Are the Rich Undertaxed?
The Democrats’ class-warfare rhetoric is too rich for most Americans.


Rarely has class-warfare rhetoric been so overwrought.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) “explained” the GOP’s motive in withdrawing from stalled debt-ceiling negotiations this way:

Why? To protect oil companies. To protect the owners of yachts and corporate jets. To protect corporations that ship jobs overseas. To protect millionaires and billionaires from paying their fair share.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) fleshed out this explanation with a few specifics:

When our Republican colleagues talk about defending against tax hikes, they are talking about . . . protecting the top 400 income earners in the country who, on average, pay [18.2 percent in] Federal taxes. . . . These are people who made on average more than a quarter-billion . . . in one year. And God bless them. What a wonderful thing it is to make more than a quarter-billion dollars in one year. But they pay taxes at a lower rate than a truck driver in Rhode Island does on average; the guy who wakes up every morning and gets into his clothes and puts on his boots and gets in the truck and goes out there and works all day, pays the same tax rate as the person earning over a quarter-billion dollars.

Putting it all in sober perspective, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) observed: “This is America. This isn’t pre-revolutionary France, where the king had everything.”

That’s right. Off with their heads!

To highlight the GOP’s intransigence, Reid offered a non-binding resolution. Dubbed the “Sense of the Senate on Shared Sacrifice,” it calls on “those earning $1,000,000 or more per year [to] make a more meaningful contribution to the deficit reduction effort.”

The Hill nailed the real reason Senator Reid interrupted all serious Senate business to debate this meaningless rhetorical exercise in class warfare. “The vote,” the newspaper reported, “will likely be used by Democrats as a way to show Republican resistance to new tax hikes.”

Republicans opposed to tax hikes? Now there’s a breaking news story!

But this is a debate worth having. Let’s review the data.

Our tax code already ranks among the most “progressive” in the industrialized world. While it’s true that the “rich” have been earning a steadily increasing share of all income over the last three decades, they have shouldered a disproportionate share of the overall tax burden. Today the wealthiest 1 percent of American households earn 20 percent of all income — more than twice the share they earned in 1980 and no doubt a class-warfare crime of the first magnitude. But they pay 38 percent of all income taxes, up from the 19 percent they paid in 1980. This, despite Congress’s halving top marginal tax rates since the Carter years.  

The lower marginal tax rates that have prevailed since Reagan’s time have resulted in a lower tax burden on not only rich, but also middle- and lower-income Americans. Back in 1981, the bottom half of wage earners paid 7.45 percent of all taxes; today, their share is barely a third of that (2.7 percent).

None of this, of course, comports with the liberal class-warfare narrative.

Liberals take solace from polls that show large majorities of Americans favor increased taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” An April New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, found that 72 percent of Americans thought households earning over $250,000 a year should pay more taxes to lower the budget deficit.

But consider the context in which Americans hear questions like this. What, exactly, do they think the “rich” pay in taxes today? How many Americans appreciate the truly progressive nature of our current tax system? And, more important, do Americans believe there should be some sort of cap or limit on how much we send to Uncle Sam? If so, what might that limit be?