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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Are Americans proud to pay axes? Should they be? That’s the counterintuitive, perhaps even counterfactual question that my guest explores in her new Princeton University Press book. A fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Vanessa Williamson is author of “Read My Lips: Why Americans are Proud to Pay Taxes” and coauthor of, “The Tea-Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.” As we’ve just concluded another tax season and anticipate a Republican reform agenda, it’s high time for us to correct the loopholes and systemic inequities in the tax code. So today we explore Williamson’s research. She suggests, in spite of, or maybe because of our roots in tax revolt, we in fact have conviction in performing this civic duty. And I’ll ask her, specifically, how collective ownership, even empowerment, is crucial to a proud American taxation with genuine representation.
WILLIAMSON: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: Thank you Vanessa. Isn’t that the critical incentive, ingredient, impulse, to drive a constituency that is proud to pay taxes, ownership, empowerment of this civic life.
WILLIAMSON: I think that’s exactly right. So in, to make people feel good about the taxes that they pay, you really need two things. You need a sense of community, that there’s an ‘us’ and you need a sense of representation, right? That government represents that ‘us.’ And what’s interesting about the American example, is that Americans are traditionally extremely committed to that civic obligation of tax paying. Americans are better tax payers, more reliable tax payers than many other countries. Uh, and they’re also, um, surprisingly committed to the, basically the civic idea of tax paying. If you ask them, is it an important responsibility, a moral responsibility to pay taxes, Americans are exceptionally likely to say yes.
HEFFNER: So they’re exceptionally likely to say yes, and there is the paradox that taxes get a bad rap.
HEFFNER: From where does that paradox arise?
WILLIAMSON: Well I think there are a lot of places, uh, that sort of influence our perception of taxes in this country, but one thing that I think has a really large impact on public perceptions of taxation right now, is the tax revolt of the late 70s and early 80s, the sort of dawn of the Reagan revolution. And during that period, there was a lot of anger in certain, uh, places about tax policy. A lot of that actually had to do with rising and falling property rates, uh, and property values. But um, I think it’s left a real misunderstanding of American’s perception ns of taxation more broadly. Right, so people might have different ideas about where the money should go. They might be quite angry about what their government’s doing. But the idea that part of being a good citizen is paying your fair share is a value that has persisted, uh, throughout this entire period.
HEFFNER: What is the evidence that you were saying to me off camera, even conservatives, who are viewed as questioning the authority of taxation, believe in the virtue, the stewardship of good citizenship around taxation. You studied this in terms of your conversations with taxpayers across the socio-economic bracket.
WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: What did you find, from lower income people, what did you find from mid-income people, what did you find from the highest taxpayers…
WILLIAMSON: So the book relies both on surveys, right, which allow you to get a representative sample of the country and then also interviews which, particularly on the issue of taxation, are a really important aspect of uh, understanding people’s knowledge of taxation, right? One problem with surveys is you can ask a question, people answer it, and you wonder, what do they mean by that? Do they even understand, especially on tax policy, it can be very complicated, so, I use these two methods to both get a broad sample and then also a deep sample of the American people.
HEFFNER: And within that deep sample, what did you find.
WILLIAMSON: So, one thing that really struck me, is that even people who are very angry about government, what they thought government was doing, and this was, by the way, also something I saw in my previous book, you know, visiting Tea-Party rallies and going to Tea-Party meetings, people who are extremely angry about they thought the Obama Administration was doing, nonetheless defined themselves as taxpayers, as part of their way of expressing their right to participate in politics. So one thing you see, particularly among low income Republicans, is a sense that maybe they don’t have the right to participate. You know I was trying to ask them about their feelings about taxation, and they would often hesitate, and say, well, I’m not really a taxpayer, because maybe they don’t pay federal income taxes, even though other taxes are of course, very expensive for low income people, right? So I think that uh,
HEFFNER: What did they mean, they didn’t really pay taxes? They, they didn’t view themselves as part of the lion’s share of the taxable constituency.
WILLIAMSON: So one thing that I notices across the income spectrums was that uh, the federal income tax plays an enormous role in people’s minds, when they’re thinking about taxation, even though, for most Americans, that is not the most expensive tax they pay, right? So I’d speak to someone about, uh, taxes, and they would tell me, you know, especially low-income people, how much the sales tax costs them. You know, it was a really salient issue for low-income people. And often the, you know, those are dollars that they could really use somewhere else, right? Um, and then a couple minutes later we’d be talking, and they would tell me they weren’t a taxpayer, right? And it’s because this, there’s this special place in the American mind for the Federal Income Tax, right? And if you don’t make enough money to pay Federal Income Tax, or you’re retired and don’t pay Federal Income Tax, people sort of feel that maybe they’re not really paying the kind of taxes that count.
HEFFNER: Mathematically speaking, what taxes do count the most.
WILLIAMSON: Oh, all, all different levels. It changes, right? So at a federal level, the personal income tax is a very large amount of the money that we raise. But at the state and local level of course, it’s sales and uh, property taxes that fund most of, interestingly enough, the programs people like best, right? So at a state and local level they’re paying sales taxes and property taxes, primarily. Some states have income taxes too. Um, and those things pay for things like roads and schools and the sewer system, and healthcare at a local level. And so it’s interesting that the taxes we ignore are the ones that go most directly to the services that we like. Right, so this is another challenge to the system.
HEFFNER: Where, whereas income tax goes to pay for what?
WILLIAMSON: So the income tax goes to the general fund of the United States federal government, which means that it goes to a lot of things that are quite controversial, uh, for instance, a lot of that money goes to uh, military spending, uh, and then of course, all of the sort of entitlement programs that are, uh, conservatives are often angry about.
HEFFNER: Discretionary spending?
WILLIAMSON: Exactly. Yeah.
HEFFNER: The reason I ask, is, I want to cite for our viewers a particular passage in, in the book. What are the ultimate destinations of these federal moneys? And you write, “Americans’ examples of government waste, often imply a criticism of the quality of political representation in the United States. My respondents take the opportunity posed by my questions about taxation, to criticize the powerful, and at the same time, express their own feelings of disenfranchisement, in particular, their sense that the actions of government cannot be tracked by the citizenry.” “The actions of government cannot be tracked by the citizenry.” I think that’s such a critical point, because when we do file our returns, or when we do get a receipt at the local CVS, or Applebee’s, or whatever it may be, we don’t know.
HEFFNER: That kind of data exists in a vacuum. Does it not.
WILLIAMSON: Right. I mean there are certainly, you know, think tanks, and people trying to, you know, put together pie-charts where you can see where the government’s money goes, right? But people don’t see that uh, on a regular basis, uh, nearly as much as maybe they should, right? And then, it’s also important to remember that, even if you show people the sort of overall pie-chart in the budget, people don’t have a lot of confidence that within each of those little chunks that it’s being used well, right? So when I was asking people, it was interesting, when I was asking them about government waste, I very rarely heard much about inefficiency, which is a sort of professional policymaker view of what waste is. What people wanted to talk about, was first of all, programs they dislike on principle. So uh, military spending would be seen as wasteful, not only because people thought it wasn’t being used well, but because maybe they didn’t approve of the actual war aims that the United States has been involved with, right? Uh, so first of all programs they don’t like, but also a more general critique of how government operates, so, uh, waste includes things like, pandering to special interests, or a general sense that congressmen and senators are living lives that are apart from the American citizens, that they don’t face the economic challenges that most people face. And that runs counter to a really strong sentiment that our government should be made of people who live lives like the rest of us, right? So it was interesting for me that a question about taxation and government spending, it wasn’t all about where the money ends up. It was also about the process by which we allocate that money.
HEFFNER: How can that process be improved? On this program we try to be prescriptive in eliciting insights from our guests that are going to be part of solutions.
HEFFNER: As we do anticipate, as I said in the intro, potential reform around taxation, cognizant that Republicans are in power…
HEFFNER: What is the healthiest way to contribute to this debate right now.
WILLIAMSON: Well I think that there are a couple things that could happen that would make a really big difference. One uh, policy I’m a huge proponent of is, letting, giving people the opportunity, when they file their income tax returns, to remind them, how do you register to vote, do you need to update your voter registration? You know, 150,000,000 households every year file their income taxes. They’re already sending forms to the government. It’s a time when they’re thinking about what government does or does not do for them. It’s a great moment to ask them, to remind them that most of them have another way they can participate. You can give them money, but then you also have a say. It’s a small say, but it is a say. So that’s one policy I would love to see. At least …
HEFFNER: To remind folks that they can be represented if they choose to be.
WILLIAMSON: Exactly, right? And so I think that that’s, uh, particularly for low income people, uh, the income tax filing process is actually one of their better interactions with government, uh, because it often means that you’re getting a refund, right, the earned income tax credit means a tremendous amount to low income families. Uh, it’s a process that feels respectful, and people have this sense that tax paying is a civic duty. I’m doing my part. It’s a great moment to remind people that their…
HEFFNER: If you go to the DMV, you can do it there, why…
HEFFNER: Can’t you do it when you’re paying taxes,
WILLIAMSON: You’re filing taxes…
HEFFNER: So that’s the first…
WILLIAMSON: So that’s my first sort of pitch of what, what can we do, given that people see taxpaying as a civic responsibility, use it to remind them of their other civic responsibility, voting. Beyond that, I think that a thing that would make a very large difference, is using the tax paying process to get people to be better informed about where the money is going, right? And not just because people need to have better information about that if they’re going to act as citizens and judge the effectiveness of their representation, but also because it’s, would be the respectful thing to do. If people are giving you huge chunks of their salaries, they have a right to know where that money goes, and frankly, they should, have a right to have that information presented to them. They should not have to go digging for it and I think it could have, particularly if they learned more about all the different taxes, and how much people at most income levels, until you get to maybe the tens of millions of dollars, at most income levels, are paying quite a bit. Um, reminding people of that fact, I think, and giving people more accurate information about where the money goes, might help people focus their uh, political energies on the things that really matter to them, and allow them to connect their values with their policy preferences a little more directly.
HEFFNER: Why are lower income people paying a disproportionate amount of tax right now.
WILLIAMSON: So low-income people pay a lot in tax, uh, in sales taxes primarily uh, particularly in states that have a grocery tax. That is an enormous cost to the poor. There are uh, I believe 13 states where uh, groceries are taxed at last a little bit, some uh, where groceries are taxed at the full tax rate. So that’s, you’re talking seven, eight, nine per cent on the groceries you buy. That’s like a month’s worth of groceries to a low-income family. And when you’re making $20,000 a year, that is an enormous burden, right? So that’s one of the ways low income families pay quite a lot. Another thing of course is the payroll tax which goes into social security and Medicare. That’s charged to the first dollar that you earn. So there are taxes that low-income people pay. Sometimes they can be really quite heavy. Um, but I think, from my perspective, the important thing to remember is, that when you hear rhetoric about, oh, half of Americans don’t pay taxes, it’s nonsense. Low-income people are paying a lot. They might be paying too much. Right? But…
HEFFNER: But in this context, why, in every, draft legislation in, from this new Republican congress, would the tax burden be lifted disproportionately to favor higher income people.
WILLIAMSON: Um, you know, I mean I think having already looked at the healthcare legislation, they tried to have exceptionally top heavy tax cuts, uh, in that legislation, and we’re about to see a new, you know, rollout of tax cuts. Probably they’ll maybe try and do a more serious, broader tax reform, but if that doesn’t work, you can imagine we’re gonna go back to a system of tax cuts. Um…
HEFFNER: ‘Cause I gather we’re not going to be proud if that disproportionality continues.
WILLIAMSON: So, if you ask people, what bothers you about taxes? The number one issue is not, uh, the amount you actually personally pay in taxes. About eight percent of people pick that as their top issue. It’s not even the complexity of the tax code. The top two concerns are one, that corporations aren’t paying their fair share, and two, that the wealthy aren’t paying their share, their fair share. Between the two of them, somewhere between three fifths, and two thirds of Americans pick that as their top issue about taxes. So, if what you end up with, is a policy coming out of Washington that cuts taxes at the top, cuts taxes for corporations, uh, lets corporations that have been hiding their money overseas bring that money home at a special rate, those are policies that might be popular in Washington, and might be popular with certain lobbyists, but they are not popular with the American people.
HEFFNER: They’re popular in pursuit of a growth agenda that presumes that these corporations are likelier to, at a faster pace, improve the stock market. Is that not a simplistically accurate understanding of why Republicans favor, besides, you know, serving the interests of their buddies, they view this as the economic destiny.
WILLIAMSON: Well, I mean there’s been a lot of work done, to examine the impact of tax cuts at the top, on growth, and there is not a relationship between tax cuts at the top and growth, right? There’s a relationship between tax cuts at the top…
HEFFNER: But that’s the implicit argument that all these Republicans are making, is it not.
WILLIAMSON: That, I’ve certainly heard it many times. It is not born out by the facts.
HEFFNER: Tell us why.
WILLIAMSON: So, if you look, historically, if you look at the last 65 years, when we’ve cut taxes at the very top, it has not led to great growth. It just hasn’t happened. You just have to look at the historical record to see that, and…
HEFFNER: Well read my lips…
HEFFNER: Originally it’s because that’s what happened in the Reagan years, HW comes into the convention, says to the American electorate, “No new taxes,” and then taxes folks.
WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Yep, yep.
HEFFNER: And so the irony of your title is, “Read My Lips,” what I’m actually thinking…
HEFFNER: Not what I’m saying.
WILLIAMSON: So I think that that’s exactly, I mean there is this tension in American politics, right? The, what you hear in American politics, particularly in Washington, uh, is sort of an extreme anti-tax rhetoric. It’s been basically the defining issue of the Republican Party for forty years. Uh, and you know, you hear it from many of the most vocal people on taxes, having studied the Tea-Party, I can assure you. But what you don’t hear much from is what most people think about taxes, right? People who are not on the political extremes, people who are sort of the middle of the road. And what you hear from those people is a lot of concern that government doesn’t represent them, a lot of concern about where the boundaries of the community are, right? So maybe immigrants aren’t really part of ‘us.’ Maybe immigrants aren’t paying their fair share. You hear a lot of that. And of course a lot of longstanding rhetoric about you know, welfare, right? So I mean, with real racist overtones that have always been there. Um, so I think that you find, you find these discussions about the limits of our community, whether government represents us, but you don’t hear the sort of extremist, taxes can never go up, rhetoric, uh, that’s so popular in Washington D.C. In fact, if you look at the state level, when voters are actually asked to vote for tax increases, in the last 15 years, you put a tax increase on the ballot at the state level, voters more, as often as not, vote for that tax increase.
HEFFNER: And if you don’t do that, you get the most unpopular governor in the country in Kansas, who basically sold out everything in his state…
HEFFNER: Extreme austerity.
HEFFNER: And the result is, he’s the least favorably viewed governor in the country, Sam Brownback.
HEFFNER: Um, I think that, when we think of the classification of, uh, services, that, folks are drawing those conclusions because when they do look at their returns, social security, which can also be controversial to conservatives, Medicare, examples that can be viewed as the safety net or welfare are ostensibly on your return, whereas bridges, tunnels, infrastructure they’re not on your return, they’re not on that receipt.
HEFFNER: Is it, so, if the Democrats are in any position to negotiate, you propose including voter registration in any taxation reform. Having studied this issue, and understanding both sides’ perspectives, where is the greatest promise for cooperation, uh, or some kind of sensible legislation to emerge in the next year.
WILLIAMSON: I have to be honest that I don’t have a lot of hope for the likelihood for bipartisan and sensible legislation [LAUGHTER] coming out of Washington this year. I mean the parties are simply very very far apart. Uh, and the kind of policies that you see um, coming out of the Republican party both the very heavy tax cuts at the top, certainly, but then also things like the border adjustment tax, these are things that uh, a, a lot of people have, are concerned about, that might be quite difficult to sell, even to the Republican base, because you know you can raise concerns about whether a border adjustment tax is gonna raise prices at Walmart, right? That’s a very common concern. Um, so I think that, I wish I had a positive story to tell you about the likelihood of there being a middle ground on taxes this year. I, I don’t have a lot of confidence.
HEFFNER: They can’t all be nonstarters.
WILLIAMSON: Hmm. So I think that, let me see, what might be things that are broadly popular? How about that? I can talk to you about…
WILLIAMSON: Things that most Americans would like to see [LAUGHTER], and whether their legislators do them or not, right?
HEFFNER: Well it goes back to the thesis of your book…
HEFFNER: From what can we derive that patriotism?
WILLIAMSON: Right. So I think that, uh, one aspect of that, for instance, is that money being held overseas by corporations, or, you know, hidden in tax shelters, this is one of the few aspects of the corporate tax code that most Americans have ever given any thought to, right? And they’re very concerned about that. They do not like the idea of large corporations being able to hide profits overseas, not pay taxes on that money, because it’s seen as unpatriotic, right? It echoes the idea that money is actually literally outside of the country, echoes the symbolic truths of this, right, which is that these companies are doing something that doesn’t’ feel like what a good American does. Uh, so I think that a policy that brought that money back, and charged it at fair rates, not at preferential rates, would be something that Americans would think pretty highly of. Uh, I think any policy that gave them the sense that the government was bothering to try and inform them on where the money goes, uh, would certainly be something that people would think favorably about, even if they didn’t want to go through all the nitty gritty, it would just feel respectful, uh, as the person who put the money into the to, to be hearing about where the money was going in a more, uh, thorough way than we do in our very partisan rhetoric about what government does.
HEFFNER: Well it, it seems like there will be a consensus about rates, lowering the rates across the board, progressively, maybe not progressively, that is in the eyes of the Republican party that is in control of all three branches of government right now. So it would seem to me that the Democratic party, as maybe not a formidable opposition, but as the check, you know, culture…
HEFFNER: 60 votes, can insist on some of these things that you’re describing.
WILLIAMSON: Because the, the process of the tax cuts is gonna, very very likely happen through reconciliation, the Democrats are more or less sidelined in terms of being able to make any demands. Uh, the Republicans are basically planning to do this without them, right? And you saw this on healthcare reform, and what that means is you end up having to fight within the Republican party, and that doesn’t mean there’s gonna be no fight. But, the concerns are going to be primarily the concerns of, uh, the constituents that the Republican party is serving, as opposed to the constituencies the Democratic party is trying to serve, because they won’t have a lot of, um, bargaining power. In fact they might have almost literally no bargaining power. Um, so I think that you’re right, that um, the Republican vision of what tax reform should look like is going to be the sort of determining factor. And what’s not clear to me, is whether the divisions within the Republican party that we saw be so critical for uh, healthcare reform, are going to play out in the same way this time.
HEFFNER: And also, the reconciliation of the fiscal disciplinarian, with…
HEFFNER: The all out, um, Live Free and Die, right, I mean, why there is not an incentive to tax the wealthy disproportionately, to reduce the deficit, can you help explain that.
WILLIAMSON: Concerns about the deficit tend to crop up when the spending part is something you don’t like. When you’re spending on something that I like, all of a sudden, I’m less of a deficit hawk than I otherwise was, right?
HEFFNER: But now that the Republicans have complete control, they have to take ownership of this legislative body…
HEFFNER: And whatever the outcomes are, cause they’re…
WILLIAMSON: That’s true across the issues.
HEFFNER: Signing off on the spending.
WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. So I mean, and we’ve seen that. Obviously the healthcare reform is a good example. Suddenly the actual implications of ACA repeal were, were real, right? And so suddenly, votes that you’d taken before that were symbolic votes, were now consequential votes for which you might be held accountable to your uh, constituencies, right? Uh, and so I think to some extent you might see some of that on tax reform, but its harder because, because people have this sense that a huge amount of federal money is wasted, just enormous amounts. The average, if you ask people, how many cents out of every dollar do you think the federal government wastes, the answer is usually about 50 percent, right? So, because people think a huge amount of money is wasted, when there are tax cuts, people don’t always think that that means there are going to be cuts to services, or cuts to programs that I care about because so many of these programs are not as visible as they ought to be, and also because there’s this perception that waste is so high, we could just cut the waste, and then there’d still be all the money for the good stuff, right? And so I think that on tax reform, the costs, like, that we saw with ACA repeal, the costs were obvious to people, I was gonna lose my health insurance, Medicaid was gonna get cut, there were these very clear cut costs. The costs when you do tax reform, are less clear to people.
HEFFNER: What do you expect will result from the various factions within the part?
WILLIAMSON: My goodness. You know, political scientists this Fall learned not to make predictions.
WILLIAMSON: That was one of the outcomes of it, is political scientists walking back from the idea of making any predictions. Um, no, I mean it will be very interesting to see. I think it’s certainly the case that it will be easier for the Republicans to get consensus around tax cuts, than broad tax reform. I think tax reform is a big lift in any context, and in our incredibly polarized political context, polarized even within the Republican party now, um, the, you know, you have sort of the most extreme wing, the Freedom Caucus wing, um, who are not willing to go along, to get along within their own party. Um, I think that tax reform would be an enormous lift. I think that tax cuts are the sort of things where you can still make the kind of compromises, at least within the Republican party, and that’s probably what you’re gonna end up with.
HEFFNER: And, and that then does not get at the systemic issues, right.
WILLIAMSON: I wouldn’t…
HEFFNER: … without real reform?
WILLIAMSON: No, I wouldn’t think so, and in particular I think one of the things it’s likely to do is result in, uh, large tax cuts at the top, which is clearly a Republican priority, uh, despite the fact that it’s not a priority for the American people.
HEFFNER: When we talk about the extreme tax cuts at the top that already exist, we’re talking about the structural issues that allow for loopholes, for companies and individuals to get around paying tax. So, in that case it’s not about increasing or decreasing rates within the current system. It’s like, what the president was able to do with his own tax returns over what we know beat the system.
WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Well, so there’s a particular thing about, this is a, now we’re gonna get a little wonky, but uh, the alternative minimum tax, the AMT, which is the reason that Donald Trump paid any taxes of any moment, uh, I think he would have paid a three percent rate if it weren’t for the AMT. He wants to abolish the AMT. So, uh, some of the things that are in place to make sure that, if you have all the loopholes in the world, you still end up paying some taxes. Those are things that I, at least in everything administration they would like to get rid of. Um, so there’s a distinction between corporate taxes, where what you might describe as loopholes are really prevalent, and the rates actually are not a very good descriptor of what people, what companies end up paying, and the individual income tax, right? And the individual income tax, Americans underestimate this, is up to the tens of millions of dollars level, very progressive. In fact we have one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. Our tax system is more progressive than Europe. And I tell people that. They never buy it.
But it’s true because uh, most European countries rely on a VAT, uh, basically what amounts to a sales tax, very heavily. We rely very heavily on an income tax, right? So, the rates really do matter, and while loopholes are obviously an important thing, especially for the superrich, the very, very rich, maybe the top two or three thousand households, of course, um, you know, people who are simply well off, people like doctors and lawyers and uh, people who have a large income from their salary, those people are actually paying a lot in taxes, right? So um, I don’t think it’s, just closing loopholes doesn’t necessarily, um, have the effect Americans imagine it does, if what you’re also doing is lowering rates.
HEFFNER: The reform, I gather, for the individuals to have an impact, would be if capital gains and, within the stock market…
WILLIAMSON: Mm-hmm. Right.
HEFFNER: A lot to explore. I hope you’ll continue to track this with us, and congratulations on the new book.
WILLIAMSON: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: Thank you Vanessa. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.