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“The West Wing” Wisdom on Paying Fair Share of Taxes

2 min readBy: Joseph Bishop-Henchman

Last night, the President called for “wealthy Americans…to pay their fair share,” noting that “[t]his approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.”

By coincidence, this morning I watched a second season episode of The West Wing, where White House staffer Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) pushes back against this type of rhetoric to a Progressive Caucus staffer and a member of “Americans for TaxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. Justice”:

“Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, “It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share,” I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people. And I’m happy to, ’cause that’s the only way it’s gonna work. And it’s in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads. But I don’t get 27 votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn’t come to my house 27 times faster and the water doesn’t come out of my faucet 27 times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for 22 percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying.”

I asked my colleague Nick Kasprak to run the numbers again, and it turns out they are still mostly true today. For 2008, the latest year in which data is available, the top 1% are those with adjusted gross incomeFor individuals, gross income is the total pre-tax earnings from wages, tips, investments, interest, and other forms of income and is also referred to as “gross pay.” For businesses, gross income is total revenue minus cost of goods sold and is also known as “gross profit” or “gross margin.” of $380,354 or more. That group made 20 percent of all adjusted gross income and paid 38 percent of all federal income taxes. Put another way, that group paid an average of $280,000 in income tax, 24.6 times the average tax bill of $11,379. So the top 1% paid their fair share and the fair share of 23.6 other people.

As a West Wing fan, I should note that in the fourth season episode “Red Haven’s on Fire,” Lowe’s character makes its last appearance and is replaced by Will Bailey, played by Joshua Malina. In that episode, Bailey makes the case for a surtaxA surtax is an additional tax levied on top of an already existing business or individual tax and can have a flat or progressive rate structure. Surtaxes are typically enacted to fund a specific program or initiative, whereas revenue from broader-based taxes, like the individual income tax, typically cover a multitude of programs and services. on high-income taxpayers, but his argument is sloppy and completely wrong in that he confuses marginal tax rates with effective tax rates. A person in the 35 percent tax bracketA tax bracket is the range of incomes taxed at given rates, which typically differ depending on filing status. In a progressive individual or corporate income tax system, rates rise as income increases. There are seven federal individual income tax brackets; the federal corporate income tax system is flat. does not pay 35 percent on all of his income, but rather only on the income above a certain level.

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