Do you find the graphic above alarming? I sure did, when I came across it on a friend’s Facebook page. It screams to me, “The richest are paying less percentage of their income in taxes than the poorest!” Which seems horribly unjust to me.
The original graphic is actually a .gif, purporting to show the change in total percentage tax on the varying income levels over time. I could not get it to render here on WordPress as a moving image, but if you are interested, you can check it out here.
So but yeah, I was thinking about this graph and stewing on the injustice it indicates… when I came across this quotation:
We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.
― Konstantin Josef Jireček
The combination of this quote and that graph really got me worked up, and I wrote the following bit:
I have been puzzling over this for a while. I do not know the historical context of the quotation or the biography of its author. What it makes me think of, though, is people struggling (and all too often failing) to make ends meet, at jobs they hate, on woefully meager wages grudgingly paid by unappreciative employers whose own circumstances blind them to the exigencies of poverty. Is it conscionable that the wealthiest among us pay less taxes, percentage-wise, than the least wealthy of us? Is it to be tolerated that the minimum wage – right here in Indiana – is some four dollars less than the ‘living wage’ (the wage necessary to afford to live here)? I have written my representatives about this and received form letters about job creation. What, more odious jobs which pay peanuts? I am not a very political person, so to speak… not much of an activist or protester… but if you saw me at a rally you’d see that my sign read RAISE MINIMUM WAGE. It’s not about me personally. I’m fortunate. Privileged, even. I like my job well enough, and it meets my needs. But it hurts to sit idly by while people are neglected and exploited like they are.
You know how when you focus on something, you suddenly see it everywhere? Well, once I was honed in on issues of income level and taxation, there it was, everywhere. So I took in a few articles and posts which aligned with how I was feeling about the issue. And I looked at a few analyses with a different bent than my own. One of these had by synchronicity/serendipity appeared right on cue on the page of a friend whose critical thinking skills I really respect. My friend’s assertion was that vastly more of the funds generated by taxes for use by the govt comes from the wealthy than from the poor. In response to him, I wrote this:
hmm… how am i to think about this… having recently come across the knowledge that the poor pay a greater *percentage* of their wages in combined local, state, and federal taxes than do the wealthy. You say “So the people making over (let’s guess) $50k per year in the U.S. pay 97% of income taxes coming into the federal government. Those below $50k, are contributing 3% of all income taxes.” and I think wow, where would we be without these wonderful wealthy people supporting us all. Then I think, but wait, the wonderful impoverished working masses are still contributing a greater percentage of what they earn. I just don’t know whose cheerleader to be.
My friend immediately challenged me to cite the source of my claim that the wealthiest pay a higher percentage than the least wealthy. Having only a .gif to back me up, I googled frantically searching for where the .gif had originated. I was happy when I found it: an opinion piece in the New York Times.
I had a good look at the opinion piece and felt it was solid, so I linked my critical-thinker friend to it by way of backing up my claim. Little did I know he was about to do some serious rocking of my boat…
“Aha, this is an easy one. It’s a deceptive work, built on a few layers of misdirection. Propaganda with pictures to be digested quickly, their message internalized long before any critical analysis can occur.
The objective is to produce a sense of inequality and unfairness in a reader. While suggesting a more progressive system of taxes on all things at all levels.
Presumably, this is to play some small role in driving readers toward supporting specific political candidates. It is the NYT Opinion section after all.
Did you know, the poorest Americans pay a larger percentage of their income for income for the latest smartphone than the richest Americans pay? That’s a math trick.
This opinion author bounces in and out of claims and statements related to combined taxes paid (not rates) ranging from sales taxes, income, estate, capital gains, and even [gasp] corporate taxes. “Wait, aren’t talking about screwing poor folks?”
Along the way, he even invokes ‘slavery’ as an underlying cause of such tax injustice. This is presumably a signal so we all know that criticizing these ideas is literally a masked form of racism.
But a few notes as I read:
1. The taxes on the 400 ‘wealthiest Americans’ is not the the same as the 400 top earners. Wealth is different than income. At this point, we have an excellent clue that he will be misleading us the entire way. We’re on on paragraph three!
2. I always love “according to newly released data”, i.e. “Gasp! We’ve just learned this.” He follows up immediately with a claim to longer term data from the 50-60’s. “See, see, have both old and new knowledge.” This is an attempt to build credibility through paragraph four.
3. Now we get to the loaded claims about estate and corporate taxes plummeting (loaded term) and casual use of tax avoidance likely meant to imply it’s a bad thing. Tax avoidance is fantastic and we all do it. Pretending wealthy or high earners aren’t allowed to is a simple class warfare argument. Humans are optimizing engines and seek balance in low cost (vs. quality/availability). We seek to avoid paying unnecessarily for things (including taxes). No claims of fraud, illegal activity, just loading up the language to get your brain lined up.
4. I’m six paragraphs in and he’s still talking about wealthy people (people with assets not about income). I thought the issue was poor people’s income?
5. Here we go! Paragraph seven he actually talks about income. Of course, he’s conflating all tax payments now compared to income. Just to be clear, income taxes in the U.S. are already progressive and linked to a very transparent rate structure where those with higher incomes pay a higher rates that those with smaller income. They pay at higher rates and in total pay far more than those with low incomes. That’s from data we can find and view. Any means to reduce your tax exposure are based on laws passed by our elected representatives that allow individuals and corporations to spend money on specific items that society wants. It’s always a bit disingenuous to claim there’s something wrong with people doing what we’ve told them is acceptable and desirable.
6. Finally we find the core claim, the author has read (and is shilling for) a book called “The Triumph of Injustice”. Well, it’s actually called “The Triumph of Injustice – How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay”. The authors, both from UC Berkley, are well known for this kind of what I’ll call inequality pimping (simply for fun). Read about them, it’s fun and great context.
At this point, I can tell what this article is about. These fellas have long standing careers based on all manner of issues that [kindly], I’ll call the “inefficiencies and legal manipulation of tax codes”. Note, this isn’t a book about crime or fraud from what I can tell.
From their book description: “Blending history and cutting-edge economic analysis, and writing in lively and jargon-free prose, Saez and Zucman dissect the deliberate choices (and sins of indecision) that have brought us to today: the gradual exemption of capital owners; the surge of a new tax avoidance industry, and the spiral of tax competition among nations. “
I’m going on on a limb and saying, “capital owners” is their real target. Where have I heard that before? Blah, blah, blah, French economists lecturing us on how to more fairly redistribute wealth and income. I’ll also gleefully note the word “sins”. It this a religious view they are sharing? Maybe, but not a spiritual religion. Perhaps a political and economic religion.
Honestly, all that’s before I really dive into David Leonhardt’s life of privilege and view from the top.
This all falls neatly into the category of well written Marxist propaganda in my casual review.
Reading the last line of the op-ed is also pretty telling. He essentially says, “If I’m not correct [in all I’ve written and proposed] why would people argue against me?” What do we call that, an appeal to slothful analysis.
I’ll be honest, this is why I rarely take anything from the NYT seriously. Especially the opinion pieces. This is where the elite push out their messages to an already willing audience.
It’s deceptive on so many levels, but it still doesn’t appear related to the concern you’ve recently developed.
Ultimately the goal of this piece is to take people who don’t have this problem (as I think you stated in your own timeline post – which I did read) and move you into a state of concern for others out of equity and fairness.
Let me restate that in a different way.
They have told you about a problem that does not affect you, you can not prove exists, and produced an opinion piece that likewise doesn’t go beyond showing you pictures based on a book they partially identify written by far left leaning economists working (?) at UC Berkley to produce a work about how to better confiscate and reallocate capital.
Now, my friend is a busy professional. And here he was going to significant lengths to help my thinking along. Duly impressed and honored by his taking the time and making the effort to engage so fully with me and my source material, I responded thus:
thank you for applying yourself to my quandary. i take your points to whatever extent i am able. the cranky kid in me sez, “well – the superwealthy have still gotta be paying a lot less of an overall percentage than they used to” BUT that is pretty much neither here nor there considering the thrust of this thread. mainly, i am left thinking that i am pretty easily duped. thanks for improving my critical defenses against that.
And our exchange on the matter concluded with him saying this:
Empathy is a positive human quality. Abusing it is an art and these days a science
I have not done a 180 degree turn on the issue at hand. Most certainly, my opinion that the minimum wage in Indiana is egregious and needs repair has not changed. And regardless of how the information is couched, whether it is in fact essentially propaganda engineered to leverage empathy into votes for specific candidates or not, it seems clear to me that the super-rich were contributing a hell of a lot more to the public coffers in the prosperous mid-twentieth-century than they are in our current troubled times.
I’m still thinking. The jury is out. That’s why I’m composing this blog post – to review and organize and further my thinking, as well as to invite any and all input from whomever this post may reach.