Lies, damn lies and Ari Fleischer

The former White House press secretary argues the less wealthy should pay more in income tax, but his case relies on some statistical games.

Published April 14, 2009 12:20AM (EDT)

Given the current political and economic climate, not to mention given his role as White House press secretary in the last Bush administration, you'd hardly expect Ari Fleischer to argue that no one should see their taxes cut right now. And you definitely wouldn't expect him to argue that some people should actually receive a tax hike. But that's essentially what he did in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

The piece is titled "Everyone Should Pay Income Taxes," and that's essentially Fleischer's argument, leading him to spend most of the piece railing about the fact that the poor don't pay any income tax at all, and that the rich pay what he says is a vastly disproportionate share.

Naturally, given his continuing allegiance to former President Bush, Fleischer also spends some time defending his old boss from charges that his tax cuts favored the wealthy. He writes:

As a result of the 2001 tax cuts enacted by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, the share of taxes paid by the top 10% increased to 72.8% in 2005 from 67.8% in 2001, according to the latest data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Contrary to the myth that Mr. Bush cut taxes only for the wealthy, the 2001 tax cut reduced taxes for every income-tax payer in the country. He reduced the bottom tax rate to 10% from 15% and increased the refundable child tax credit to $1,000 from $500 per child, both cuts that President Barack Obama says we should keep. In so doing, millions of lower income taxpayers were removed from the tax rolls, shifting the remaining burden to those at the top, even after their taxes were cut.

According to the CBO, those who made less than $44,300 in 2001 -- 60% of the country -- paid a paltry 3.3% of all income taxes. By 2005, almost all of them were excused from paying any income tax. They paid less than 1% of the income tax burden. Their share shrank even when taking into account the payroll tax. In 2001, the bottom 60% paid 16.3% of all taxes; by 2005 their share was down to 14.3%. All the while, this large group of voters made 25.8% of the nation's income.

Unfortunately, any article that compares tax burdens from a political perspective is subject to the usual statistical trickery. It doesn't even have to be a product of dishonesty or disingenuousness, but just a natural consequence of the fact that there are sometimes a million different ways to look at any given number, not to mention a multitude of options for what data is considered. Unsurprisingly, then, there are a few omissions from Fleischer's piece, bits of data that would have seriously undercut his argument if they were included.

The most striking thing is that while Fleischer frequently mentions the tax burden of the top 10 percent, he never actually discloses what that group actually earns. With good reason -- the sentence, "A very small number of taxpayers -- the 10% of the country that makes more than $92,400 a year -- pay 72.4% of the nation's income taxes" is a lot more striking than if he'd written, "A very small number of taxpayers -- the 10% of the country that makes more than $92,400 a year -- earn more than 40% of the nation's pre-tax income and pay 72.4% of its income taxes."

Fleischer also engages in some game playing when it comes to income taxes vs. payroll taxes, which most Americans pay more of, and which are regressive. The former press secretary does a lot better when it comes to acknowledging the existence of payroll taxes than some of his Republican colleagues, especially since he writes that those taxes should be eliminated, but that doesn't keep him from presenting a less than complete picture when it comes to the statistics. Once again, though he takes payroll taxes into account when discussing the bottom 60 percent, he doesn't do it for the top 10 percent. Again, consider the impact of the sentence discussed above if he wrote it like this, "A very small number of taxpayers -- the 10% of the country that makes more than $92,400 a year -- earned 40.9% of the nation's pre-tax income in 2005, and paid 54.8% of its federal taxes."

Similarly, while Fleischer talks about the change in tax burdens that happened after George W. Bush's cuts went into effect, he never discusses the change in the distribution of the country's pre-tax income. If he'd done that, Bush would have looked a lot less progressive, because the increase in taxes paid by the top 10 percent can be explained almost entirely by a simultaneous bump in their income.

While the share of income taxes paid by the top 10 percent did in fact go up from 2001 to 2005 -- by 7.5 percent, to be precise -- and their portion of the nation's total tax liability rose 9.6 percent over the same time period, their share of the country's pre-tax income went up by 9.1 percent. (To be fair, the total tax burden on the bottom 60 percent of the country also went down, as Fleischer said, and in fact it fell about twice as much as their share of the nation's income did over the same time period. I could have left that stat out, of course, illustrating my earlier point about how easy it is to play games with all of this stuff.)

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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