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Do Americans Want to Tax the Rich?

This simple question can’t seem to get a simple answer. A look at some new attempts to explain why.

Blogging Our Great Divide
April 18, 2015

by Sam Pizzigati

Why has America become so unequal? Americans, says one school of thought, simply don’t care how wealthy our wealthiest get to be.

The New York Times has just run an analysis that plays off this perspective. Shouts the piece’s punchy — and provocative — headline: “Why Americans Don’t Want to Soak the Rich.”

That headline turns out to be a bit of journalistic bait-and-switch. This particular Times piece neither documents any massive public opposition to taxing the wealthy nor reveals why average Americans aren’t grabbing pitchforks and marching to the nearest neighborhood manse.

The Times analysis turns out instead to be a rather sober assessment of some recent research on American attitudes on redistributing wealth. We shouldn’t even be asking, the article concludes, “why don’t Americans want to soak the rich more?”

The better question: “Who exactly is being counted as rich and who is perceived to be benefiting from the soaking?”

“Our views on proper tax levels and redistribution,” author Neil Irwin goes on to explain, “may be shaped by seemingly extraneous factors, like whether we believe the rich are already used to being rich, and whether we are already getting government benefits.”

The British social critic Chris Dillow last month offered a similar but more sophisticated analysis. Preferences for redistribution, he points out, depend upon reference points.

Dillow’s analysis surveys a variety of recent social science experiments and highlights a conclusion that Harvard political scientist Kris-Stella Trump reached last fall.

“Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality,” she observed, “are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

The more inequality that surrounds us, in other words, the more inequality seems the natural order of things.

Add into this mix the messages that pols and pundits pound upon us — the “ineptness” of government, the “brilliance” of billionaires — and we have a fairly compelling explanation of why, as Neil Irwin puts it, public opinion about whether government should redistribute wealth has “depending on which survey answers you look at, either been little changed, or shifted toward greater skepticism about redistribution.”

But, wait, things get more complicated still. As Northwestern political scientist Benjamin Page has just noted in a Too Much interview, we need to carefully distinguish between what Americans feel about redistribution in the abstract and actual specific redistributive policies.

“If you ask abstract questions about whether the government should take money from the wealthy and redistribute it, there is not a lot of support for that,” says Page. “But if you ask about concrete policies — like taxing the wealthy at higher levels or getting rid of loopholes that favor hedge fund managers — average Americans turn out to favor many policies that would have strong redistributive effects.”

A Pew Research poll conducted this past winter neatly reinforces Page’s point. Americans today, the Pew poll shows, aren’t feeling angry about how much they personally pay in taxes. Their top tax complaint: “the feeling that some corporations and wealthy people do not pay their fair share.”

The poll numbers: 64 percent of Americans feel bothered “a lot” that corporations aren’t paying their fair tax share and 61 percent feel the same way about the wealthy not paying their fair tax share. Only 20 percent of Americans say they feel “not much” or “not at all” bothered by “the feeling that some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share” of taxes.

Even almost half — 45 percent — of rank-and-file Republicans feel bothered “a lot” by rich people stiffing the IRS.

“Frustration with the feeling that some corporations and wealthy people do not pay their fair share of taxes,” Pew researchers conclude, “is shared widely across demographic and partisan groups.”

So “soak the rich” does have a future after all. Egalitarian-minded Americans who favor that “soaking” may just have to be more specific!

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies online monthly on excess and inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class (Seven Stories Press).

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