But voters, by and large, don't yearn to see the wealthy stripped bare by the tax collector. In a new nationwide poll, Gallup asked Americans to rank a list of policy proposals for the next president to address. Respondents gave highest priority to "creating good jobs," "reducing corruption in federal government," "reducing the federal budget deficit," "dealing with terrorism and other international threats," and "ensuring the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicaid." Raising taxes on the wealthy placed last. Even among Obama supporters, no issue on Gallup's list was deemed less important.
Blasting the wealthy for not paying their "fair share" in taxes may rev up what Howard Dean called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." But measured by any reasonable yardstick, rich Americans pay their fair share. And then some.
One reasonable yardstick might be the average rate paid when all federal taxes -- including not just income taxes but also payroll taxes -- are considered. The Congressional Budget Office reported last month that in 2009, the top 20 percent of taxpayers paid an average of 23.2 percent of their income in federal taxes -- more than double the 11.1 percent paid by the middle quintile, and 23 times the 1 percent paid by the lowest quintile. Even within the top 20 percent, average tax rates rose with income: The richest 1 percent paid 28.9 percent of their earnings in federal taxes.
Or perhaps a more reasonable yardstick would compare the share of federal taxes paid with the share of national income earned. The CBO ran those numbers too. In 2009, the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers earned approximately 5 percent of the nation's income but paid just 0.3 percent of all federal taxes. Households in the middle quintile, which earned almost 14.7 percent of national income, paid only 9.4 percent of federal taxes. Yet Americans in the top quintile, who earned 51 percent of the nation's income, paid a whopping 67.9 percent of all federal taxes.
And the much-demonized 1 percent? They took in 13.4 percent of all income in 2009 -- and shelled out 28.9 percent of all federal taxes.
Reasonable minds can debate whether income inequality is good, bad, or neutral; whether "fair" tax rates should be flat or graduated; whether income-redistribution is a legitimate function of government. But what's clear is that wealthy Americans pay plenty -- far more than plenty -- in taxes. Maybe that's why voters aren't clamoring to make them pay even more.