Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Data Can Beat Up Your Data!

I drew some fire from my friend Bob* over the past few days over some economic statistics charts I linked to from my Facebook page the other day (and which I linked to from this blog in last Friday's post). For those of you who may have missed them, here is the direct link - It's the Inequality, Stupid: Eleven Charts That Explain Everything That's Wrong with America.

Bob added this comment to my Facebook post:

"The data presented was clearly slanted to make it appear that the rich are evil, aren't paying their share, and are somehow controlling the system to keep it that way. The data are pretty unambiguous against that position. Probably why that data wasn't included in the display, even though it is easily available. Another example of arguing from a position of emotion instead of fact."

To support that position, he linked to this article on - Who Pays the Most Income Tax? Higher Income Earners Pay the Most, Treasury Says. The article cites as its source data from the US Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis, and makes these points (among others):

"In 2002 the latest year of available data, the top 5 percent of taxpayers paid more than one-half (53.8 percent) of all individual income taxes, but reported roughly one-third (30.6 percent) of income."

"The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid 33.7 percent of all individual income taxes in 2002. This group of taxpayers has paid more than 30 percent of individual income taxes since 1995. Moreover, since 1990 this group’s tax share has grown faster than their income share."

"Taxpayers who rank in the top 50 percent of taxpayers by income pay virtually all individual income taxes. In all years since 1990, taxpayers in this group have paid over 94 percent of all individual income taxes. In 2000, 2001, and 2002, this group paid over 96 percent of the total."

Now, being the suspicious guy I am, I went to the website of the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Analysis in search of the data cited in that article. After considerable searching in the OTA's Tax Policy Document Library and other parts of its Resource Center, I didn't find it ... but that doesn't mean it isn't there, just that it's buried within vast amounts of other data and you need to know just where to look for it. I would also add, in the interest of fairness, that I went looking for the supporting data cited in the original Inequality article and didn't find it, either ... also not surprising when the source is listed simply as an office or an organization, rather than a specific both articles do.

So, what does all this mean? Is it simply, as Bob thinks, arguing from a position of emotion instead of fact?

In large part, it probably is. And a part of why we end up arguing from emotion rather than fact is that we are no longer able to agree on what facts are. I've always been amazed at how the opposite ends of the political spectrum can look at the same data and spin it to support diametrically opposite conclusions. It's the same thing as how creative accountants can use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to look at the same data and show either a profit (for the shareholders) or a loss (for the IRS). You might also be interested in reading Farhad Manjoo's wonderful little book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society for a more detailed discussion of the my-facts-are-true-and-your-facts-aren't phenomenon.

I'll have more to say on the topic of taxes, fairness, and related subjects over the next few posts. In the meantime, I'll just say it's bad enough that we can't agree on basic facts ... but when you combine it with ignorance, well ...

Have a good day. We'll continue this taxing discussion tomorrow.

More thoughts then.


* I have several friends named Bob ... this one is not the one who usually feeds me prime funny blogging material, but he is good for bloggable discussions.



KKTSews said...

A statistic I would like to see is the average effective tax rate for various income levels. I think that is what sets the emotions going on the middle- and upper middle-class. There is a suspicion that, though the actual amount paid may be high, those highest earners are using tax breaks and other kinks in our tax code to pay a much lower effective rate than say, someone making 100-200k. There is a fear that the slighly-above-average joe/jane is bearing the burden of taxes to a greater extent than the joe/jane with 1-2 milllion of annual income (and 5 houses, a boat, etc).
Of COURSE the top income levels pay actual amounts that are a significant portion of all tax paid. That's because the nature of our tax code and the fact that those high income earners make so much more hard cash than the low ones.
Good luck finding actual facts.

allenwoodhaven said...

When it comes to taxes, it only makes sense to tax the poor more than the rich. Why?

The rich wouldn't know what to do without all their money, and there are fewer of them. The poor are more numerous and are already used to not having much money so they know how to handle it. Thus taking less money from more poeple can equal or exceed taking more money from fewer people.

(And don't forget that the rich will "trickle down" their wealth to those less fortunate even though this has never been proven as far as I know.)

Of course this is a crock of BS but would like to hear some politicians admit that this is their reasoning. It certainly seems to be!

KathyA said...

I think a lot of data is ineffective because while it may be theoretically sound, it is not practical. A case in point is the Trickle Down Theory. On paper it looked good -- (as did the skewed and incorrect numbers reported - but that's another issue).

Mike said...

Figures don't lie but liars can figure.

Bob (yes, THAT Bob) said...

To be fair, Bill...I wasn't "firing" at you, but rather at the stuff you linked to in last Friday's post. I would never fire at you. That's far too dangerous. The key point I was trying to make was that the linked picture being presented was incomplete, at best...deliberately skewed, at worst. I wasn't in any way implying that our tax code is fair or that the super-rich are overburdened by it--simply that there are facts that contradict the "inequality" argument quite succinctly and they weren't presented. No "fair and balanced" debate...and I think THAT'S probably what's REALLY wrong with America right now.

Bob (yes, THAT Bob) said...

BTW, that link I provided is just the first one that popped up when I did a simple Google search. Which only reinforced the point that the easily-available data that complemented the point presented...which would've given a more complete picture of the situation, rather than a biased one, probably wasn't presented by choice rather than by simple oversight.