Shlaes notes popular misconceptions about tax progressivity

Amity Shlaes explains for National Review Online readers that the complexity of a progressive tax system leads people to misunderstand what progressive taxation means.

… [S]tudies have shown that generally people do think that the greater the wealth, the more dollars wealthy people should pay in tax, proportionally. But that is not a progressive rate structure. That is a flat tax. A progressive tax increases rates as you earn more, disproportionally.

Nor are many people aware that under a progressive structure the last dollar is taxed at a different rate from the first dollar. The top marginal rate is not necessarily the average rate. In the early 1980s, scholar Karlyn Keene found that many Americans, when interviewed, thought flat taxes fair. Before Keene, Walter Blum and Harry Kalven at the University of Chicago studied attitudes toward progressivity and its functions and came away, despite their liberal predilections, concluding that the case for progressivity is “uneasy.”

Politicians, and the economists behind them, simply played off citizens’ ignorance. The simple early code of 1913 became complex and, yes, more onerous.

The real question should be why Americans allow themselves to be intimidated, especially when it comes to progressivity.

Vanity of two sorts provides answers. Most Americans are unwilling to concede that they may not understand or be comfortable with long formulas and complex economic ideas. So, like the Enron audit committee, they simply nod and go along.

The second vanity involves not intelligence but a kind of Puritan pretension. No American wants to be caught appearing unfair, even if in the most fleeting snapshot. “Progressivity” sounds like “progress.” Nobody wants to be seen opposing progress, even if that progress is regress and unfair to boot.

In any case: That willed American ignorance is the single greatest reason our progressive income-tax rates have moved, at times, into the 90 percent range, up from that original 7 percent.

Worse, the attitude makes progressivity hard to undo. When you cut taxes for all in a progressive rate structure, the rich necessarily get a larger tax break because they pay a greater share of the taxes. But “larger tax breaks for the rich” are impossible to sell.

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