The one tax graph you really need to know

September 19, 2012

At the heart of the debate over "the 47 percent" is an awful abuse of tax data.

This entire conversation is the result of a (largely successful) effort to redefine the debate over taxes from "how much in taxes do you pay" to "how much in federal income taxes do you pay?" This is good framing if you want to cut taxes on the rich. It's bad framing if you want to have even a basic understanding of who pays how much in taxes.

There's a reason some would prefer that more limited conversation. For most Americans, payroll and state and local taxes make up the majority of their tax bill. The federal income tax, by contrast, is our most progressive tax -- it's the tax we've designed to place the heaviest burden on the rich while bypassing the poor. And we've done that, again, because the working class is already paying a fairly high tax bill through payroll and state and local taxes.

But most people don't know very much about the tax code. And the federal income tax is still our most famous tax. So when they hear that half of Americans aren't paying federal income taxes, they're outraged -- even if they're among the folks who have a net negative tax burden! After all, they know they're paying taxes, and there's no reason for normal human beings to assume that the taxes getting taken out of their paycheck every week and some of the taxes they pay at the end of the year aren't classified as "federal income taxes."

Confining the discussion to the federal income tax plays another role, too: It makes the tax code look much more progressive than it actually is.

Take someone who makes $4 million dollars a year and someone who makes $40,000 a year. The person making $4 million dollars, assuming he's not doing some Romney-esque planning, is paying a 35 percent tax on most of that money. The person making $40,000 is probably paying no income tax at all. So that makes the system look really unfair to the rich guy.

That's the basic analysis of the 47 percent line. And it's a basic analysis that serves a purpose: It makes further tax cuts for the rich sound more reasonable.

But what if we did the same thing for the payroll tax? Remember, the payroll tax only applies to first $110,100 or so, our rich friends is only paying payroll taxes on 2.7 percent of his income. The guy making $40,000? He's paying payroll taxes on every dollar of his income. Now who's not getting a fair shake?

Which is why, if you want to understand who's paying what in taxes, you don't want to just look at federal income taxes, or federal payroll taxes, or state sales taxes -- you want to look at total taxes. And, luckily, the tax analysis group Citizens for Tax Justice keeps those numbers. So here is total taxes -- which includes corporate taxes, income taxes, payroll taxes, state sales taxes, and more -- paid by different income groups and broken into federal and state and local burdens:

As you can see, the poorer you are, the more state and local taxes bite into your income. As you get richer, those taxes recede, and you're mainly getting hit be federal taxes. So that's another lesson: When you omit state and local taxes from your analysis, you're omitting the taxes that hit lower-income taxpayers hardest.

But here is really the only tax graph you need: It's total tax burden by income group. And as you'll see, every income group is paying something, and the rich aren't paying much more, as a percentage of their incomes, then the middle class.

That's really what the American tax system looks like: Not 47 percent paying nothing, but everybody paying something, and most Americans paying between 25 percent and 30 percent of their income -- which is, by the way, a lot more the 13.9 percent Mitt Romney paid in 2011*.

When politicians try to convince you that half of Americans aren't really paying taxes, it's usually because the real data undermines their preferred policies. For instance, you wouldn't look at these numbers and think tax cuts for the rich need to be a huge priority. And that's one reason people who want more tax cuts for the rich don't like to show you these numbers.

* Romney's 13.9 percent rate only counts his federal taxes. He hasn't released his state and local returns for 2011, so we can't say how that would change his total tax rate. But given the state and local averages for someone in his income group, it's likely to remain well below the 25-30 percent that is typical.

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Brad Plumer | September 19, 2012