No, the Richest One Percent Don’t Pay 40 Percent of the Taxes.

A misleading conservative talking point that refuses to die.

9/16/2021 3:12:00 PM

This oft-cited statistic is so misleading that it routinely fools even the people who are citing it into thinking it indicates something other than what it actually means. jonathanchait writes

A misleading conservative talking point that refuses to die.

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.

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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 only applies to the first $137,000 of income.

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.

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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.

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jonathanchait WhisperOfFreedm 👀☝️ jonathanchait That don't pay anywhere near that percent... jonathanchait I just blocked a guy 2 days ago b/c he was stating that the richest paid 40% and I was like uh no. I wish this article came out 3 days ago. lol jonathanchait If ur going to write an act let against a statement don’t start it by saying it is literally true. And then include a chart showing the top 20 % pay 66% of all tax

jonathanchait But you are counting BEFORE income transfers. After income transfers (SNAP, HUD, etc.) the stat skews back quite a bit. On the other hand, the Fed's easy money, the PPP, and lots of other policies throw money right back at the wealthy while inflating wages away. It's a shambles. jonathanchait That never made sense from the start. Republicans have been working for many decades to get the tax rate for the rich to zero...the only thing left is to end the estate tax.

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