It’s not just Mitt Romney. When anyone argues that the very rich should pay their fair share in taxes, conservatives frequently respond by shifting blame to the supposed 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes. The message is simple: How come you liberals want to blame the wealthy but let poor people off the hook? And so, with apologies to Republicans who seem congenitally allergic to facts as of late, let’s look at who actually doesn’t pay taxes in America, and why, and what this means for our economy and the election.
It is true that roughly 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. This is because they are too poor to fall within even the lowest tax bracket in America. However, more than half of these folks still pay other forms of taxes — including payroll taxes, not to mention the sales tax and gas tax and others to which all consumers are subject. And yes, many of these 47 percent do benefit from tax credits — because they are students or they are elderly or they are poor.
The actual percentage of Americans who have no federal tax liability and are not elderly? 6.9 percent. These Americans make less than $20,000 per year in wages. These are the working poor, who were always struggling to get by even in good times but are hit extra hard by high unemployment and the fact that, in the slow recovery, more and more solid middle class are being replaced by low-wage work. These, supposedly, are the very people Mitt Romney should be seeking to help with his candidacy — not attack.
Now, what’s interesting is that, while complaining that poor people don’t pay enough in taxes, conservatives also complain that the wealthy pay too much. They do this by focusing on the absolute dollar amount paid, as opposed to percentage. So, for instance, when Warren Buffett states that he pays lower taxes than his secretary, conservatives protest. Buffet pays far more in actual dollars, they argue.
Which is, of course, true — 1 percent of $1 billion is $10 million whereas 40 percent of $100,000 is only $40,000. In absolute dollars, sure, the billionaire is paying far, far more than the middle-class family, let alone a poor family. Yes, conservatives are right, the top 10 percent of Americans pay more than half of the nation’s total tax revenues — but that’s because the top 10 percent enjoy more than half of the nation’s income. And that gulf of inequality is only growing.
But does anyone really think the richest of the rich should pay an effective 1 percent income tax rate while the middle class pays 40 percent?
Oh wait, right — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think that’s a grand idea! Under Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which Mitt Romney endorsed, taxes for the middle class would go up while tax rates for millionaires and billionaires would be slashed to unprecedented lows. And under this tax plan Mitt Romney, who currently pays a less-than-fair share of 15 percent would pay just 0.82% percent in taxes.
In other words, it appears Mitt Romney isn’t angry that desperately poor people don’t pay taxes — he’s jealous!
Increasingly, I’ve come to think this debate is not really about conservative faith in trickle-down economics, which all real-world evidence gleaned over decades now proves just doesn’t work. Instead, I think Mitt Romney and many conservatives simply believe that the wealthy are more deserving and the poor are lazy. Therefore, we should reward the rich with whatever they want — lower tax rates, unlimited campaign spending, you name it — and punish the poor. This eerily echoes the conservative response to the violence swelling in the Middle East, their unwillingness to acknowledge the context of violence and instead insist that those doing bad are just bad people. Romney conveyed this broadly dismissive attitude about all Palestinians in other secret footage from the same donor event.
Conservatives seem to believe that 47 percent of our own country is filled with bad people who don’t work hard and feel lazy and entitled — and these 47 percent should be condemned, contained and controlled. And who better to do so than our moral and economic superiors. The facts of tax policy and how hard poor people are trying to get ahead are irrelevant. Conservatives are pushing a flagrantly elitist and immoral hierarchy to reward the rich and demonize the poor. It is a sick vision for a nation founded on liberty and justice for all — that is, 100 percent.