A surprising and revealing look at what Americans really believe about taxes
Conventional wisdom holds that Americans hate taxes. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Bringing together national survey data with in-depth interviews, Read My Lips presents a surprising picture of tax attitudes in the United States. Vanessa Williamson demonstrates that Americans view taxpaying as a civic responsibility and a moral obligation. But they worry that others are shirking their duties, in part because the experience of taxpaying misleads Americans about who pays taxes and how much. Perceived "loopholes" convince many income tax filers that a flat tax might actually raise taxes on the rich, and the relative invisibility of the sales and payroll taxes encourages many to underestimate the sizable tax contributions made by poor and working people.
Americans see being a taxpayer as a role worthy of pride and respect, a sign that one is a contributing member of the community and the nation. For this reason, the belief that many Americans are not paying their share is deeply corrosive to the social fabric. The widespread misperception that immigrants, the poor, and working-class families pay little or no taxes substantially reduces public support for progressive spending programs and undercuts the political standing of low-income people. At the same time, the belief that the wealthy pay less than their share diminishes confidence that the political process represents most people.
Upending the idea of Americans as knee-jerk opponents of taxes, Read My Lips examines American taxpaying as an act of political faith. Ironically, the depth of the American civic commitment to taxpaying makes the failures of the tax system, perceived and real, especially potent frustrations.
Vanessa S. Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. She is the coauthor of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
"Excellent. . . . Williamson’s most important contribution is her insistence that taxes are crucial in defining notions of what it means to be a real, deserving, and politically engaged American citizen."--Joseph Thorndike, Tax Notes
"A Tea Party expert draws on fascinating interviews with 49 Americans--white, black, Asian and Hispanic, urban and rural, Republican and Democrat--on their views on taxation, from form-filling to government waste to loopholes, and neatly upends the view of US citizens as reluctant taxpayers."--Karen Shook, Times Higher Education
"Read My Lips is a useful corrective to the dire view of Americans as irrational and ill-informed antitax zealots. It also offers Democrats a useful insight: Maybe Republicans’ perceived edge on taxation owes less to the popularity of their views than to Democrats’ own failure to marshal a civic commitment to taxes for liberal ends. Having identified the problem, Williamson may be pointing the way to a solution to the ugly politics of taxation."--Josh Mound, Chronicle of Higher Education
"This is a mind-blowing book. Thoughtfully relying on surveys and interviews, Vanessa Williamson shows that Americans look favorably upon taxpaying as an act of citizenship, and know more about tax policy than they are credited for. That the public discussion of taxes is so distorted by the hatred of government is the fault of right-wing political demagogues and the media that amplify their deceptive claims to speak for public opinion. May a new generation of politicians put these findings to good use!"--Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations vii
Preface: The Tax Revolt Was a Long Time Ago ix
1 Pride and Prejudice and Taxes 26
2 How the Taxpaying Experience Obscures Low-Income Taxpayers 46
3 Where Should Tax Money Go? 79
4 How the Taxpaying Experience Shapes Attitudes about Progressivity 117
5 (How) Is Tax Money Wasted? 142
Appendix A The U.S. Tax System: A Brief Introduction 183
Appendix B Meet the Interviewees 193