47% of Tea Partiers Pay No Federal Income Taxes!

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Taxed Enough Already? Or not taxed at all?

One of the striking ironies of Fox News running with the statistic that 47% of Americans might not owe federal income taxes is that Fox News also moonlights as the unofficial station of the Tea Party movement, which clamors for lower taxes. You might ask: half of the country pays no income tax, how much lower do you want? Here's a more troubling point: if the Tea Party movement has a similar share of Americans making under $50,000 as the broader population (as a recent Gallup poll suggests), then why is this movement rallying under the banner "Taxed Enough Already!" when half of them aren't taxed at all?

Forty-five percent of self-identified "Tea Partiers" make less than $50,000 per year, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Similarly, 50% of the total population makes less than $50,000 in the same poll. Despite this author's lack of direct access to the tax returns of the Tea Party movement, it seems safe to assume that if about half the country avoids federal income taxes, a similar percentage of the Tea Party movement gets away with the same even as they march and scream about their tax burden.

This is a gotcha point. But it's a gotcha point worth making, if only to shine light on the sad intellectual bankruptcy of the Tea Party, a political movement that has taken over the news cycle like a particularly aggressive strain of ragweed. Tea Partiers want lower income taxes. But many of them probably don't pay income taxes. If we listen to them and bring even more Americans into the zero-income tax pool, we would only concentrate more of the tax burden on wealthy earners ... which conservatives are against. Tea Party apologists on TV will explain that what they're really asking for is lower rates and a broader tax base to diffuse America's tax responsibility. But if half the Tea Party doesn't pay income taxes today, a broader tax base -- even with minuscule rates -- would raise many of their taxes!

The party's labyrinthine position on tax policy isn't worth untangling any further. It's a Gordian Knot that deserves a guillotine. When liberals and conservatives in Congress and think tanks and conference rooms debate tax policy in the coming months, they should consider a wide buffet of reform options -- but hold the tea.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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