Tax day

Posted: Apr 11, 2003 12:00 AM

April 15 is like a national holiday for conservatives. It is the one day each year when Americans are forced to think about the cost of government. That is why many conservatives have long thought that tax day should also be Election Day. A review of polling data on taxes by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that conservatives would indeed gain from such a move.

Since 1947, the Gallup Poll has regularly asked Americans whether they think their federal taxes are too high, too low or just right. Historically, large majorities say that their taxes are too high. The peak came during the Korean War in 1952, when 71 percent said so, with just 26 percent saying their taxes were OK. The low point came in 1949, just after a Republican Congress rammed a big tax cut through over President Truman's veto. At that time, just 43 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high, with 53 percent saying that they were about right.

Generally speaking, however, the percentage of those saying that their taxes are too high has been well above 50 percent. At no time has the number of those saying their taxes are too low been above 2 percent, and in most years the percentage has been too low to even measure.

Not surprisingly, the number of Americans saying that their taxes are too high has tended to peak just before big tax cuts or after tax increases, hitting lows -- as now -- just after tax cuts have taken effect. They also tend to view their taxes as higher after April 15 than before. For example, in February 1962, 48 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. By June of that year, the figure had jumped to 63 percent. In April 1994, 56 percent of people said their taxes were too high, but by December 66 percent said so. In neither case were there any changes in federal income taxes between the two surveys.

One reason why people view their taxes as excessive is because they think that the vast bulk of it goes for nothing. Polls normally show that about 50 cents of each dollar people pay in taxes is wasted. Just 18 percent of people feel that they get good or excellent value for the taxes they pay, while 34 percent say that they get a poor return on them. This is important because three quarters of people say that how their money is spent bothers them more than the amount of taxes they pay.

People also don't like it when taxes are imposed solely to redistribute income. Forty percent to 50 percent of Americans regularly say that it is not the responsibility of government to reduce income differences between people. For this reason, three-fifths of Americans routinely tell pollsters that they favor abolition of the estate tax, even though if affects just the richest 2 percent of the population.

Americans have always favored lower tax rates than the government actually imposes. In 1941, one the eve of World War II, the average amount of taxes that people said a family making $100,000 should pay was just 10 percent. At the time, the top tax rate was 81 percent and $100,000 was equivalent to $1.1 million today. In 1995, people were asked what the highest percentage was that any family should pay, regardless of income. They said 19 percent. Even when asked specifically about a family making $200,000 per year, they said that 25 percent was the most they should pay. In fact, they paid 36 percent in 1995.

The latest poll shows that the most anyone should pay is a percentage in the high teens. A Fox News poll in January found that 17 percent was the average rate, but 10 percent was the median. That is, half of all those asked thought that 10 percent was the most anyone should pay. Consequently, it is not surprising that a flat rate income tax polls well every time the question is asked.

Today, we have rising deficits and an effort underway in Congress to cut taxes. Almost all Democrats and a few Republicans say that it makes no sense to cut taxes when deficits are rising. But most Americans do not believe that deficits are caused by tax cuts. In fact, a Democratic poll by Penn, Schoen and Berland in May 2002 asked people if they thought that tax cuts increased deficits or reduced them by raising economic growth and revenues. Fifty-six percent favored the latter position and only 34 percent supported the former. Among swing voters, 69 percent said that tax cuts don't increase deficits.

This review suggests that Americans are much more in tune with Republican ideas about cutting tax rates -- even for the rich and even when the budget is in deficit -- than Democratic ideas about soaking the rich and raising taxes to pay for new programs.