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Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Misinformed Tea Party Movement"

Bruce Bartlett argues that the views of the "Tea Party crowd" are based upon false beliefs about the burden of federal taxes:

The Misinformed Tea Party Movement, by Bruce Bartlett, Commentary, Forbes: On March 16 the Tea Party crowd showed up for yet another demonstration on Capitol Hill... Curious about the factual knowledge these people have regarding the issues they are protesting,... David Frum enlisted some interns to interview as many Tea Partyers as possible on a couple of basic questions. ... (Survey results are here.)
The first question that was asked concerned the size of government. Tea Partyers were asked how much the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. According to Congressional Budget Office data, acceptable answers would be 6.4%, which is the percentage for federal income taxes; 12.7%, which would be for both income taxes and Social Security payroll taxes; or 14.8%, which would represent all federal taxes as a share of GDP in 2009. ...
Tuesday's Tea Party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median 40%. ...
To follow up, Tea Partyers were asked how much they think a typical family making $50,000 per year pays in federal income taxes. The average response was $12,710, the median $10,000. In percentage terms this means a tax burden of between 20% and 25% of income. ...
According to calculations by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a congressional committee, tax filers with adjusted gross incomes between $40,000 and $50,000 have an average federal income tax burden of just 1.7%. ...
Even though the Tea Partyers were specifically asked about federal income taxes, it's possible that they were thinking about other federal taxes as well, such as payroll and excise taxes. According to the JCT, when all federal taxes are included, those earning between $40,000 and $50,000 have an average tax rate of 12.3%...
In short, no matter how one slices the data, the Tea Party crowd appears to believe that federal taxes are very considerably higher than they actually are...
Tea Partyers also seem to have a very distorted view of the direction of federal taxes. They were asked whether they are higher, lower or the same as when Barack Obama was inaugurated last year. More than two-thirds thought that taxes are higher today, and only 4% thought they were lower; the rest said they are the same.
As noted earlier, federal taxes are very considerably lower by every measure since Obama became president. ... In fact, 40% of Obama's stimulus package involved tax cuts. ... The Tax Policy Center ... estimates that close to 90% of all taxpayers got a tax cut last year and almost 100% of those in the $50,000 income range. ... No taxpayer anywhere in the country had his or her taxes increased as a consequence of Obama's policies.
It's hard to explain this divergence between perception and reality. Perhaps ... they just assume that because a Democrat is president that taxes must have gone up, because that's what Republicans say that Democrats always do. ...
Probably the simplest motivation the Tea Partyers have is the one that Howard Beale (actor Peter Finch) gave in the 1976 movie Network. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it any more!" he said to cheering crowds. In other words, tea parties just represent unfocused anger at current economic conditions. Those who feel this way have latched on to the Tea Party movement not because they really believe that their taxes are too high, that taxes are rising or that taxes are at the root of our economic problem. Rather,... it's the only game in town; the only organized force with at least the potential of bringing about change that might make things better.
In this sense, the tea parties are simply the latest manifestation of populism... Unfortunately for the Tea Party populists, there is no evidence in American history that populism has ever had a meaningful effect on policy. ... One reason is that the major parties co-opted populist issues and leaders, which bought time until the populist impulse burned itself out like a brush fire.
Whatever the future of the Tea Party movement in American politics, it's a bad idea for so many participants to operate on the basis of false notions about the burden of federal taxation. It only takes a little bit of time to look at one's tax return ... and compare it with what was paid last year and the year before. People may then discover that their anger is misplaced and channel it into areas where it is more likely to bring about positive change.

    Posted by on Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 01:17 AM in Economics, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  Comments (153)


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