It’s about time the rich started paying their fair share, according to the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters. Those fat cats aren’t chipping in as much as the less fortunate. When are they going to start spreading their wealth around?
Unfortunately for the occupiers, facts have a way of ruining a good story line. Because when we check the dollars and cents behind who pays what, we find the rich already are sharing quite a bit of their earnings.
Start by putting one of the left’s favorite talking points in context: that the rich are earning a bigger share of the nation’s income today. It’s true: One dollar out of every $5 in income goes to the wealthiest 1 percent of American households. That’s more than double the share they earned in 1980.
But they also shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden. They pay more than 38 percent of all federal income taxes. In 1980, they were paying 19 percent.
How about the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, those making at least $114,000 in 2008? They’re earning 45 percent of the nation’s income and paying 70 percent of all taxes. The top 25 percent (those earning at least $67,280), meanwhile, take in 67 percent of the income - and foot 86 percent of the income tax bill.
That doesn’t leave much of a tax burden for everyone else. In fact, the average tax rate paid by those in the bottom half of the income scale is just 2.6 percent.
Moreover, the rich are set to start paying even more in taxes starting in 2013. That’s when changes in Medicare created by President Obama’s signature health care law go into effect - changes that will extract more money from individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000.
When it comes to taxes, exact figures vary from income group to income group, but the overall trend line is clear: The more you earn, the more you pay, and the less you earn, the less you pay.
Of course, this doesn’t stop politicians from playing the class-warfare game. “Middle-class taxpayers shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires,” President Obama said as he unveiled his $1.5 trillion plan to cut the deficit by - anyone? - yes, raising taxes on the rich.
This may come as a shock to many politicians, but you also can cut the deficit by spending less. But such a common-sense solution lacks the appeal of a good fight. Why take the responsible, grown-up path when it’s more fun to play an old-fashioned round of “us versus them”?
Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences to this game. You can’t pit one group against another without running the risk that everyone gets hurt.
“The trouble is that the wealthy don’t fit the stereotypes,” writes Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson. “They aren’t all pampered CEOs, hotshot investment bankers, pop stars and athletes. Many own small and medium-size companies. Half of the wealth of the richest 1 percent consists of stakes in these firms.”
Who works at these small and medium-size companies or, for that matter, at big companies? A lot of people at the lower end of the income scale. The Occupy Wall Street protesters may think they’re taking a swing at the people at the top, but it’s people at the bottom who could wind up bruised.
In a way, though, the slogans are right. The rich aren’t paying their fair share. They’re paying their unfair share. So, protesters, do you want to level the tax playing field a bit? I didn’t think so.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).