What the Polls Don’t Tell Us About Raising Taxes

It's hardly anything new that the majority of Americans don't mind raising someone else's taxes to close the budget gap.

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The coverage of the nation's approach to the so-called "fiscal cliff" is full of polls showing most Americans would be willing to see tax rates go up for the wealthiest Americans if it would help with deficit reduction.

In other news, the sky is blue.

Late Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat who once chaired the powerful U.S. Senate Finance Committee, famously observed that tax policy in Washington, D.C. boils down to "Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax the guy behind the tree." Or, to put it another way, the idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul—something I generally object to by the way—will always have the support of Paul.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Long left the Senate after the 1986 election but things haven't changed all that much. The polls showing there is significant political support for the idea of raising taxes on America's wealthiest (which, by the way includes a number of job creating small businesses) are just another way of saying a majority of Americans are for the idea of someone else's taxes going up to close the federal spending gap. No one should surprised by this and no one should really attach any meaning to it.

It is somewhat refreshing to see that, despite what the polls say, there is so much resistance to the idea of raising taxes, even in Obama's Washington. It is, for the moment, proving to be a much harder thing to do than most people had any right to expect it to be. This is a paradigm shift from the days when the idea of higher taxes—which the nation got—in exchange for spending cuts—which never seemed to materialize—in order to reduce the deficit was a generally agreed upon approach. Like the wealth, the pain was spread around. Now the GOP leadership is holding firm on the idea of no tax rate increases while President Barack Obama and the Democrats refuse to budge on spending cuts.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Grover Norquist's Tax Pledge Losing Its Effectiveness?]

If anyone is really interested in knowing what the American people think about raising taxes, it would be nice to have a pollster ask the question in a personal manner employing gradations of gradations of increase. For example: "Please answer 'Yes' or 'No.' I am willing to have my tax burden increased by 50 percent to help reduce the deficit," followed by the same question at 40 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent, 5 percent and, finally, "Please answer 'Yes' or 'No': I am not willing to have my tax burden increased by any amount to help reduce the deficit."

Phrased that way, the numbers would probably be very much different from those currently generated by pollsters asking if, to address the deficit, people would rather see taxes go up on someone else or see cuts in programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national defense. This new set of numbers would also help those who are supposed to be explaining things to the American people understand why it is so difficult to raise taxes. Fundamentally, the American people understand what the Washington crowd doesn't: The problem isn't lack of taxes; it's too much spending.

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