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Death, Taxes and GOP rhetoric

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This Arthur Brooks WSJ article illustrates most of the classic tropes of Republican anti-tax rhetoric:

(1) Talk only about federal income taxes, which — subject to a few marginal exceptions such as the currently non-existent estate tax — are the closest thing we have to a progressive tax. The vast majority of taxes people pay are either flat (state, sales, capital gains) or regressive (social security).

(2) Focus on marginal rates rather effective rates. I’m semi-rich, i.e., what the GOP considers “middle class,” and this year my effective tax rate (the actual percentage of my total income I paid in federal income tax) was less than one-third of my marginal rate (the percentage of my income I paid on the last dollar I earned).

(3) Treat taxes as an artificial intrusion on “the market,” which is conceptualized as some kind of natural fact along the lines of the laws of thermodynamics. “If you think spreading money around by force seems like an odd definition of fairness, you’re not alone,” Brooks writes. Taxes, you see, are imposed by the government via the threat of state violence, and are therefore at least implicitly of questionable legitimacy. Meanwhile, employment contracts which pay CEOs salaries equal to the combined income of 500 of their employees are apparently wholly voluntary social arrangements, rather than mechanisms that deploy the threat of state violence, aka “the rule of law,” to avoid not spreading money around “by force.”

This kind of selective blindness allows for statistics such as the claim that “60% of Americans consume more in government services than they pay in taxes.” Such statistics are based on the idea that Bill Gates and a single mother living below the poverty line are consuming precisely the same amount of government services in the form of the existence of courts of law, legislation, police protection, and indeed the entire structure of the contemporary regulatory state. So since Gates isn’t eligible for food stamps, that means he’s consuming less in government services than someone living below the poverty line.

In 2007 — the latest year for which the relevant numbers are available — the 400 richest American taxpayers paid an effective federal income tax rate of 16.6%. Consider that the working poor pay an effective federal tax rate in social security taxes alone nearly equal to that (when the employer contribution is factored in). Really rich people, of course, don’t pay social security taxes in any meaningful economic sense.

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