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Tax day has come and gone, but I’m struck by 1) the incredible misconceptions people express about the change in their tax liabilities caused by the 2018 income tax legislation; and 2) the confusion about how our progressive income tax system actually works! Some of these misapprehensions are encouraged by progressives who would rather misinform the public than evaluate policy on its own terms. I am not a fan of our income tax system, nor all aspects of the 2018 tax law, but let’s at least discuss it honestly.

First, a substantial majority of taxpayers paid lower taxes on their 2018 income than they would have under prior tax rules (also see here). However, as I’ve observed before, many people conflate the change in the amount of their tax refund with the change in their taxes paid. And again, the progressive media hasn’t helped to allay this misconception, as noted by Vox cofounder Matthew Yglesias when he tweeted this:

Nobody likes to give themselves credit for this kind of messaging success, but progressive groups did a really good job of convincing people that Trump raised their taxes when the facts say a clear majority got a tax cut.”

Even worse, members of Congress misrepresent the facts with little media backlash. For example, Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation reports the following:

the tax cut actually made the tax code more progressive, not less.  … Of course, none of this stopped Democrats such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) from claiming that the TCJA was a “middle-class tax hike.” Nor did it prevent three separate Democratic senators from claiming that the average family making up to $86,000 would see a tax hike of $794, despite the fact that the source for this claim clarified that this tax hike would apply to only 6.5 percent of households in this income bracket.”

It’s amazing just how drastically our income tax system is misunderstood or often misrepresented by the media. Apparently, it’s considered politically advantageous to do so. Chris Edwards offers the following quote from Christine Elba in the Washington Post:

Meanwhile, the wealthier among us (remember: corporations are people, too!) are able to hire tax lawyers, consultants and accountants to clue them in on lightly advertised but heavily lobbied for loopholes that allow them to pay a lower tax rate or even no taxes at all.”

That is simply not a fair characterization of our income tax system. Edwards goes on to demonstrate the progressive nature of U.S. income taxes based on information from the Tax Policy Center. Not only do statutory federal income tax rates rise with income, but so do average effective tax rates, which account for the effects of deductions, credits and exclusions. In fact, average effective rates are negative in the lowest income groups and are zero on balance for the lowest 50% of earners. And average effective rates keep rising in the top quintile, moving up through the top 10%, 5%, 1% and 0.1%. Ms. Elba is clearly confused. And if she is aware of the pernicious double-taxation of corporate income, she probably would never admit it.

Apparently the current state of income tax progressivity is not enough to satisfy statists and redistributionists, who take license to lie about it in order to make their case for higher taxes on the rich, and even the not-so-rich. But here’s some advice for Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and others who insist that, while they are rich, they desperately want to pay more taxes: you are free to do so without penalty. Better yet, give it to a good charity instead!