Government Spending

Stephen King: Tax Me More or I'll Keep Writing About Rich People Who "Douse Their Dicks in Lighter Fluid" at The Daily Beast!

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Horror master Stephen King is livid that he isn't being taxed at a rate of 50 percent of total income. He sees no way out of this predicament other than to raise taxes on everyone else he thinks should be paying more.

We caught up with King a year ago (see video below) when he first publicly floated his "Why ain't I paying 50 percent in taxes?" trial balloon. Now he's taken his apoplectic rage to the august pages of The Daily Beast. Snippets:

I've known rich people, and why not, since I'm one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing "Disco Inferno" than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar. It's true that some rich folks put at least some of their tax savings into charitable contributions. My wife and I give away roughly $4 million a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (jaws of life are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts. Warren Buffett does the same; so does Bill Gates; so does Steven Spielberg; so do the Koch brothers; so did the late Steve Jobs. All fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.

Now, I'm not rich but I know some rich folks and you know what? King is right! They are constantly dousing their dicks—even the lady rich people!—with lighter fluid to avoid paying higher taxes, though in my admittedly limited experience, they usually sing "The Heat is On" rather than "Disco Inferno." Sons of bitches!

King's rant is as enjoyable as it is overwrought and mistaken and confused. After backhanding the notion that he and other richie-riches should start voluntarily cutting bigger checks to "Uncle Sugar" ("it doesn't go far enough"), he trots out a host of claims and semi-claims such as this vaguely directed at Mitt Romney, Gov. Chris Christie ("…may be fat, but he ain't Santa Claus"), and all of you who make a pile of dough:

That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it's not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It's un-f–king-American, is what it is. I don't want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you're on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to "cut a check and shut up," in Gov. Christie's words, but to pay—in the same proportion.

Whole bit here.

For starters, King is simply wrong to assert that upward mobility is diminishing. From a Pew Center "Economic Mobility Project" report that came out last year:

We examine trends in U.S. intragenerational income mobility over the past two decades. Specifically, we focus on how the economic positions of 25- to 44-year-olds change over a decade relative to one another, as well as in absolute terms (whether they are doing better or worse at the end of the decade than they were at the start). In addition, we compare intragenerational mobility rates over two periods, 1984 to 1994 and 1994 to 2004.

We find that mobility rates have not changed very much between these two time periods. This finding is somewhat surprising given the changes in the economy in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the ongoing shift from manufacturing to service-sector jobs, rising immigrant populations, and extended periods of growth.

More here and here.

As for whether the rich are paying their fair share in taxes, well, that's a value judgement, isn't it? The rich are not paying 50 percent of every dollar but you don't need to be Jon Lovitz to realize that the rich (however defined) pay far more in taxes than the non-rich in terms of absolute dollars. King is incensed at the idea that Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary and seems to be making an argument for a flat tax when he writes, "we all should have to pay our fair share" and that the middle class shouldn't have to shoulder a "disproportionate amount of the tax burden." Here's a chart by Dan Berger, the head of something called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, which lobbies for higher rates of taxes on the wealthy.

At U.S. News & World Report (whose continued existence shows that the recession has yet to really hit rock bottom), Berger notes that the top 1 percent is roughly equivalent to pulling $1 million a year; he posts this chart as evidence that the rich get away with paying less than their fair share (read his not terribly convincing argument here).

For King, the chart above should lay to rest that the rich are paying less than the non-rich—assuming he agrees that the top 20 percent in terms of income is doing pretty well. He might want it to be more—he wants it to be 50 percent, of course—but he can't seriously argue that the rich are skating away from ponying up around 31 percent of their income on average. Or that 31 percent of $1 million is a larger sum than, say, 25 percent of $50,000.

But King seems even more exercised by the idea that we're in some great period of austerity, especially as it affects the poor and the young and the powerless:

What charitable 1-percenters can't do is assume responsibility—America's national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can't fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny.

Between 2001 and 2010, spending on Medicaid, the country's health insurance program for the poor, and Medicare, which provides health insurance for the elderly, increased by 76 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Much of that money is poorly spent, to be sure, but nobody can pretend the country hasn't been shoveling mountains of dollars (and debt) at the old and the poor. Per-pupil spending is at an all-time high, too, and there are more teachers per student than ever before, another sign that more resources are being devoted to education at the K-12 level. Overall federal spending increased by about 60 percent in constant dollars over the last decade, so the question isn't really why aren't we spending (and taxing) more, but what do we have to show for our efforts?

That's a question that King—and many others calling for jacking up tax rates on the rich, or on corporations and other possible sources of new revenue—don't seem particularly interested in asking. Which is a shame, because it might actually lead to some useful conversations rather than ill-informed howling-at-the-moon pieces at The Daily Beast.