Wednesday, April 15, 2009

UPDATED: I was going to leave this one to Coyote...

... but when some of our friends published this Gallup Poll chart...

To assert that

48% of Americans think that the amount they pay in taxes is about right — and while this is the most positive tax survey that Gallup has taken, it is pretty clear that folks have been moving to that position for awhile. I’m not sure of this is a question of coming to terms with paying for the government you want (in direct opposition to the wingnut you can have allthe government you want for free — just not the social safety net stuff), but this is looking like we are growing up abit.

It struck me that we really ought to take into account the datum provided by Coyote (from Kevin Drum, posting at that notorious conservative rag Mother Jones):

Not bad! 49% think their income taxes are just fine or even a bit low. Except for one thing: this chart shows exactly the opposite of what it seems. Consider this: about 40-50% of Americans pay no federal income tax at all. That’s zero dollars. I think we can safely assume that these are the people who think that their taxes are about right. What this means, then, is that virtually every American who pays any income tax at all thinks they’re paying too much. There are various reasons why this might be so (a sense of unfairness regardless of amount paid, a fuzzy sense of how much they’re paying in the first place, simple bloody-mindedness, etc.) but overall it’s not exactly a testament to our collective willingness to fund the machinery of state.

Oh. Oops.

The sudden rush to see in this chart a willingness of the American people to pay income taxes is what you might call lying (to yourself) with statistics.

UPDATE: After a couple of spirited exchanges with Dana Garrett (see the comments section) I went back and looked at the original Gallup article again, retrieving this graph:

What's intriguing here is that this graph could easily be read to support the idea that most people felt the Bushco tax cuts were actually fair.

Let's see: perceptions of income tax unfairness peak in 1999 under Bill Clinton at 49%, and then drop rapidly into the 30%-range, by 2002, where they have stayed ever since. Likewise, perceptions of fairness mirror the same movement, with only 45% thinking their income tax burden was fair in 1999, a figure that increased to 64% by 2003.

In order to read this chart as indicating that most people felt the Bushco tax cuts were unfair in that they privileged the wealthy, you actually have to dispute it or come up with elaborate circumlocutions (like Dana's hypothesis that the pollsters asked the wrong question while the respondents answered what they should have asked).

A commenter at the original Coyote post even uses this information to argue,

Also, do you notice the correlation between these results and Bush tax policy? Contrary to the myths of the left, the Bush tax cuts heavily favored the lower income groups by creating a new entry level tax bracket, expanding the child tax credit, and eliminating for the most part the marriage income penalty. Under Bush tax plans many more Americans were not paying any federal income taxes.

Disclaimer: I was not a huge fan of the Bushco tax cuts because I don't like the idea of government transfers of wealth in either direction. But I do intend to call the innumerate on their inability to read and interpret statistical data correctly.


Delaware Watch said...

LOL. Nice try.

Try as you might not everyone--not even close to everyone--is a secret Libertarian. Most people think they should be paying taxes because, as adults, they realize that government doesn't operate on happy thoughts about the rugged individual alone acting in his own interest w/o the need of government.

When most people hear the term "income tax," they also think payroll tax, which everyone w/ a job does pay. That undoubtedly figured into their response to the the poll question. So the poll is valid. Oops, sorry.

Steven H. Newton said...

So, Dana, you manage to exonerate the poll by suggesting that most people answered the question they thought they were being asked, not the question they were really being asked, and you know what that was?

Therefore, the poll is valid because you know better than the pollsters what they were asking, and even though they asked the wrong question they got the right answer?

Nice try, yourself.

But if you go read the Gallup poll write-up you'll find out that--surprise, surprise!--the reality of the poll is somewhat different than your fantasy of it.

Tyler Nixon said...

As I've noted elsewhere, the anti-protest mania has some people going into spasms and contortions to segment and narrowly define the tax issue to suit their pro-tax/pro-spend/pro-deficit agenda of present. The simpleton's attempt to characterize those in opposition is essentially : say it's all about federal taxes and/or it's all about whoever makes $250K or more and/or it's all about anti-Obama.

Spasmodic as the attempts have been, almost obsessive at one prominent Delaware blog (present commenters excluded), to intimidate, belittle, caricaturize, assess associative guilt, and/or otherwise spew infantile assholery at people protesting the profligate fiscal policy being advanced at any level of government here in Delaware, they are nonethless pure bullshit.

Bottom line : the tax bite issue is far more profound than the rabid anti-TEA protest screachers will ever admit, especially here in Delaware, especially here in NCC, especially here in the City of Wilmington.

I am very disappointed at the venom and childish bile directed as a whole at anyone daring breath word they might join others to peacably assemble with fellow citizens to protest exploding spending and a corrupt excessive tax regime, whether local, state, or federal.

They are no better than the small but intensely-shrill warmongers who roughly did the same about anti-war protesters, i.e. mocking, hyperbolizing, accusing of being fringe, unpatriotic, etc etc.

Except in that case it was largely loud mouth talking heads, not an internet and media wide echo chamber lynch posse of people otherwise of apparent thought and intelligence.

The anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-TEA party crowd (I dare not even say they stand for anything but this constant mantra of hate) are simply no better than the worst of the worst demagogues they think they are attacking by smearing anyone and EVERYONE not on board with their "government is the answer" ideology.

Delaware Watch said...

"Therefore, the poll is valid because you know better than the pollsters what they were asking, and even though they asked the wrong question they got the right answer?"

That's less of an assumption than yours: that the pollsters didn't screen the population for income.

Besides, we both KNOW that most people think of all the federal taxes that come out of their paychecks when they hear the term "income tax." That's so obvious that it takes transparent special pleading to deny it.

Delaware Watch said...

I just read the poll and I see that it did screen for income. But I note that the middle class income earners on the whole do think they are being taxed about right, which calls into question the argument of your post.

Steven H. Newton said...

The problem with that "middle class" screening in the poll is that the $30-70K category includes both families that do and do not pay a significant amount of income taxes. Most under $50K get virtually everything back in a refund.

So while you may be right, the statistics used in the poll don't prove it.

Anonymous said...

Feel better now, Tyler? Have some tea.


Tyler Nixon said...

Oh, I feel great. I think I'll have a Coke and a smile instead.