If Fox News were your only source of information about the economy, you'd conclude that:
1) Taxes are high -- way too high.
2) Especially taxes on the wealthy.
3) So you'd have to be a crazy socialist to want to raise their taxes any higher!
What you wouldn't learn is that taxes on the wealthiest Americans are already at historically low levels -- or that their current tax rate is about equal to the percentage of the nation's wealth they control.
Today, Fox & Friends returned to the cherished right-wing hysteria over taxing the wealthy with a few segments on President Obama's budget speech yesterday.
Here's how the misinformers on the curvy couch kicked off the show:
PETER JOHNSON JR. (guest host): Let's talk about some of the specifics of [the president's budget proposal]. He's talking about cutting the deficit $4 trillion over 12 years. With regard to taxes, allowing tax rates to rise in 2013 and beyond for people making more than $200,000, and couples making more than $250,000. And then eliminating about $320 billion in tax breaks over 10 years.
JOHNSON: ... And according to the president, apparently wealthy people really do want their taxes to be raised, but no one's really asked them to make that contribution.
[begin video clip]
OBAMA : Some will argue we should not even consider ever, ever raising taxes even if only on the wealthiest Americans. It's just an article of faith to them. I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more. I don't need another tax cut.
And here's the thing. I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me. They want to give back to their country. A country that's done so much for them. It's just Washington hasn't asked them to.
[end video clip]
GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): Huh? I mean, come on. Who on April 15 goes, yippie, skippy, I'm paying taxes today, and I love it. And if you ask me to pay more, here it is. Come on. I don't care how much money you make, no one is going to say that they love doing that.
JOHNSON: If you ask any American at any tax level they'll say, I've been asked and I've been asked and I've been asked, and you've told me to pay and pay and pay. It's really quite incredible.
BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): And this stat you just can't run from. The top 1 percent, you know, those rich people that are very fortunate -- they don't work hard, they're fortunate. They were born into royalty. Those rich people, the 1 percent of the country, they pay almost 40 percent of America's federal income tax of the entire pot.
JOHNSON: Staggering numbers.
KILMEADE: So OK, so you have the federal tax, outside states like Florida, then you have a state tax of another 10 percent. So you're already giving -- so you're already working -- you're only getting 60 percent of what you earn.
And by the way, the stats also show that the most fortunate ones, you know, the ones that inherit all that money, they also start foundations and give more money than almost everybody else. So, in other words, they're supposed to feel bad about this, feel humble about what they've earned, give more of it to the government as opposed to investing it in different areas, starting a different company, hiring more people. I mean, that to me -- in one sense, you have 73 pages of a specific way forward to address a $14.2 trillion deficit, and this speech was, I'd like to be president again. That's what this speech was.
First of all, from all this hyperventilating, you'd get the impression that taxes are outrageously high for everyone in the U.S.
But in fact, they're actually the lowest they've been in about 60 years. In April 2010, USA Today reported that tax bills in 2009 were at their lowest level since 1950. No wonder a recent AP-GfK poll found that 54 percent of Americans think their tax bills are either somewhat fair or very fair.
More important, taxes for the wealthiest Americans are proportionately even lower: The top income bracket enjoys the lowest tax rate they've had since 1931 (with one exception). As a December 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek article pointed out during congressional debates over extending the Bush tax cuts:
A bonanza of new and extended tax benefits could make it as easy as ever for the rich to stay that way.
The good news for the rich starts with income tax rates, which for top income groups would remain 35 percent, a rate enacted by former President George W. Bush in 2003. Except for a period from 1988 to 1992, the top tax rate has never been this low since 1931.
"Top rates are incredibly low from a historical perspective," says Indiana University law professor Ajay Mehrotra. The most surprising thing, he says, is that rates have remained at this level even as the U.S. has been fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historically, income taxes on the wealthy have spiked during wartime: The first income tax was initiated during the Civil War and then later repealed. The top rate on income hit 77 percent in 1918, during World War I, and 94 percent from 1944 to 1945, during World War II.
What about Kilmeade's assertion that because the top 1 percent pay "almost 40 percent" of all federal income taxes, they're already paying enough taxes? (This statistic appears to be true -- the conservative National Taxpayers Union claims that in 2008, the top 1 percent of earners paid 38.02 percent of all personal income taxes received by the federal government.)
Well, Kilmeade's question raises another: What percentage of the total wealth in America does that top 1 percent control? If the answer was only 10 or even 20 percent, you could conclude that the wealthiest are paying a disproportionate share of income taxes (although that's also debatable -- more on this below).
But that's not the answer. In April 2010, the Wall Street Journal blog Wealth Report reported that the top 1 percent held 35.6 percent of all national wealth at the end of 2009.
In other words, this group of very wealthy individuals owned 35.6 percent of all wealth in the country, and they paid 38 percent of all federal income taxes.
That just doesn't sound so unreasonable to me.
What goes unsaid on Fox, of course, is that poorer Americans pay a lower percentage of all federal taxes collected because they make much less money -- and have to spend much more of it on basic needs. According to a December 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), low-income households spend 16.2 percent of income on food. And Habitat for Humanity found that in 2008, a staggering 16 percent of Americans spent more than half of their incomes on housing. So the poorest Americans are already spending a huge percentage of their incomes on basic necessities -- they're not the ones who can afford to give up any more.
Just how have the rich, middle-class, and poor families of the U.S. been faring under our tax system? This graph from the CEPR report, which shows the growth in income by income bracket over the past 30 years, says it all:
Yes: From 1979 to 2006, the income of the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S. increased 256 percent. Over the same period, the middle quintile's income increased 21 percent. That means the top 1 percent saw their incomes rise by 10 times more than those of the middle class.
So, Fox, stop exaggerating how much the wealthiest Americans pay in taxes. They're doing just fine.