Great Minds Think Alike

A Gallup poll showing that 48% of Americans believe their federal income tax burden is “about right,” and 46% saying it’s “too high” has naturally generated some conversation.

Both Dave Schuler and Kevin Drum, though, looked behind the numbers and realized the 48% figure isn’t so impressive once you factor in the fact that somewhere between 40% and 50% of Americans pay zero federal income taxes.  (To be sure, most of them pay some sort of taxes, including other federal taxes like FICA; but the poll question is specifically about federal income taxes.)

Of course, most Americans probably have no idea how much federal income tax they’re actually paying.  Our withholding based system makes it seem like most people are paying more than they actually are.  And that refund check at the end of the year just seems like a bonus.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. As I said on Kevin Drum’s site, even most educated and informed people I know have trouble understanding the difference between FICA and Income taxes. Despite the wording of the poll, I don’t think either of you can draw the conclusion you want to from the data presented.

  2. C Stanley says:

    An even more obvious conclusion is that the 46% who feel their federal income tax is too high is not an insignificant number by any stretch. I mention that because some people are using this as ‘proof’ that the tea party movement is bogus- and quite plainly it proves no such thing (a 46% unhappy ‘minority’ is nearly half the country, plenty of folks to take to the streets without having to be agitated or astroturfed.)

  3. odograph says:

    Both Dave Schuler and Kevin Drum, though, looked behind the numbers and realized the 48% figure isn’t so impressive once you factor in the fact that somewhere between 40% and 50% of Americans pay zero federal income taxes.

    That statement seems disconnected from the study you quote.

    The article shows a moderate correlation, but it is certainly NOT like everyone under $75K is happy with the tax rate, and everyone over is unhappy. See the box “Perceptions of Taxes Paid, by Household Income.”

    Other than that … it would be more interesting to ask the leading question “would you rather receive fewer services from the the government, or pay more taxes?”

    The spending side was conspicuously absent from the pool.

  4. Tlaloc says:

    With this kind of question you really need to look at the trend rather than the number. In this case from the graph you posted we can see that the “too high” crowd is near a fifty year low. Conversely the “about right” group is near a fifty year high.

    Now given that what conclusions do you think we can draw about the supposedly grass roots tea parties tomorrow?

  5. Tlaloc says:

    An even more obvious conclusion is that the 46% who feel their federal income tax is too high is not an insignificant number by any stretch.

    It is by historical standards. It’s two points off from the lowest that number has ever been in the modern era.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    As I said on Kevin Drum’s site, even most educated and informed people I know have trouble understanding the difference between FICA and Income taxes.

    As a few astute commentors at Dave Schuler’s site commented as well.

    Since I’m self-employed, I don’t have any payroll withholding. While I’m probably more aware of the total amount of this tax than those whose payments are hidden, I calculate it on the income tax return, so if I were to answer this poll, I would consider the whole thing a tax on income.

  7. James, sure but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how many people who aren’t paying any Federal Income Taxes still think their taxes are too high?

    But you gotta love Tlaloc’s “eat the 44%” approach.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Doesn’t the term “about right” leave a lot of wiggle room? If it’s within 10% of what you think is fair is that “about right”? Once again a poll that creates more questions than answers.

    How about asking too high or too low? I would bet the majority would say too high.

  9. Ben says:

    James, sure but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how many people who aren’t paying any Federal Income Taxes still think their taxes are too high?

    The answer to that question was just a little further down that article:

    Income Too high About Right Too Low
    Under 30K: 39% 51% 6%
    30-75K: 45% 52% 1%
    Over 75K: 53% 44% 3%

  10. sam says:

    @Steve

    How about asking too high or too low? I would bet the majority would say too high.

    Fair enough. Then ask the question: OK, what programs would you do away with?

    I would bet the majority would name programs that do not benefit them.

  11. PJens says:

    I would like to see a poll on how many people think their tax dollars are being wasted. Seriously, I would be willing to pay more in taxes (and I do pay federal income taxes) if I believed that the money was being put to good use. I would be willing to pay more if even most of the money I send in was being put to good use.

    I keep reading and hearing about millions and billions of tax dollars being wasted – GM bailout turned bankruptcy in example – and it makes me feel I am paying way too much into the government.

    I thought the new administration was going to use a surgical approach to budgeting. Instead they are shotgunning money around willy nilly. It bothers me a great deal.

  12. Tlaloc says:

    But you gotta love Tlaloc’s “eat the 44%” approach.

    It is absolutely the best way to approach the issue since it avoids house effects and the like from the particular pollster. So long as the pollster maintains a standard method of operation the trend (but not the actual value) is reliable. We don’t know that the number 44% has any real world meaning in this case. We do know that the statement “perception that polled individuals pay too much tax is at its lowest level in nearly 50 years” is accurate (again barring Gallup having made a serious mistake and allowing as always for margin of error).

  13. Pete Burgess says:

    What programs are mandated by The US Constitution? The second plank of the Communist Manifesto-2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

    We call it “paying your fair share”.

  14. Pete Burgess says:

    Pjens, wouldn’t you like to pay more based on your decision, not some people in washington?

  15. Tlaloc says:

    What programs are mandated by The US Constitution?

    Between “defense” and “general welfare” pretty much any program you care to think of.

  16. Our Paul says:

    Many moons ago, when I was knee high to a grasshopper, we were sitting on the front porch of the house, when my pappy, swirling scotch and ice cubes in his glass, said son, you get what you paid for… Then, as now, it struck me as a reasonable proposition, excluding certain services by our giant corporations which I will not go into…

    Under the magic red, the interested reader will find what he gets, for what he paid in taxes. The graph lumps FICA tax functions (Social Security, Medicare) with general revenue functions (Defense, debt service, Medicaid, etc), and thus obscures discretionary spending (Defense, scientific research, education, etc) with mandate functions for which we “pre-pay” such as Medicare and Social Security.

    Thus, odograph (April 14, 2009 | 03:18 pm) and others are correct in implying that those who wish to have their fed taxes (including FICA) cut, should be willing to identify what programs they wish to decrease.

    In my view, PJens (April 14, 2009 | 06:11 pm) has the right view when he states: ”I would be willing to pay more if even most of the money I send in was being put to good use”. Unfortunately he blames the money allocated to combating the financial crisis, rather than the poorly supervised rat holes, such as the Defense Department.

    On this one I will go with my pappy. You get what you paid for. Social Security and Medicare, which the Center Right is forever trying to fiddle downwards, for the money, are a good deal…