Do the Rich Pay?

Elizabeth Warren’s recent stump speech quote has been lighting up the internet for a couple of weeks now. If you haven’t seen it yet, she makes the following statements:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” [1]

These words are, depending on your point of view, either a clear description of a more perfect America, or complete and utter drivel. Moveon.org touts it as a quote that “Every American Needs To See.”

Alright, then. Let’s take a look.

She starts with her thesis–that nobody gets rich on his own. She then makes several supporting statements based on the idea that if you got rich, you did it using resources that “the rest of us paid for.” Finally, she makes a call to action–if you are one of these rich people, part of the deal is that the rest of us take some of your profits and “pay (it) forward,” presumably for more of the things she referred to earlier (roads, education, police, fire, military).

Behind these statements lies an important, unspoken assumption: namely, that the rich don’t provide anything to society. None of her statements makes sense unless you assume that the rich do not pay. It’s dumb to say that the rich use resources provided to them by everyone else if the rich are, in fact, paying for those resources. (Not to mention that these public resources aren’t built by the peasants for the benefit of the rich factory owners, but they are built by everyone, for everyone. Great response on this issue by Dale Franks here.)

And, to tell the rich that they need to pay for the common public necessities of our society as if it’s some novel idea baldly assumes that they aren’t currently doing it. The thing is, this assumption is completely false. The facts simply do not follow. She might as well have said, “It would be really great if the fish in the ocean had something to swim around in. Fish need water, right? We ought to put a bunch of water in the ocean so that the fish don’t die.” And people respond with, hey, yeah, the oceans SHOULD have water in them! She’s right! Anyone that disagrees with her on anything wants the oceans to be dry!

But the fact is, the oceans are already wet, and the rich already pay. Even the AP reports that, okay, when you go to the IRS and actually look at the numbers, households making $1 million plus will shell out an average of 29.1% of their income in federal taxes (including both income and payroll taxes), households around the national middle-class average of $50-75,000 will pay around 15%, and lower-class households making $20-30,000 will only give up around 5.7%. [2]

The numbers are even more striking if you look at how much of the government’s income comes from the various groups. According to the Tax Policy Center’s numbers for 2010, the top 20% of earners pay nearly 70% (68.6) of all federal taxes–including payroll taxes. The lowest 20% get more back in credits than they pay in–still including payroll taxes. If we just look at the federal income tax, nearly half of all Americans pay nothing at all, and the top quintile pays almost 90% of what the government takes in. [3] [4]

Yes, there are a few millionaires that manage to get out of paying any federal income taxes. But that’s less than 1% of the group. The solution to that problem will have to involve eliminating a lot of the exemptions and complications in the tax code, not raising rates for the other 99%. Eliminating dodges and loopholes is exactly what the Ryan budget and the President’s own deficit committee call for. And yet, many Democrats continue to call for simply hiking rates to “get” those rascals with the corporate jets.

We the people have responsibilities in this Republic. One of the more important ones is to call out our elected officials (and those running for office) when they look us in the eye and lie to us. When they dismiss our intelligence and integrity, they demonstrate (among other things) that they do not deserve our votes. The fact is, the rich do pay–and shame on Elizabeth Warren for implying otherwise. Frustratingly, her statement not only claims that the rich fail to pay, but by implication, that conservatives want it that way. That straw man may burn well, but it’s not an argument that conservatives are making, and it gets in the way of the real debate.

Mrs. Warren, the wealthy do pay their share for the things you’re talking about, and conservatives don’t argue that it should be any other way. Conservatives will, however, be happy to have a conversation with you about how much taxation is enough, and how the government should go about spending that money. Those are issues based in reality, and they are what we’ve been talking about all along.


[1] See the bit of the speech that went viral here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20110042-503544.html

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/breaking/chi-data-the-rich-actually-do-pay-more-taxes-20110920,0,3645513.story

[3] http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/numbers/displayatab.cfm?Docid=2994&DocTypeID=2

[4] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36226444/ns/business-personal_finance/t/half-us-pays-no-federal-income-tax/#.TooQanKwXSs

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  1. #1 by psychodynamom on October 3, 2011 - 7:28 pm

    I’ve had a recent conversation with my neighbor who is from a socialist country. As she explained to me – “Socialism is good. It’s good for the people. it’s good for the country. However, in THIS country, it will never work. Unions & entitlements do not exist in a socialist state. People must get off their asses and work. Regardless of where the money comes from, people cannot sit around.”

    Actually the conversation lasted for a whole bottle and a half of wine and was fascinating. And she’s right.

    Thanks for your input!

    • #2 by basicconservative on October 4, 2011 - 12:03 am

      I’m curious what country your neighbor is from! I guess it depends on how one defines “socialist.” In a lot of European welfare states, which are certainly more socialist than the USA, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to sit around. And I would argue the lack of incentive to get off one’s ass and work is what led to the Soviet Union’s inability to keep up with us, and indirectly, on from there to economic collapse. If you’re talking full-on communism, though, as in the old USSR… sure, people didn’t sit around–if you didn’t fall in line with what the Party wanted you to do, you and your family would disappear. I think the lure of profit (and a better life) is a much better incentive for people to work hard than the fear of retribution. Fear makes people work just hard enough, and resent it. Profit makes people work as hard as you can, and love it!

      Thanks for reading!

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