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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
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.
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
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
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
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
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
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