TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Slate: Return of the 47% -- The Right’s Latest Tax Lie

HeritageSlate:  Return of the 47 Percent: The Right’s Latest Tax Lie, by Michael Lind (New American Foundation):

I am amused to report that my former colleagues at the Heritage Foundation have lost none of their willingness to sacrifice truth to propaganda. The Heritage Foundation has published an Index of Dependence on Government by William W. Beach and Patrick Tyrrell that seeks to bolster Mitt Romney’s theme that at least 47% of Americans are parasitic, government-dependent “takers” rather than “makers”:

Today, more people than ever before depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions. The United States reached another milestone in 2010: For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes. It is the conjunction of these two trends — higher spending on dependence-creating programs, and an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers who pay for these programs — that concerns those interested in the fate of the American form of government.

What caught my eye in this latest piece of Heritage agitprop was this sentence: The United States reached a milestone in 2012 — or the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes.

This is not just wrong.  It is an error embarrassing enough to shame even a shameless propaganda mill like the Heritage Foundation.

Heritage implies that a majority of Americans paid federal income taxes throughout American history, presumably back to the 1790s. Nothing could be further from the truth. For much of American history, 100% of the population paid no federal income taxes, because there were none. And the federal income tax began to fall on the middle-class masses, not just the upper classes, only in the 1940s. ... According to the conservative Tax Foundation, which has a friendlier relationship with facts than does the Heritage Foundation, as recently as 1940 the percentage of those who filed (a group smaller than the working-age population) who owed federal income taxes was 49.4%. In that year, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie missed the opportunity to sneer at “the 49%.”

It was only during World War II, with the institution of the income tax withholding system, that a majority of Americans became subject to federal income taxation. If it were accurate, the sentence in the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Dependence on Government” would read: The United States reached a milestone in 2012 — for the first time since World War II, half the population pays no federal income taxes.

Tax, Think Tank Reports | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Slate: Return of the 47% -- The Right’s Latest Tax Lie:


The intolerance of the liberal left continues. Instead of merely pointing out the inaccuracies in the Heritage Foundation article, Mr. Lind calls the institution (and his former colleagues apparently) liars. How can there be civil discourse when the response to a misinterpretation of data is deemed a blatant, intentional falsehood? Even the title of the article seeks to vilify the opposing view. Maybe Mr. Lind is a regular viewer of The Ed Show or Rachel Maddow. Where is our leader who will bring all of us together, help us put aside our stridency, reach across the aisle, sit down at the table with us without name-calling? Is Obama the President of the 50.8% who voted for him or of 100% of Americans?

Posted by: TexEcon | Nov 21, 2012 11:22:23 AM

Perhaps if the folks at Heritage didn't propagandize so shamelessly, they wouldn't be called out for being shameless propagandists.

Calling them propagandists is an accurate description of their goals and work.

Here's how they describe themselves:

"The Heritage Foundation is . . . a think tank—whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. . ,. . As policy entrepreneurs, we believe the most effective solutions are consistent with those ideas and principles."

In other words, no matter the problem, cutting taxes and deregulating is going to be the solution according to Heritage.

The fact that they call themselves "policy entrepreneurs" is a not-too-subtle reference to the fact that they are in the business of converting corporate money into specific policies that are in their sponsors' financial interests.

If you spot mistakes on Rachel Maddow's show, you should point them out.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 21, 2012 12:39:11 PM

Does Slate really want people asking the question, "How did the United States survive/rise to economic greatness without a broad-based income tax?".

I don't think so....

Somebody should do so and ram it down their pontificating blowhole.

Posted by: cas127 | Nov 21, 2012 12:49:29 PM

Well, Anon, see the Rachel Maddow vignette in the story on this blog titled, "The New York Times Doesn't Understand ...." In mocking the NYT for not carefully explaining how marginal tax rates work, she states, at about the 2:20 mark that "all the income below $250,000 is taxed at the same rate." If one were of Mr. Lind's ilk one would blog about Maddow lying because everything below $250k is not taxed at the same rate. Or maybe she meant taxed the same as before any tax increase on income over $250k. Of course, you could also call her a liar, if, again, you are of Mr. Lind's kind, because she did not mention the AMT. It could go on and on. Just calm down.

Posted by: TexEcon | Nov 21, 2012 3:39:55 PM

So if a supposedly respected thinktank puts out a report that could be debunked by a high school student using wikipedia, in support of very dubious statements a presidential candidate said privately but found it expedient not to say publicly, it's a problem calling them ``shameless''?

How low has the conservative intellectual elite sunk? Some people need to do some serious soul searching, or re-examination of their academic credentials.

Posted by: johnqpublic | Nov 22, 2012 3:20:36 AM

Wait, what? So Heritage's big propaganda lie was that it got the timeline wrong? IIRTC, Slate is not disagreeing that "half" of Americans don't pay income taxes, it just disagrees with the "since" part. Right? Help me clear this up, please.

Posted by: Badger65 | Nov 22, 2012 5:21:12 AM

Frankly, organizations to the far right as well as left get it wrong. What is clear is that now is not the time to raise taxes and to bring up the Clinton era, when clearly we are in a different economic climate is a joke. The taxes worked in the Clinton era due to the internet and advances in technology. That is not the case today. Higher taxes worked in Reagan's second term when the economy was in much better shape than when he first took office during his first term. Obama cannot claim that is the case today. And for those that live on either the West or East coast, $250,000 in earnings is far from being wealthy.

Posted by: David L Rice | Nov 22, 2012 12:28:28 PM