How Americans Really Feel About Taxes

This article from the Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times is by Vanessa Williamson, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of the forthcoming book “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.” What is true of us is very uncharacteristic of many other European countries. No self-respecting Italian would be caught dead paying his taxes was definitely the impression we got when we lived in Italy. Americans should feel proud of their disposition to pay taxes and see that the rich do too. It’s going to take increased and progressive taxation on both income and capital to reverse the rapidly accelerating momentum toward wealth inequality that is occurring today, Thomas Picketty, the Frenchman tells us. The average American knows this. Now he must teach it to his myopic government representative.



Asked what bothers them most about taxes, Americans overwhelmingly say the feeling that the wealthy and corporations are not paying their fair share. This is the top issue for nearly two-thirds of Americans. In contrast, 8 percent of Americans say that their biggest concern is the amount they personally pay in taxes. What upsets most people about taxes is not the amount they contribute. They are angry about the amount that the wealthy can avoid contributing.

Their anger is not limited to out-and-out cheating. That wealthy people and companies can avoid taxes legally does not make the practice acceptable to most Americans. For instance, when big corporations avail themselves of overseas tax havens, a majority of Americans call that behavior “very unpatriotic.” Even when corporate tax avoidance is legal, most Americans believe corporations should be punished for taking advantage of the system. More than three-quarters of Americans say companies benefiting from international tax shelters should not be eligible for government contracts.

In interviews I conducted alongside my survey research, Americans often, of their own accord, raised the question of special tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. Tax avoidance — not tax fraud — was the first issue raised by one interviewee, a 30-year-old Democrat from Connecticut. “Not tax dodgers so much, but people whose companies are headquartered in the Caribbean” and get away with paying less than they should, she said. “I’ve heard of a lot of corporations that have a good enough lawyer where they don’t pay,” a 56-year-old Republican woman in Texas told me. “I think it’s a travesty when a business is having the benefit of being in this country, but they’re not paying their fair share. . . ”

images-9Whether or not it costs Mr. Trump at the polls, the staying power of his tax issues highlights an underappreciated fact of American life: Paying your fair share of taxes is a norm that a vast majority of Americans hold dear. And while Americans have remained committed to the principle of taxpaying for more than 30 years, they have also grown markedly more positive about tax increases. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, about one in five measures raising taxes passed muster with the voters. In the past 10 years, voters have approved half of the 62 tax-increasing measures that have appeared on state ballots.

Voters today are as likely as not to approve a state tax increase. This sizable shift in the attitude of the American electorate could have important political consequence as the country grapples with vital problems like climate change and infrastructure renewal that have expensive solutions. But we can do this only if the real views of the American people are reflected by their representatives in Washington.

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