The budget office’s numbers show that the federal tax burden has fallen for all income classes, which itself runs counter to the rhetoric you hear from the usual suspects. But that burden has fallen much more, as a percentage of income, for the wealthy. Partly this reflects big cuts in top income tax rates, but, beyond that, there has been a major shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work: tax rates on corporate profits, capital gains and dividends have all fallen, while the payroll tax — the main tax paid by most workers — has gone up.
And one consequence of the shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work is the creation of many situations in which — just as Warren Buffett and Mr. Obama say — people with multimillion-dollar incomes, who typically derive much of that income from capital gains and other sources that face low taxes, end up paying a lower overall tax rate than middle-class workers. And we’re not talking about a few exceptional cases.
According to new estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, one-fourth of those with incomes of more than $1 million a year pay income and payroll tax of 12.6 percent of their income or less, putting their tax burden below that of many in the middle class.
Now, I know how the right will respond to these facts: with misleading statistics and dubious moral claims.
On one side, we have the claim that the rising share of taxes paid by the rich shows that their burden is rising, not falling. To point out the obvious, the rich are paying more taxes because they’re much richer than they used to be. When middle-class incomes barely grow while the incomes of the wealthiest rise by a factor of six, how could the tax share of the rich not go up, even if their tax rate is falling?
On the other side, we have the claim that the rich have the right to keep their money — which misses the point that all of us live in and benefit from being part of a larger society.
Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer who is now running for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, recently made some eloquent remarks to this effect that are, rightly, getting a lot of attention. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she declared, pointing out that the rich can only get rich thanks to the “social contract” that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.
Which brings us back to those cries of “class warfare.”
Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr. Ryan has called the deficit an “existential threat” to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy — who presumably have as much of a stake as everyone else in the nation’s future — should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat.
Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you’re wondering, is what real class warfare looks like.
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