The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans can’t decide how much to tax the rich — but they want to tax the rich

(Elise Amendola/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

It’s good news, sort of, that since the end of the recession the amount of wealth in the country owned by the poorest 150 million Americans has spiked from almost nothing to more than 2 percent. That, according to data reported by The Post’s Chris Ingraham last week, means that those 160 million people now have about $2 for every $3 held by the richest 400 Americans.

Not the richest 400 million Americans. The richest 400 Americans as individuals, who have 50 percent more of the country’s wealth than those 160 million who make up the bottom 60 percent of the country in terms of wealth.

That disparity, which sees the richest 0.1 percent of the country holding more wealth than the bottom 80 percent, has become a recurring theme in American politics, from the Occupy Wall Street movement of nearly a decade ago to more recent policy proposals from prominent Democrats aimed at addressing the divide with a highly specific tool: taxes.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced a new tax on the richest Americans last month, independent of the income tax. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) referred to the possibility of raising the top tax rate to 70 percent on income over $10 million last month, spurring any number of conversations about raising taxes on the very wealthy.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, a member of the latter class and a possible independent presidential candidate, insists that such a move is not what America wants. He’s mostly incorrect about that, given that polls generally show support for Ocasio-Cortez’s idea. But more broadly, polls consistently show supporting for raising taxes on the wealthy in general terms.

CNN recently polled on both Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal and, in vague terms, Warren’s. Surprisingly, the new tax of 70 percent on income over $10 million was more unpopular than popular, except among Democrats. The general tax on those earning $50 million or more saw broader support.

That view of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal didn’t match other polls. Fox News, for example, asked Americans whether they supported raising taxes on everyone, on those earning at least $250,000, on those earning $1 million or on those earning $10 million.

Almost no one supported raising taxes on everyone, but wide majorities supported higher taxes on those earning at least $1 million.

Even most Republicans here support taxing those earning at least $10 million a year.

How do we square that result with CNN’s? The difference probably lies in the specificity of the CNN question. In the Fox poll, a vague “Should they pay more?” even got a thumbs up for those earning at least $250,000, a relatively low number. Had that, too, been accompanied by the 70 percent figure, the results would likely have been different.

After all, people regularly misunderstand (or, sometimes, intentionally misrepresent) the proposal as mandating that the rich pay 70 percent of all of their income to the government; in reality, it would only apply starting at the 10 millionth dollar. That 70 percent seems intimidating, but we showed last month how it would affect the taxes paid by the very wealthy.

The gap between that black line and the diagonal green line is the income that the very rich would still get to keep.

An Economist-YouGov poll last month that asked specifically about Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal and Warren’s idea found that both have more support than not, although support for Warren’s additional tax (at 2 or 3 percent) is more popular (and earns majority support) than Ocasio-Cortez’s.

It’s almost as though the hard part of any solution is establishing the specifics to that solution. [Editors: Is there a more concise aphorism we can use here?]

Even given numbers that have broad support from voters, it’s not clear that such legislation would ever pass Congress. After all, Americans have supported taxing richer Americans at a higher rate for literally decades, according to Gallup.

Finding legislation that could pass Congress and get a presidential signature has proved elusive even as income inequality has grown. It seems particularly unlikely that legislation raising taxes on the wealthy would be signed into law by a billionaire president who’s committed to cutting taxes.