything that speaks to the public or common good! You're the selfish 5 year olds among us! -Kevo

  • Danp on November 21, 2011 11:47 AM:

    This really minimizes the issue since:
    1) The more money you have, the less likely you have to pay interest on things like student loans, car loans, etc
    2) The larger your mortgage, the lower your interest rate.
    3) The more investment money you have, the lower your income tax rates are, and the better (read: insider) investment advice you get.
    4) If you have a lot of income, everthing that is deductible is cheaper (A $1000 charitable donation only costs $650 with a 35% marginal rate, but more with a lower rate.)
    5) People in high income brackets generally have more opportunities to take tax deductions for everyday needs such as meals, cars, clothing and home-office space.

  • David in NYC on November 21, 2011 11:56 AM:

    The claim is nonsensical on its face. Income taxes tax income not headcount. In 2007 the top 1/10 of 1% (the very richest of the top 1%) earned as much taxable income as the bottom 50%. Fairness is measured by disposable income, otherwise it would be "unfair" to make Warren Buffet pay more taxes than everyone else in his neighborhood.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on November 21, 2011 12:13 PM:

    Nice graphs Steve...

    More proof that our tax system is inequitable. Everyone knows that millionares and billionares should pay the same amount of taxes as the unemployed, the working poor, and the muddle class.

    Of course, that is in actual dollars, not percentages. For those who do not make enough money to pay their same amount of dollars of taxes as the rest of us, send them a bill and reestablish debtors prisons for those whoo cannot or will not pay. Naturally, we want those debtor prisons to be privately owned and operated and paid for with the labor of their prisoners.

  • Jon on November 21, 2011 12:28 PM:

    The relevant response is: what percentage of national income do they earn?

    The tax code chops income up into all sorts of special little categories almost as though to intentionally hide the answer to that question.

  • heckblazer on November 21, 2011 12:40 PM:

    I like the counterexample of a hypothetical Flataxistan, a nation with ten citizens with a flat income tax of 10%. Nine of the citizens make $10 each while the tenth makes $100. Mr. 1% pays $10 of the total revenue of $19, or 53% - which I guess means Boehner would find a flat tax is unfairly redistributive.

  • Quatrain Gleam on November 21, 2011 12:54 PM:

    The income tax was designed to tax the wealthy predominantly. When it was introduced, the lowest tax bracket (paying 1%) was "everyone making less than $453,000 per year" in today's dollars. And thus most people weren't even expected to file. It wasn't until after WWII and the expansion of the middle class that all American families participated in the income tax.

    Now that the middle class is being destroyed, who is surprised that the income tax receipts from the 99% are declining?

  • jjm on November 21, 2011 1:26 PM:

    I still say that if the 1% owns 50% of all the wealth, then we of the 99% are carrying a much larger burden than they are (38% for them to 62% for us) whereas the tax burden ought to be 50/50.

  • dr z on November 21, 2011 1:30 PM:

    Steve, you're approaching this all wrong. This is not about knowing more details or clarifications - the claim is a fundamental fallacy, it is conceptually wrong and a misdirection. As others have pointed out above, taxes are paid on income, not on share of population.

    So: (1) Those who collectively earn 40% of the nation's income pay roughly 40% of taxes, and (2) this 40% of income is concentrated into just 1% of the population. Reword the claim like this, and there is no need for lengthy explanations. Let it speak for itself.

  • mingd on November 21, 2011 1:33 PM:

    i love that you brought 1986, a beloved Reagan economic boom time!, as a comparison.

    i checked and learned that yes, Reagan lowered taxes from 70% to 50%, but he had to raise taxes when the deficits got bigger when he cut to 30% or something like that.

  • schtick on November 21, 2011 1:38 PM:

    Why be surprised? The tealiban plays well with numbers and gets ignorant masses to repeat it even when it doesn't add up. Like the 47% that doesn't pay taxes.
    If the tealiban keeps cutting out jobs and laying off people, be they government, police, teachers, etc., the number they flaunt so much may well grow so where will the taxes come from to supply the welfare to the corporations and big oil?

  • Anonymous on November 21, 2011 1:40 PM:

    " (1) Those who collectively earn 40% of the nation's income pay roughly 40% of taxes, and (2) this 40% of income is concentrated into just 1% of the population. Reword the claim like this, and there is no need for lengthy explanations. Let it speak for itself. "

    Are you sure 40% is of earned income, not total wealth they have in their banks?

    i thought i heard that top 2% earn 25% of total incomes but pay only about 30% of income taxes. and we want them to pay more because they have a huge saved assets besides incomes.

  • noncarb on November 21, 2011 4:17 PM:

    "It's the kind of detail interviewers might want to keep in mind the next time a Republican guest relies on the talking point."

    Oh, Steve. You're such a kidder.

  • N.Wells on November 21, 2011 5:54 PM:

    From http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/faculty/hodgson/courses/so11/stratification/income&wealth.htm :
    "The wealthiest 1 percent of families owns roughly 34.3% of the nation's net worth, the top 10% of families owns over 71%, and the bottom 40% of the population owns way less than 1%."

    Alternatively, the top 20% owns 84.7% of the wealth (and earns 50.1% of the income).

  • Anonymous on November 22, 2011 12:29 AM:

    @N Wells

    Wow, thanks for posting that. so it is 34.3%! holy shit!
    i assume that's when you count capital gains beside "working" incomes as net worth. that is scary high.