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

September 9, 2011

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 Tax 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 income 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.

Video here:

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 surtax 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 bracket does not pay 35 percent on all of his income, but rather only on the income above a certain level.

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A 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.