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There is no such thing as public opinion, example #734

Summary:
Matt Yglesias cites some polls that suggest that the public favors higher taxes on the rich: There’s no polling on specific brackets or exactly who counts as rich that I can find, but surveys are very consistent that for some definition of rich the voters would like to see higher taxes: The most recent poll on this I can find is an April 2018 Gallup survey which had 62 percent of respondents saying the wealthy do not pay their fair share in taxes, a number that’s been consistently in the high 50s or low 60s in the 21st century. Pew found in 2017 that 60 percent of the public said it was bothered “a lot” by the fact that rich people don’t pay their fair share. A 2017 CBS poll found that 56 percent of voters said wealthy people should pay higher taxes. By contrast,

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Matt Yglesias cites some polls that suggest that the public favors higher taxes on the rich:

There’s no polling on specific brackets or exactly who counts as rich that I can find, but surveys are very consistent that for some definition of rich the voters would like to see higher taxes:

  • The most recent poll on this I can find is an April 2018 Gallup survey which had 62 percent of respondents saying the wealthy do not pay their fair share in taxes, a number that’s been consistently in the high 50s or low 60s in the 21st century.
  • Pew found in 2017 that 60 percent of the public said it was bothered “a lot” by the fact that rich people don’t pay their fair share.
  • A 2017 CBS poll found that 56 percent of voters said wealthy people should pay higher taxes.

By contrast, I can’t find any poll anywhere that supports the Republican position that high-income families’ tax burdens should be reduced.

Conservative web sites do cite such polls:

“What is the maximum percentage of a person’s income that should go to taxes – that is, all taxes, state, federal, and local?” The mean percentage for 2009 was 15.6 percent, up slightly from 14.7 percent in 2007. A plurality of those polled, 42 percent, felt that the maximum income tax rate should be between 10 and 19 percent. In 2007, a whopping 47 percent of those polled said that the maximum income tax rate should be between 10 and 19 percent.

I recall reading polls suggesting that the public prefers a top tax rate of around 25% or 30%, but I cannot find them.  (Yglesias’s post was in part a defense of 70% tax rates on the very rich.)

I recently did a post explaining why public opinion polls are not reliable.  A good example can be found in an NPR poll that suggests the public favors abolishing the “estate tax”, and favors abolishing the “death tax” by an even greater margin. (Of course these are two names for the same tax.)  The same poll shows a slight 43%-42% plurality also favors abolishing taxes on dividends.

The NPR poll suggests that a big majority of the public believes the rich should pay more in taxes (consistent with Yglesias’s claim), but also suggests that most people believe the rich currently pay a lower rate of federal income tax than the middle class, which is crazy.  They pay a much higher rate.  So it’s not clear that the public believes the rich should pay more than they are currently paying, but it is clear that the public believes the rich should pay more than the extremely low rates of income tax that the public now falsely believes they are paying.  As they already do.

Given the public’s views on estate taxes and dividend taxes, it’s odd to read another NPR poll showing that the public believes the tax rate on wealth should be higher than the tax rate on wage income.

Reading all the various poll results leaves me with the impression that the public is woefully ignorant of the entire subject.  Many answers seem to contradict previous questions, and others suggest a lack of knowledge of basic facts.  The ignorance is so profound that I would not take any of these poll results seriously.  Framing effects probably impact some of the responses.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the public thinks about taxes; what matters is how the politicians they elect vote when tax issues come up in Congress.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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