Spreading Statistics, cont.

by Ted on August 4, 2005

I noted a few days ago that Senator Rick Santorum made a claim in an online interview about federal taxation. Senator Santorum said that the federal tax rate for the average family has gone up from 2% (in 1950) to 27% today. Furthermore, he claimed that income from a second worker simply replaces the money that the family pays in increased federal taxes. They would enjoy the same net income if taxes went back to 1950 levels and the second worker stayed at home.

I’m really rather sure that this isn’t true. I’m relying on the Tax Policy Center: They say that federal taxes on a family of four at the median income have gone up from about 7.4% to about 14.4%, and that the family would have saved $4436 if we could roll back tax rates. That doesn’t correspond to the Senator’s story.

I checked last night, and Santorum repeats this point in his book, It Takes a Family. It’s on page 123 and 124, and there’s no source. (There’s a bibliography of sorts, but it just lists a series of sources used in each section. There’s no way to connect any specific point to any source.) When I called his press office again to ask for a source, they referred me to the publisher, who couldn’t help me. Nonetheless, he’s repeated this claim at least two more times, on Hardball with Chris Matthews and on Fox News.

Shouldn’t the Senator care whether what he’s saying is right or wrong? Wouldn’t it be nice if a journalist asked him about it?

(Incidentally, is there anything more depressing than the “Current Events” section of a modern-day bookstore? There are so many rows of hastily-written, 200-250 page books with giant print, huge margins, and a cover featuring a smug bastard under a title like “THEY’RE ALL AGAINST YOU: How Hollywood, the French, and the CIA Have Conspired to Pollute Your Precious Bodily Fluids and What You Can Do To Stop Them.” Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah looks like Winston Churchill in all that dreck.)



des von bladet 08.04.05 at 11:12 am

_Corrupt_ Your Precious Bodily Fluids, surely?

(ed still won’t, you know.)


almostinfamous 08.04.05 at 11:15 am

my goodness, that aside totally made my day


Purple State 08.04.05 at 11:26 am

Shouldn’t the Senator care whether what he’s saying is right or wrong? Wouldn’t it be nice if a journalist asked him about it?

I think you’ve made the right connection here: until the journalists start asking the tough questions, why should Senators care whether they’re speaking the truth or not?


abb1 08.04.05 at 11:45 am

On Atrios’ blog there’s an ad pointing to Santorum Exposed. They have a number of Senator’s quotes. Here’s a good one, from the same book:

“It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools.”

–On his belief that public schools are weird. It Takes a Family, Pg. 386, July 2005.


text 08.04.05 at 11:55 am

oh well, we can trust Jon Stewart to ask Santorum the hard-hitting questions the other hacks won’t ask.


Horatio 08.04.05 at 12:09 pm

Reporters aren’t supposed to ask questions, they’re supposed to write down what someone says (X) and then write, ‘blank said “X” today.’ All very simple and easy.


Glenn Bridgman 08.04.05 at 12:41 pm

Even worse, you can get said Tomes of Conspirital Bullshit by Smug Bastards as books on tape. There is nothing quite as traumatic as browsing your local borders and discovering that one can spend money to listen to Sean Hannity read “Deliver us from evil” aloud–IN AN ABRIDGED FORM.


Grand Moff Texan 08.04.05 at 12:43 pm

Um, is this a continuation of the creationism thread, below?


SamChevre 08.04.05 at 12:52 pm

I strongly suspect that the Tax Policy Center numbers do not include Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes; given that the FICA tax rate is 15.2%, and assuming that the median family’s income is almost entirely from wages, a 14.4% tax rate would imply that net income taxes for the median family are about 0, which seems unlikely.


Pat 08.04.05 at 1:13 pm

It also switched from average to median. The median family makes much less than the average family, because high earners skew the average upwards.

If more people have moved into the higher ends of the income spectrum, or if the high tail end of that spectrum extends much further proportionally than it previously did (which fits the thesis that the rich/poor gap is growing), then you would expect the average family to take a bigger hit from income taxes than the median family.

I’m not saying Santorum’s numbers are right or that Santorum is using the term “average” properly, so I may be reading too much into this. But who knows, that might be the explanation.


Ted 08.04.05 at 1:31 pm

The labelling is a little confusing, but they don’t switch from average to median (between periods, I mean.) Unless I misunderstood you. (Added for clarity: they use average combined tax rates for median-earning families of four from the beginning to the end of the document.)

Samchevre, they claim to include the employee’s portion of FICA; is it possible that the 15.2% includes the employer’s portion? I’m looking at my most recent paycheck, and the combined Social Security and Medicare tax was 7.7%.


Just Pete 08.04.05 at 1:37 pm

Well, whatever you do or say, remember your own rules of political correctness. Galloway said some rather simple and straightforward truths, but crossed the line and must therefore be abandoned without even having the specifics of your condemnation being voiced.

All Santorum does is fabricate. What do you want? You don’t want unpleasant truths. You don’t want unpleasant lies. So?


Jane Adams 08.04.05 at 1:54 pm

Many Republicans still act like their out of office and don’t have to budget real money.

When one subtracts social security and medicare total federal expences are about the same, total taxes (including SS and medcare) are a lower percentage of GNP since they’ve been since the fifties.

Still there is waste, but how big and how much of it is acceptable? Reduced spending on roads to 1950 GNP proportions? I thnk not! Medicaid, except 2/3rds goes to the elderly and disabled, yo want hundreds of thousands of helpless folks tossed out of nursing homes? Cutting shots for poor kids doesn’t save that much.

Or you could propose that corporate taxes and those on the wealthy mirror percentages of GNP in 1950? That would cut down the median tax burden. A lot.


abb1 08.04.05 at 2:11 pm

Come to think of it, I agree that 1950 tax rates were much better than they are today. The top income tax bracket was what – 95%? Something like that. Corporate taxes were higher too with much fewer loopholes.

If he’s seriously advocating returning to the 1950 income tax model – more power to him. Let’s do it.


Pat 08.04.05 at 3:28 pm

I didn’t mean between periods, I meant between Santorum’s quote and your research.

Santorum discusses what has happened to the “average” family. You discuss what has happened to the “median” family.

If the “average” family has changed, say, by getting richer, then naturally the “average” family is going to have a higher income tax burden now than previously.

The average family could get richer at a rate faster than the median family if high end earners are significantly more rich than they used to be. My understanding is that this is the case.

If the numbers used to be, in a hypothetical 5 person nation,


and now are


Then the median increased by 5k, but the average increased by 22k. So, statistics based on the income of the “average” earner would show a greater increase than those based on the median earner.


Uncle Kvetch 08.04.05 at 4:02 pm

Shouldn’t the Senator care whether what he’s saying is right or wrong?


Wouldn’t it be nice if a journalist asked him about it?

Even funnier.

You should write for Comedy Central, dude.


SamChevre 08.04.05 at 5:56 pm

Samchevre, they claim to include the employee’s portion of FICA; is it possible that the 15.2% includes the employer’s portion? I’m looking at my most recent paycheck, and the combined Social Security and Medicare tax was 7.7%.

Ted–thanks–I was at work and didn’t have time to read the Tax Policy site. Also, correction–15.2% should have been 15.4%.

If they are including only the employee’s portion of FICA, they are undercounting–the portion “charged” to the employer is equally part of the taxes paid by the employee. (Geeky aside–economic theory says that the distribution of tax burdens on a transaction is based on relative bargaining power, not the party responsible for making the payment.) That would increase the median household’s tax burden in 1950 by only 1.5%, but today by 7.7%–so the actual spread, from the Tax Policy site, would be from 8.9% in 1950 to 22.1% today.

Adding in the median/mean difference–you can assume that the difference in income between the median and the mean household is taxed at around 40% (15.4% FICA and 28% income tax)–and Santorum’s claim isn’t as far-fetched as it initially seems.


nick 08.04.05 at 9:38 pm

Incidentally, is there anything more depressing than the “Current Events” section of a modern-day bookstore?

Yes. Wandering into your local bookshop to see Zell Miller doing a signing of one of those crapulent tomes.


Davis X. Machina 08.04.05 at 11:07 pm

Shouldn’t the Senator care whether what he’s saying is right or wrong?

Santorum is a reductionist consequentialist.

‘Right’ means ‘wins elections’.
‘Wrong’ means ‘loses elections.


Jim Miller 08.05.05 at 8:39 am

It’s a good idea holding politicians responsible for the accuracy of their claims on the economy, and on every other issue. And I expect to see Ted apply that to some Democratic polticians soon, too.

If he likes, he might start with an old one, Clinton’s claim that the economy in 1992 was the “worst in 50 years”.

Or, he might check on Howard Dean’s recent claim that Bush was responsible for the Kelo decision.

I look forward to his posts on the errors by Democratic politicians.

(Is Santorum right? I have no idea, and I have enough trouble keeping track of the dynamic duo here in Washington state, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to spend much time on the question.)


Grand Moff Texan 08.05.05 at 8:43 am

Shorter Jim Miller:

Look! Over there! Guys who aren’t in charge saying stuff!

No, over THERE, over THERE!


Grand Moff Texan 08.05.05 at 8:49 am

“Howard Dean’s recent claim that Bush was responsible for the Kelo decision”

After further review (which takes some time, since most of the right blogsphere that is whining about Dean doesn’t actually quote him, which is probably a good thing since those who do apparently can’t read) I find that the above statement is false.

Why am I not surprised?


Al Maviva 08.05.05 at 3:26 pm

“The president and his right-wing Supreme Court think it is ‘okay’ to have the government take your house if they feel like putting a hotel where your house is,” Dean said, not mentioning that until he nominated John Roberts to the Supreme Court this week, Bush had not appointed anyone to the high court.

That’s from CNS.com, Texan, not necessarily reliable to you because you don’t believe anything said by organizations that don’t share your biases.

But here’s one of your pals at Kos on Dean’s statements:


Dean has not denied or backed off the statement, which was made to the College Democrats.


'As you know' Bob 08.06.05 at 12:51 am

I don’t understand why Right Blogostan is so atwitter about good Doctor Dean’s remark.

Apparently they all think that the pronoun “his” (as in “Bush and HIS court”) can ONLY means “ownership.” But it also can be used to express other relationships.

The Good Doctor was speaking loosely, assuming a commutative relation:
“The president and his right-wing Court” in the sense that the Bush presidency is certainly a creation of “this right-ing court”.

So strictly speaking, while this Court may or may not be Bush’s, BUSH certainly “belongs” to this court.
So “the President and his Court” is not a false statement.
You can talk about “a dog and his owner”,
a “bad joke and its author”.
“Bush and his Court” is a parallel construction.


Spike 08.07.05 at 4:00 am

Statistics such as Santorum is speaking about are, of course, easy to fudge, and difficult to lay out in broadly agreeable terms. Nonetheless, his essential point is quite correct, namely, that the American middle class was vastly better off in the 1950’s. Another way of looking at the issue is this: in the 1950’s, the US federal government income from taxes came approximately two-thirds from the corporate sector, and one-third from families, individuals and mom-and-pop businesses; the proportions are now reversed, and the two-income,middle-class scramble confirms it.

And, yes, I’m a long-time left-of-center Democrat, so while it’s unusual to find myself agreeing with someone like Santorum, the more remarkable thing is that his point is poison in today’s Republican party.


Spike 08.07.05 at 4:01 am

My previous submission had an extra letter in the email address: the “a” preceding the “@” was incorrect. Thx, Spike

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