The Chronicle Review

Proud to Be a Taxpayer

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May 07, 2017

R epublicans have long been on the offensive when it comes to taxes. Their relentless, decades-long assault has led to a stunning drop in the progressivity of the federal tax system.

Right before Ronald Reagan was elected, the effective federal rate on the richest .01 percent was nearly 60 percent. By 2004, after George W. Bush’s tax bills, the rate stood at less than 35 percent — even as the middle 20 percent of Americans saw their federal tax rates fall by a much smaller margin, from 21 percent to 16 percent over that time. President Obama partially reversed this trend, but President Trump has promised to deliver another round of sweeping tax cuts to the well-off.

REVIEW

Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes By Vanessa S. Williamson

(Princeton University Press)

That the public continues to elect Republicans running on tax plans that benefit the privileged few has led pundits, scholars, and politicians to conclude that Americans either hate taxes so much that they don’t care who benefits or are simply ignorant about tax policy. On the liberal left, the Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry M. Bartels has compared Americans to Homer Simpson when it comes to their tax-policy knowledge; on the libertarian right, the George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan has argued that voters are "worse than ignorant" when it comes to economic policy, including taxation.

But Vanessa S. Williamson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, doesn’t share that cynical view. In Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes (Princeton University Press), she shows that the public is both better informed about the facts of the U.S. tax system and more philosophically supportive of taxes than is commonly assumed. "The idea that ‘Americans hate taxes,’ " she writes, "has become a truism without the benefit of being true." In striking against the conventional wisdom, Williamson joins a growing list of scholars who believe that Americans’ tax views largely reflect the realities of American taxation.

W illiamson’s previous project was The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2012), a book she wrote with Theda Skocpol. In doing fieldwork for that book, Williamson was struck by the way Tea Partiers identified themselves as "taxpayers" — an observation that led to her current project.

Drawing on a 1,000-person national survey and on in-depth interviews with 49 Americans, Read My Lips demonstrates that Americans have a much better grasp of taxation than many critics believe. One analysis — in which Williamson calculates her interviewees’ tax bills and compares that data with the interviewees’ own estimates of the composition of their tax bills — found that Americans are remarkably knowledgeable about the kinds of taxes they pay. Most of the well-off respondents correctly identified the (progressive) income tax as the largest share of their tax tab, while most lower-income interviewees named the (regressive) sales tax as taking the biggest bite out of their paychecks.

Even more striking are Williamson’s findings on how Americans feel about paying taxes. She argues that Americans don’t view taxes in transactional terms — that is, as the price one pays for a specific bundle of government goods. Instead, most Americans understand taxes as a civic obligation that demonstrates one’s "worthiness for citizenship." This outlook means Americans are overwhelmingly committed to tax compliance. (More Americans believe that Elvis may still be alive, Williamson notes, than say it’s OK to cheat on one’s taxes.)

But it also means that Americans are prone to judge harshly those who they believe — often incorrectly — don’t contribute to government coffers. From Mitt Romney’s "47 percent" to the myth that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes, Republican politicians have attempted to tap into the public’s civic commitment to taxation in order to direct their anger downward — toward the mythical tax-free poor — rather than upward — at the loophole-loving rich.

Indeed, many of the views commonly cited as examples of the public’s ignorance are arguably the product of elite rhetoric. For example, most surveys show that Americans wildly overestimate the amount of tax dollars spent on foreign aid. But Williamson demonstrates that this belief flows from the fact that Americans define "foreign aid" not just as spending on humanitarian aid but also as encompassing the costs of military misadventures like the Iraq War, an understandable misapprehension given that media and policy elites framed that war as benevolent nation-building.

Despite the public’s confusion on some matters involving taxes, Williamson’s work offers reason for hope. Read My Lips shows that Americans like many services paid for by their tax dollars, especially those that are "visible" and "proximate," such as "education, including schools, college, and libraries."

When it comes to how to pay for those services, Williamson’s research demonstrates that most Americans support progressive taxation. Not only do many Americans understand that "10 percent of $100 is a lot more hardship than 10 percent of a million dollars," as one of Williamson’s interviewees put it, but some also justify taxing the rich at higher rates with a homespun version of the philosophers Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel’s "myth of ownership," which emphasizes the idea that the rich owe much more to a government that enables their wealth than do the poor.

Indeed, that insight makes Williamson’s prescription that Democrats stop talking about tax "loopholes" for the rich, for fear of undermining support for the tax system, seem odd. If anything, Democrats should play upon the public’s civic commitment to impugn the 25 percent of millionaires who pay less in federal taxes than do 10.4 million of moderate-income taxpayers. A more sensible prescription is Williamson’s advice to Democrats to "explicitly refer to low-income people and immigrants as taxpayers in order to combat the public misperception that poor people do not contribute to public coffers."

Read My Lips is a useful corrective to the dire view of Americans as irrational and ill-informed antitax zealots. It also offers Democrats a useful insight: Maybe Republicans’ perceived edge on taxation owes less to the popularity of their views than to Democrats’ own failure to marshal a civic commitment to taxes for liberal ends. Having identified the problem, Williamson may be pointing the way to a solution to the ugly politics of taxation.

Josh Mound is a postdoctoral fellow in American political economy at Miami University, in Ohio.