Do Americans Really Like Taxes?

If you had to make a choice, which of the following would you prefer: an audit by the IRS or root canal surgery?

It's easy to guess how Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former Sen. Tom Daschle and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whose tax returns garnered unwanted publicity during the presidential appointment process, would answer that question.

But what about the rest of us? How much do we dislike taxes?

A handful of people (2% to 3%) actually tell pollsters they "love" preparing their taxes, while around 30% say they hate doing them. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. But almost everyone--85% in a new Harris Interactive/Tax Foundation survey--thinks the tax system is complex.

Preparation is one thing, but what about what we pay? In 1980, 68% said the federal income taxes they paid were too high. In Gallup's latest question, a bare majority, 52%, gave that response, and around four in 10 said they were about right. Only 2% declared they were too low.

Andrea Campbell, a political scientist at MIT who studies public opinion on taxes, believes the changes in responses to questions like Gallup's can be explained by objective conditions, namely, the cost of taxes. In her forthcoming book How Americans Think about Taxes: Public Opinion and the American Fiscal State (Princeton University Press, 2010) she shows that when taxes are higher as a percentage of GDP, people are more critical of what they pay.

Americans seem reconciled to the taxes they pay to the federal government.

Today, since about 40% of Americans either pay no federal income taxes or have no tax liability, tax dissatisfaction isn't especially high. A new Fox News and Opinion Dynamics poll found that 36% of respondents would be willing to join a symbolic Tea Party on April 15 to protest excessive government spending, but 58% would not. Forty-seven percent of Republicans said they would join, but 48% percent said they would not. Just 29% of Democrats and, separately, Independents, said they would.

In a Pew Research Center question from the beginning of this year that asked respondents to select which issue should be a top priority for the president and Congress, "reducing federal income taxes for the middle class" ranked low--15th out of 20 issues. In 2005, 2007 and 2008 Pew questions, only 35% of respondents said making "recent federal income tax cuts permanent" should be a top priority. Americans object more to how their federal tax dollars are spent than to what they pay.

Today, then, Americans seem reconciled to the taxes they pay to federal government. Sixty percent say the federal income tax they pay is fair. It's another story entirely, however, when you look at opinions about personal property taxes, which, along with gas taxes, are seen as particularly onerous these days.

But Americans don't want their taxes to rise, and they have clear ideas of the maximum amount anyone should pay. In a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 51% said the maximum percentage of a person's income that should go to all taxes was less than 20%; another 27% of those surveyed said it should be less than 30%. Democrats, Republicans and independents were pretty much in agreement on this issue.

Politically, Republicans have lost the edge on handling what used to be their signature issue. From 1993 to 2004, respondents to NBC News/Wall Street Journal questions said that Republicans almost always trumped the Democrats as the party that would do a better job on "dealing with taxes."

But since 2005, the Democrats have taken the lead--albeit very narrowly in some cases. Although politicians' promises to cut taxes usually aren't credible, it seems that, at this early stage, people trust Barack Obama not to raise taxes on the middle class. If the Republicans have an advantage on this issue today, it is on "holding the line" on taxes, not on cutting them.

Around three-quarters of Americans say they've already finished their taxes by this time of year.

Still, a slight plurality say they'd rather have a root canal than be audited.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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