During his announcement speech, Texas Governor Rick Perry not only offered the usual conservative case for lower overall taxes, he added a call to make the tax structure more regressive. “We’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax,” he said, “And you know the liberals out there are saying that we need to pay more.”
This is an interesting use of the first person plural, indicating that Perry solidly identifies himself with the rich folks who really do pay the bulk of the income taxes in this country and isn’t very interested in hard-working middle class and poor Americans who pay more in FICA, property taxes, sales taxes, etc.
But a more fundamental issue that I think even liberals tend to miss when discussing this point is that the largest class of people who don’t pay income taxes are people who don’t have jobs because they’re retired. Secondarily, but similarly, many people aren’t in the workforce because they’re disabled. That grandpa is seventy and not paying any income tax isn’t some kind of crazy trick he’s pulled. Grandpa doesn’t have a job. Grandpa used to have a job. And he used to pay taxes. But now his income of Social Security plus some savings is quite meager since he’s not working and he never amassed that $10 million nest egg. But that’s fine. He’s already paid off the house. Medicare covers most of his medical bills. He’s already amassed all the furniture and appliances he needs. So he’s enjoying a decent middle class standard of living on a headline income figure that’s quite modest. He’s living the dream, in other words. But now here comes Rick Perry who wants him to pay higher income taxes on what, exactly? Claw back his Social Security checks? Or is the idea that if we just halt Social Security entirely, a program that Perry has indicated he thinks is unconstitutional, that Grandpa’s going to stop puttering around the garden, go get a job at Target, and get back to paying income taxes?
I know that political reporters are more comfortable writing about campaign strategy than public policy ideas, but it would really be worth pressing Perry on what his thinking is in this regard. Obviously, a large-scale effort to get middle class Americans from the 65-75 age bracket back into the workforce would succeed in boosting the share of the population that pays income taxes. But it would be a rather dramatic shift in national priorities.