Thursday, March 27, 2008
Andrea Louise Campbell (MIT) presents How Americans Think About Taxes: Public Opinion and the American Fiscal State at NYU today as part of its Colloquium Series on Tax Policy and Public Finance. Here is the part of the Introduction:
This book focuses on the interplay between public opinion and elite action concerning taxation. It explores the bases of citizen opinions about taxes, showing how these attitudes are often based on objective conditions – on the net calculation of the costs taxes impose and the benefits they provide. It shows how the designs of taxes can influence perceptions of associated costs and benefits, affecting attitudes. And it demonstrates that how elites talk about taxes influences public opinion above and beyond those objective conditions. Elite attention to taxes influences the salience of taxes to ordinary Americans. In addition, how elites – especially politicians, but also interest group leaders, academics, and policy analysts – characterize taxes can heighten or obscure the costs and benefits associated with taxes, altering opinion patterns among the public.
In addition, although they consider the costs and benefits associated with their own taxes in determining how they feel about those taxes, most citizens do not have strong preferences about how progressive the tax system should be overall. Most Americans think the rich do not pay enough, but they also readily accept tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy as long as they get some kind of cut themselves (and even when they do not, as some historical examples will show). The asymmetry of taxes – people would rather pay less than more – and the lack of crystallized attitudes toward graduated taxation favor opponents of such a system, who have been successful in reducing progressivity since the 1960s. Given that taxation is a major tool of redistribution, this change in policy has exacerbated other trends in income inequality. Thus an examination of tax policy and attitudes over time provides a crucial window into how the designs of public policies and the interactions of masses and elites shape the role of government and the scope of economic inequality.