I see that one of those guys who used to earn a living lying for the Bush administration has revived the ancient Republican complaint that the nation’s top earners provide a greater percentage of tax revenue than everyone else. Though he offers the predictable suggestion that the tax code has prodiced a kind of ersatz Marxism, he’s kind enough to lard the argument with allusions to ponzi schemes, Bernard Madoff and the like.
Leave aside the obvious qualifier that former employees of the Bush administration — which projected, among other things, Madovian annual returns on the Iraq War while arguing that we could improve Social Security by anchoring its benefits to the stock market — are uniquely unsuited to the task of identifying and offering solutions to policy problems. At the bottom of it all, Fleischer’s argument is based on the nonsensical suggestion that because wealthy people are collectively paying a larger share of federal tax revenue, the tax code is somehow grossly unfair to the rich and dangerous to the economy as a whole. If Fleischer’s column provided the only data available on the subject, you might be forgiven for assuming that wealthy Americans had seen their individual incomes decline over the past few years and that the only means of avoiding the mass Galtification of the upper ten percent would be to start taxing the poor.
Fortunately, we have other sources of data from the CBO, from whom we might learn (.pdf) that since 1979, the share of overall federal income tax paid by the wealthiest decile has indeed risen from 48 to 72 percent. But that’s a meaningless figure in this discussion, since it doesn’t reflect anything about individual income and doesn’t reflect the broad array of tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans have enjoyed in recent years. I’d venture a wild guess that the experience of being rich is shaped not in the least by the fact that one’s class happens to be paying a larger share of federal income revenue; as an ideological device, however, Fleischer’s shocking revelations are useful if you’re the sort of person looking to justify additional tax cuts for upper-income earners.
One way to test Fleischer’s objections would be to ask ourselves how those top earners are in fact doing. By his account, they should be doing pretty badly, if they’re being hammered by such a grossly disproportionate tax code. From the same CBO, however, we also learn (.pdf) that the threshold separating the top ten percent from the rest of the nation has risen during that period from roughly $65,000 to just under $100,000 — a 50 percent increase that corresponds to the radical income growth among the wealthiest Americans over the past 30 years. Moreover, that growth in category income minimums hasn’t been matched by similar rising thresholds in the lower quintiles. During that same period, by comparison, the threshold dividing the first and second quintiles has risen from $16,900 to $18,900 (a 12 percent change). To evoke an image made famous by Fleischer’s old boss, it’s like someone decided to make the pie higher — but then got distracted after taking care of the top quintile. Meantime, as this chart (.pdf) from the Economic Policy Institute points out, the wealthiest 5 percent saw its share of national income grow from 15 to 21 percent between 1970-2004, a figure that helps explain the very piece of data that has Fleischer so upset in the first place.
I suppose I could have saved myself a lot of time here by just remembering that nobody gives a fuck what Ari Fleischer thinks. But now I’ve got lots more CBO data to use during the last week of my US survey — and if there’s anything guaranteed to plump up those student evaluations, it’s CBO data.