Both President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan want to slash taxes mostly for the wealthy, but most Americans think the wealthy already pay too little.
Democrats have the strongest sense of tax injustice, but a surprisingly large number of conservatives hold the same views: A plurality of Republicans (45 percent) told Gallup that upper-income Americans don't pay enough in taxes — more than those who said that the rich pay enough (32 percent) or those who said the rich pay too much (20 percent).
Yet, when the same Gallup survey asked if people would support “heavy taxes” on the rich, the Republicans disagreed. Although 45 percent of them felt that the rich weren’t pulling their weight, only 22 percent said that the government should tax the rich more.
This might seem like a contradiction, but it reveals how little faith most conservative voters have in the tax system. And it shows how Republican leaders might win support for their regressive tax ideas even among blue-collar constituents.
One key idea is that people don’t really care about rates — they care about loopholes, says Vanessa Williamson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently published a book of interviews about American attitudes toward taxation.
“If you ask people what bothers them most about taxes, the most common answer is that they think either corporations or the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share,” she says. “But people tend to understand this as a problem of loopholes. They think that the reason rich people aren’t paying enough is that they have access to all these special deductions.”
Williamson says that this impression, which is common on the left and the right, is influenced by the way that people file their own returns. “When you’re doing your taxes this time of year, you’re looking for your own ‘loopholes,’ in some sense,” she says. “You’re looking for your own deductions and tax credits, like the home mortgage deduction or the EITC. You’re not really thinking about the rates you’re paying.”
Instead, the process of filing income taxes reminds people of the system’s complexity. “The tax form itself reveals that there are a lot of moving parts here — and you don’t get to take advantage of all of them,” says Joe Thorndike, a tax historian at Tax Analysts. “You see these little categories, and it’s logical to think: ‘Why are all these other people getting these special deals?’”
There’s a widespread sense that the rich can afford to pay accountants to exploit all the nooks and crannies in the tax code, leaving the middle class to pay the price. As one person complained to Williamson in her book, “I know that I’m probably paying too much because of how I get my taxes done. The H&R Block lady is probably not the best at finding loopholes.”
Williamson says that most Americans support a progressive income tax, where the rich pay a higher percentage of their income. Even those who want a flat tax are motivated by a desire to see the rich pay their fair share, she says. Most of them believe that flat tax would be more progressive than the current situation because it would be simpler and therefore stop richer people from taking advantage of so many tricks in the tax system.
“People think, ‘Well look, maybe it’s going to lower tax rates for the rich, but if we clear out all these loopholes, maybe the whole thing will be fairer in the long run,’” as Thorndike, the tax historian, puts it. “And, you know, depending on how the tax is structured, that might be true. But it’s all in the details.”
There are other reasons the middle class might still support cutting taxes on the rich rather than for average Americans. They might dislike the government so much that they would always prefer to reduce taxes as much as possible. Or, they might worry that higher taxes for the rich today would mean higher taxes for the middle class tomorrow, points out Andrea Campbell, a political-science professor at MIT.
When it comes to taxes, there are a lot of competing values and ideas, so it’s also important to take note of how the issue is presented. In asking about higher taxes on the rich, the Gallup poll used the phrase “redistribute wealth” which may have predisposed Republicans against the idea.
That’s what Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport believes may have happened here. “It’s not surprising that people respond differently when different things are emphasized in a question,” he said. For instance, a differently worded poll last year from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 54 percent of Republicans do want to increase taxes on people earning more than $250,000. But another Gallup poll from 2012 found that only 26 of Republicans supported the “Buffett rule,” which would have required households earning more than $1 million a year to pay at least 30 percent in taxes.
Such evidence further underscores how politics is often matter of framing and narrative.
Both Ryan and Trump say that closing tax loopholes is a central goal of their respective tax plans. As Trump once told Time magazine, “I know a lot of bad people in this country that are making a hell of a lot of money and not paying taxes. The rhetoric about tamping down on elite tax avoidance taps into deep concerns among many Americans — and it may draw attention away from Trump's other tax proposals that are friendlier to the rich.
Trump would simplify some aspects of the tax code — he has discussed capping itemized deductions and eliminating personal exemptions — but the rich would still come out on top. For instance, both would eliminate the estate tax, which in general only affects those who have more than $5 million to pass onto their heirs. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s ideas on tax revision would create the greatest windfall for people in the wealthiest one percent, who would each see their taxes decrease, on average, by $200,000 a year.