Conflicting public attitudes on redistribution

Sociologist David Weakliem wrote recently:

A Quinnipiac poll from April 2019:

“Do you support or oppose raising the tax rate to 70% on an individual’s income that is over $10 million dollars?” 36% support, 59% oppose

A CNN poll from February 2019:

“Would you favor or oppose raising the personal income tax rate for those with very high incomes, so that income of ten million dollars or more would be taxed at a rate of 70%?” 41% favor, 52% oppose

A CBS News Poll from September 2009:

“If the Obama Administration proposed a tax of 50 percent or higher on the incomes of the very wealthiest millionaires, would you support it, or not?” 51% yes, 45% no

Even people who are towards the bottom of the economic ladder aren’t very enthusiastic. The Quinnipiac results were not broken down by income, but only 31% of whites without a college degree, 51% of blacks, and 47% of Hispanics supported a 70% tax.

This relates to an issue I [Weakliem] have written about before. It’s sometimes said that most people are to the left on economic issues. This suggests that the only way conservatives can win elections is by diverting their attention to “culture war” issues, or race, or some other area where the right has an advantage. But the idea that the public is to the left on economic issues is wrong—in addition to the lack of support for high tax rates, there’s not much support for inheritance taxes. This doesn’t mean that the public is conservative on economic issues—for example, most people are in favor of maintaining or increasing Social Security benefits, increasing the minimum wage, and increasing taxes on corporations. Public opinion on economic issues don’t really fit on a left/right scale . . .

A few days later, he followed up:

I [Weakliem] realize I left something out of my last post, which said that Americans were not in favor of high taxes on the rich. The Paul Krugman column that I mentioned said “A . . . large majority has consistently said that upper-income Americans pay too little, not too much, in taxes.” He is right–since 1992, the Gallup poll as asked if upper income people are “are paying their FAIR share in federal taxes, paying too MUCH or paying too LITTLE?” In the latest survey (2019), 9% said too much, 27% fair share, and 62% said too little. The share saying too little has never gone below 55%. But as my post pointed out, when you ask how much high-income people should pay, most people don’t suggest high rates. In addition to the questions I mentioned last time, here’s a Gallup/USA Today poll from 2011: “Now thinking about the wealthiest one percent of Americans, what percentage of their income do you think they should pay to the federal government in income taxes each year?” Among those who gave an answer (28% didn’t), the mean was about 24%, and only 10% said 40% or more.

Weakliem asks:

How do you reconcile these results?

His answer:

Most people seem to think that people with high incomes are taxed at lower rates than most middle-income people. A 2003 survey asked “In the United States, which group do you think pays the highest percentage of their income in total federal taxes: high-income people, middle-income people, or lower-income people, or don’t you know enough to say?” 25% said high-income people, 51% said middle-income people, and 11% said low income people (13% said they didn’t know). Even among people with college degrees and people earning $75,000 or more (the highest income class distinguished in the survey), most people thought that middle income people paid the highest percentage. Other surveys show that most people know that in principle marginal tax rates increase with income, so presumably they think that high-income people are able to get out of taxes by finding loopholes.

So when people say that high income people should pay more, they are just saying that they want them to pay at the same rate that middle-class people do, or maybe a slightly higher rate. In reality, they already do pay at a somewhat higher rate. Most people haven’t thought about the issue all that much, so you can’t make precise statements about public opinion. But in a rough sense, Americans are getting about as much redistribution as we want.

I dunno, I think it’s more complicated than that. I feel that much of the contradictions in public opinion arise from conflicting implications of “fairness.” On one hand, it seems fair if all are taxed at an equal rate; on the other hand, it seems fair that rich people pay more. Another complication is that taxes don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re the flip side of spending. On one hand, people like most government programs: survey respondents typically want to spend less on the military and on foreign aid but to maintain or increase spending on just about everything else. On the other hand, tax money goes to the government, and people mostly don’t trust the government.

So it’s tricky. Attitudes don’t exist in isolation.

In any case, Weakliem should have his own NYT column (along with Jay Livingston). Keep Krugman and Brooks; just reduce their frequencies and alternate them with Weakliem and Livingston.