A substantial majority of Americans believe that rich people ought to pay more taxes. For example, consider public opinion about the “Buffett rule,” named after its most prominent backer, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett. That change to the tax code would require all millionaires to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. One recent poll completed by Global Strategy Group and provided to us by Not One Penny shows that 86 percent of registered voters (including 74 percent of Trump voters) support Buffett’s proposal.
More generally, 82 percent of voters (including 68 percent of Trump voters) support hiking taxes on the richest 1 percent. Surveys with nationally representative samples of the general public also show that public support for increased taxes on the rich is high and has been this way for decades.
Why, then, have taxes on the rich decreased so much over the last few decades? And how is it possible that congressional Republicans are on the verge of passing a tax bill that is an obvious tax cut for the very wealthy?
To answer this question, we examine findings of scholarship reported in the forthcoming book Class Attitudes in America. (Spencer Piston, a co-author of this piece, wrote the book.) Policymakers have a clear playbook when they want to change the tax code to benefit the rich: Try to confuse the public, and if that doesn’t work, just ignore voter preferences.
Let’s consider the current tax legislation under consideration. Its final formulation awaits the outcome of the reconciliation process, but all reasonable accounts indicate that Congress is proposing an immense transfer of wealth to the richest Americans. According to data from the Tax Policy Center, for example, a full 62 percent of the tax cuts would accrue to the top 1 percent of the economic distribution. The George W. Bush tax cuts, which were also heavily skewed to the rich, delivered 27 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent.
This is particularly striking given the extreme degree of economic inequality that already exists in the United States, in which the top 1 percent already control 38 percent of the country’s wealth.
Because the United States is so economically unequal, and because democracies are often thought to be driven by the preferences of the public, many political pundits have erroneously concluded that Americans admire, rather than resent, the rich. The Economist, for example, claimed without direct evidence that “Americans want to join the rich, not soak them.”