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Fact Check: Who Commits Domestic Terrorism?

President Obama recently got into an off-the-cuff debate with Tea Party activists in Iowa. Most of this back-and-forth focused on Vice President Biden allegedly saying Tea Party Republicans “acted like terrorists” in holding the credit of the United States hostage during the debt deal. The video is below:

However, we’re going to focus in on another, brief point that was brought up by the female Tea Party activist around 47 seconds into the video.

She said this:

“You do realize that 90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals and not people like me.”

The number — a whopping 90 percent — seemed a bit high. So I did some fact-checking. I do not know which source she is quoting (and would be interested to find out), but all evidence I’ve reviewed pointed to one conclusion. Namely:

Status: False, with bits of truth.

Before I begin, let me clarify my analysis of this claim as false: the woman that made this statement is right when she says terrorist attacks are not done by people like her. She seems to be a political activist (from what little I can tell from the video), not any sort of terrorist. I am not, in any way, implying that she or anyone in the Tea Party, are terrorists. I am not, in any way, equating right-wing terrorists with right-of-center ideals. Neither am I, in any way, equating left-wing terrorists with left-of-center ideals.

I am simply analyzing her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.”

And while environmental radicals perpetrate a huge number of domestic terrorist incidents, I find no evidence to back up such a high estimate as 90 percent. Two other points provide necessary context that her assertion is lacking. The first is that right-wing terrorism has seen a marked rise in recent years. The other is that left-wing and environmental terrorist groups generally target property, while right-wing terrorism often targets human beings.

–DEFINING TERRORISM–

First, we should define terrorism, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Terrorism

    U.S. law defines“domestic terrorism” according to several points. Domestic terrorist acts:(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
    (B) appear to be intended—
        (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
        (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
       (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
    (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

    The FBI provides a more succinct definition of terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

So, terrorism is an inherently political or ideological act. But let’s focus our definitions further, to differentiate different types of terrorism. We’ll use definitions found on the FBI’s website:

  • Left-Wing Terrorism

Generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the people against the “dehumanizing effects” of capitalism and imperialism.

  • Right-Wing Terrorism

Primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes…Right-wing extremists champion a wide variety of causes, including racial supremacy, hatred and suspicion of the federal government, and fundamentalist Christianity.

  • Single Issue (Or “Special Interest”) Groups:

Single-issue extremists attack targets that embody distinct political issues like environmental degradation, abortion, genetic engineering, or animal abuse.

One problem is immediately evident. The woman in the video (Stacey Rogers) described “left-wing environmental radicals.” According to the FBI’s definitions, however, left-wing terrorists are distinct from single issue terrorist. We can probably safely assume that in her statement, “left-wing” is only a descriptor, and that the true focus is on the “environmental radicals” aspect.

But even so, special interest terrorism, as a category, seems to cut across ideological lines. It contains both left-wing single issue causes (environmentalism, animal rights) and right-wing (abortion). FBI classification lumps environmental terrorists in with other special interest terrorists, making it a little harder to isolate environmental terrorists from the other special interest terrorists in our analysis.

This would seem to suggest that the 90 percent claim is wrong on its face. After all, if environmental radicals were responsible for 90 percent of all domestic terror attacks, would they really be lumped into a category with several other terrorist causes? That would leave only 10 percent of all terrorist attacks to be divided not only among the various causes in the special interest category, but also among the two other categories the FBI lists alongside special interest terrorism.

–WHO COMMITS DOMESTIC TERRORISM?–

One of the initial difficulties we run into when fact checking this statement is that it doesn’t describe any particular period. And terrorism, like anything else, changes over time. For instance, an FBI report notes that right-wing terrorism dominated the interwar period:

In the period between World War I and World War II, the domestic threat primarily came from right-wing groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, which often adhered to principles of racial supremacy or embraced antigovernment and antiregulatory beliefs in favor of individual freedoms.

So it is important to observe, for the sake of context, that terrorism and terrorist ideas evolve and change along with the times. However, it is obvious that  Rogers is not describing the interwar period. Why would she? We can safely assume she is describing some sort of recent history — but what period should we include?

To provide context (and reach a more accurate conclusion) we will consider most of the post-war period (the late 1940s to today), with a concentration on the past decade. As we shall see, certain shifts have occurred in the targets and perpetrators of domestic terrorism.

According to an FBI report, left-wing terrorism generally dominated the post-war period, with such groups as the Weather Underground.

Beginning in the 1950s, the most serious domestic terrorist threat shifted to leftist-oriented extremist groups that generally professed a revolutionary socialist doctrine and viewed themselves as protectors of the people against the adverse effects of capitalism and U.S. foreign policies.

The decline of this type of left-wing terrorism seems to have been caused both by law enforcement and the collapse of the Soviet Union “depriv[ing] many of these groups of their ideological foundation and patronage,” according to that same report.

I use the term “this type of left-wing terrorism” because left-wing terrorism continued in the 1990s and 2000s, but in a different form.

With respect to domestic terrorism, left-wing political groups and special interest terrorism—that is, terrorism committed by extremists who use violence to compel society to change its attitudes about specific causes—asserted themselves during the 1990s… The majority of domestic terrorism incidents from 1993 to 2001 were attributable to the left-wing special interest movements the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

The vague statistics I’ve been able to dig up support this. Another FBI report breaks down the numbers of terrorism incidents from 1980 to 2001 (domestic and international).

Terrorism Statistics. Original chart found on the FBI website.

Terrorism by Group Class 1980 – 2001 Total 482

International 164

Left-Wing 130

Right-Wing 85

Special Interest 81

Individual 14

Unknown 8

If I’m reading this chart correctly, then the 318 terrorist incidents not classified as “International” are domestic. Now, we are trying to analyze what percentage of these terrorists are “environmental radicals.” Problem is, this is a sub-group within the special interest category, and we can’t separate them out. So, instead we’ll just take the percentage of special interest terrorism as a whole, knowing that it will include other categories like animal rights terrorism and anti-abortion terrorism.

About 25 percent of listed incidents from 1980-2001 were special interest terrorism incidents. And since this category contains various groups, the number for environmental terrorism incidents is surely less. That falls far short of 90 percent.

But Rogers did characterize these movements as “left-wing,” so let’s take a look at the left-wing numbers too. Left-wing terrorism made up about 41 percent of all domestic incidents (defined as incidents not labeled in the chart as “International”) from 1980-2001. Still short of 90 percent.

Combining both left-wing and special interest terrorism still only brings us up to about 66 percent. This is obviously a huge percentage. But only a portion of it includes environmental radicals. Furthermore, some right-wing groups are included in this 66 percent, like anti-abortion terrorists. And more importantly, it is 24 percentage points short of 90 percent.

And, significantly, these numbers are only through 2001. The 1990s, as noted, saw a rise in environmental terrorism. But have any notable shifts occurred since then?

An FBI report looking at the period between 2002 and 2005 said that 24 recorded terrorist incidents happened in this period, and 23 of them were domestic. Of these 23 incidents, all but one “were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements.” But, in the next paragraph, the report says that “eight of the 14 recorded terrorism preventions stemmed from right-wing extremism, and included disruptions to plotting by individuals involved with the militia, white supremacist, constitutionalist and tax protestor, and anti-abortion movements.”

So, even though almost all domestic terrorist attacks were perpetrated by environmental and animal activists, the slim majority (eight of 14) of all preventions were of right-wing terrorist threats.

Why is this? While I did not see any explanations in this report, allow me to offer a theory. The same report notes that although left-wing terrorism remains pervasive, right-wing terrorism is more dangerous. This seems counter-intuitive. All terrorism is dangerous, how can one be more dangerous than another. The answer to that is in what the two brands of terrorism target.

In short, left-wing terrorists tend to target “materials and facilities rather than persons.” Right-wing terrorists, however, often targets human beings. The report observes:

Right-wing extremism, however, primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes, began to overtake left-wing extremism as the most dangerous, if not the most prolific, domestic terrorist threat to the country during the 1990s. In contrast to the ALF and the ELF, which have pursued a philosophy that avoids physical violence in favor of acts of property damage that cause their victims economic harm, right-wing extremists pursued a qualitatively different method of operation by targeting people.

This shift of right-wing terrorism overtaking left-wing terrorism as the more dangerous extremism seems to have started in the 1990s, according to an FBI report from 2002.

A South Poverty Law Center report notes that right-wing terrorist threats in the form of militias seemed to die down during the early 2000s, but then began appearing again toward the late 2000s.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a resurgent right-wing terrorist threat, caused by racial tensions, economic hardship and the expansion of social programs.

–CONCLUSION–

I’m not quite sure where Rogers got her information. I certainly could not find any evidence to corroborate her claim that “90 percent of the domestic terrorist attacks are done by the left-wing environmental radicals.” The only information that even approached validating this statement was the report on terrorist activity between 2002 and 2005, which said that all but 1 of domestic terrorist attacks during that period were perpetrated by environmental and animal rights extremists.

But that ignores the fact that plotted incidents prevented by authorities were a majority right-wing. Furthermore, her claim is stripped of any and all context. Right-wing terrorism is, generally speaking, more dangerous to individuals than left-wing terrorism. That is because right-wing terrorism generally targets people, while left-wing terrorism mostly targets property and materials.

Finally, the comment implies an absolute, and ignores the fact that terrorism patterns shift. Such a shift seems to be upon us right now, with right-wing terrorism currently on the rise. The statement does not indicate any of this.

Her general point about the pervasiveness of left-wing — and, in particular, environment — terrorism is correct. It is the more pervasive form of domestic terrorism. Though, stripped of context, and using a number that seems (at best) misleading and (at worst) incorrect, I rate her claim false.

–SOURCES–

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/obama-tea-party-video_n_928025.html

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terrorism

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005

http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-terrorist-threat-confronting-the-united-states

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/splc-report-return-of-the-militias

http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror/terrorism-2000-2001

http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60421.html

http://www.fbi.gov/albuquerque/priorities

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2331.html


Beck Check: Coolidge and Harding

Glenn Beck spent a portion of his February 9 show discussing the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. I was interested in his talking points, so I decided to run some fact-checking. Here’s the results.

“Coolidge and Harding decreased the real per capita federal expenditures – the size of the government – from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924. These policies, along with fostering the mentality of self-reliance – the opposite of what the progressives had been preaching in the previous 20 years and the opposite of what progressives teach now. They’re not saying ‘be self-reliant’, they’re saying ‘too big to fail, you can’t make it without the government’s safety nets.’ Stand on your own two feet, America!”

This statement, like many Beck make, is a bit misleading. In the interest of time, we will limit our discussion to his comments regarding Harding, Coolidge, and their economic policies. Were they really the antithesis of the preceding years’ progressivism?

President Calvin Coolidge

We’ll start with the value of this statement ‘on its face’. Did Coolidge and Harding decrease the real per capita federal expenditures from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924? Yes and no.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what source Beck used, but one of my main sources in researching his claim was a Cato Institute publication by Randall Holcombe titled: “The Growth of the Federal Government in the 1920s.” The Cato Institute is a libertarian think-thank that describes its mission as “to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.“ I assumed that because of Cato’s reputation (UPenn gave it excellent rankings in its 2010 ranking of think-tanks, including a #2 spot in the area of Domestic Economic Policy) and its advocation of limited government (a position with which Mr. Beck would likely concur), that the research of the Cato Institute would be a fairly noncontroversial in fact-checking Beck.

First, let’s define “Real Per Capita Federal Expenditures.” Federal expenditure per capita is how much money the federal government is spending per person. That is, it is the total federal government spending divided by the population. When we define this as “Real,” it simply means we’re adjusting for inflation. Because of inflation, comparing the dollar amounts of one year to another is an unequal comparison. Thus, the amounts need to be converted in order to nullify the effects of inflation and see how much the amount really increased or decreased.

As the following chart from the Holcombe paper shows, total real per capita federal expenditures in 1920 was $390.98. In 1924, that total was $194.85.

Quite a decrease.

Much of this decrease had to do with World War I. Federal expenditures increase largely during wartime in order to fund the war, and then subside once the war is over, because the military is no longer in need of large funding to sustain the war effort. In order to try to account for this, there is a second column in the table above. This one tries to subtract defense expenditures from the total. This is where Beck, it appears, is getting his numbers. According to this table, the 1920 federal expenditures per capita, minus defense, were $170.15, and those in 1924 were $70.36. Again, a nice decrease.

It would seem, then, that Beck’s statement is somewhat true. Of course, he is discounting a large part of the federal budget, but (and this is purely conjecture based on what I have seen of Beck’s opinions), he may feel that this discounting is justified as national defense is a necessary expenditure, and he would possibly want to limit his discussion to the federal government’s expenditures of which he disapproves.

Either way you look at the numbers, however, there is a nice decrease in federal expenditures. So Beck seems justified either way.

Holcombe, though, contends that the table suggests “there are war-related expenditures in the government budget even after subtracting defense, veterans, and interest expenditures. This makes it apparent that one cannot accept nonwar expenditures as unrelated to the war.” Although the table attempts to extricate total expenditures from military spending, there is still at least somewhat of a relationship between the two.

But let us overlook this for a moment and continue on with Beck’s statement. Let us assume that Coolidge and Harding were largely responsible for the decrease in real per capita federal expenditures, and not the end of World War I (a large leap). Even if this were true, Coolidge and Harding still did not reach the pre-war levels of real per capita federal expenditures — levels that occurred during the Progressive Era. In 1916, before the war began, the total was $83.60, as compared to Coolidge and Harding’s $194.85 in 1924.

Also, Beck comments only on 1920 to 1924, which should seem odd considering the Harding-Coolidge years actually stretched to 1929. Beck fails to mention that real per capita federal expenditures minus defense (the numbers from the second column that he cites during his show) actually rose after 1924. In 1929, at the end of the Harding-Coolidge run, the total expenditures minus defense had risen to  $89.30. Not a large increase, but much bigger than the total minus defense for 1916, which was $22.75. The total expenditures until 1929 actually continued to decline until 1927, as the table shows, and then increased, reaching $195.41 in 1929.

Holcombe says that:

“From 1924 to 1929, before Depression-related expenditures would have found their way into the budget, nonmilitary expenditures increased by 27 percent, all during the Coolidge administration. If we take the decline in expenditures up through 1924 as a winding down of the war effort, there appears to be a considerable underlying growth in federal expenditures through the 1920s–growth worth examining more closely. What at first appears to be a relatively stable level of federal expenditures in the 1920s actually is substantial underlying growth, masked by a decline in war-related expenditures.”

Yet, Holcombe says, “It would be misleading to try to judge the growth of the federal government in the 1920s only by looking at aggregate expenditures.” With this, we go beyond Beck, who leaves the discussion simply at expenditures. Holcombe notes several areas in which the government grew under Coolidge and Harding –

  • the creation of government-owned corporations (which began prior to Coolidge and Harding, but did not stop during their terms)
  • the expansion of federal aid to states
  • expansion in the role of the post office and the salaries of its workers (“postal deficits in the 1920s were caused by the expansion of postal services and the provision of many services without charge or considerably below cost.”)
  • expanding the enforcement of prohibition (for instance, Coolidge created the Bureau of Prohibition)
  • aid to the agriculture industry (“Whether evaluated financially or with regard to programs, the 1920s saw considerable government growth in the agricultural industry, and laid the foundation for more federal involvement that was to follow in the New Deal.”)
  • antitrust action

Below is an excerpt regarding antitrust action during the Harding-Coolidge years:

Expenditures are the easiest measure of the size of government, but tell only a part of the story of government growth. Government regulation also has a substantial impact, but is harder to measure.[23] Starting with the Sherman Act in 1890, the federal government began its antitrust activity to try to limit the economic power of businesses. Only 22 cases were brought before 1905, but the pace started picking up later in that decade, which saw 39 cases brought between 1905 and 1909. From 1910 to 1919, a total of 134 cases were brought, showing increasing antitrust enforcement. But there was little slowdown in the 1920s, which saw a total of 125 cases. [24] As Thomas McCraw (1984: 145) notes, “By the 1920s antitrust had become a permanent part of American economic and political life.” One might anticipate, after an increase in cases, that firms would be more cautious in their activities to avoid antitrust cases being brought against them. But McCraw (1984: 146) further notes that in the 1920s a large proportion of antitrust cases were brought against firms that were not normally regarded as being highly concentrated. Antitrust enforcement in the 1920s was vigorous and increasingly broad in scope.

I highly suggest you read the entire Holcombe paper, but those are essentially the points in the paper that I found related to Beck’s statement. I was also surprised by how well Holcombe seems to sum up the refutation of Beck’s claims. I’ll let Holcombe’s words speak for themselves:

Normalcy, in the Harding-Coolidge sense, meant peace and prosperity, but it also meant a continuation of the principles of Progressivism, which enabled the Republican party to retain the support of its Progressive element. Despite the popular view of the 1920s as a retreat from Progressivism, by any measure government was more firmly entrenched as a part of the American economy in 1925 than in 1915, and was continuing to grow. Harding and Coolidge were viewed as pro-business, [10] and there may be a tendency to equate this pro-business sentiment as anti-Progressivism. [11] The advance of Progressivism may have been slower than before the war or during the New Deal, but a slower advance is not a retreat. [12]

Late economist Herbert Stein (Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Presidents Nixon and Ford and a member of the board of contributors for the Wall Street Journal) also wrote of Coolidge’s economic policies in his excellent book “Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy from Roosevelt to Clinton.” His conclusions regarding the Coolidge years (on page 28) also run contrary to Beck’s claims:

But if we use as a test of conservatism the degree of government intervention in the economy, the Coolidge administration was not conservative compared to its predecessors. Coolidge presided over a New Era, and the era was new not only in the height of the stock market; it was also new in the economic role of the government, and part of the confidence in the future of the American economy was so strong in the Coolidge days was confidence in the cooperative policy of government. When Coolidge said that the business of America is business he did not mean that the business of government is to leave business alone. He meant that it is the business of government to help business. That was even more positively the idea of his activist Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Coolidge did not undo the interventionist measures of the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson regimes. At the end of his term the federal budget was larger than in the time of, say, William Howard Taft. He reduced income tax rates, but we still had an income tax, which we hadn’t fifteen years earlier. Perhaps most important, his term was a period of increasing acceptance of the responsibility of the Federal Reserve to help stabilize the economy.

The Coolidge and Harding years, it seems, were not the years of limited government and abandonment of progressivism that Beck says they were. He may have had a few numbers correct (though he failed to properly identify them), but his implications are not entirely borne out by the facts.

(Beck goes on to describe the “Roaring Twenties,” and describes them as “arguably the most prosperous 8 years this country has ever seen.” A discussion of Beck’s “Roaring Twenties” description and how that decade compares to other economic expansions in American history (post-WWII boom and the 80s/90s, for instance) is the topic for a blog entry found here.)


Checking the Facts on Glenn Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots”

Glenn Beck’s recent “Arguing With Idiots” video (made to promote his book by the same title) promotes itself as “truth for those who care to look” (in its opening theme song). But how much ‘truth’ does it actually contain? First, give the video a view.

Done? Good. Let’s break down the all of the claims into individual chunks and see which hold water.

  • Claim: “In 2006, the top 1 percent paid almost 40% of the country’s income taxes.”
    Status: True, but misleading.

Why is it misleading? Let’s see. The same set of data Beck uses also lists the top 1 percent’s share of the entire country’s wealth at a whopping 22.06 percent, more than a fifth of the entire country’s income. The reason for the discrepancy between high income earners paying a higher percentage of all income taxes is the progressive nature of the income tax system (higher tax brackets are taxed at higher levels). This is the inequity that Beck is railing against.

But two things stand out. The first is simply an observation that Beck’s argument, stripped of the national income share numbers as context, distort how the numbers are viewed. Consider this: even had the numbers been more in line with percentage of national income earned, it still would have sounded lopsided. Imagine that the numbers for 2006 had been that “1 percent paid 20 percent of the country’s income taxes.” This would actually be less than fair, given that the top 1 percent earned 22.06 percent of national income — yet it sounds lopsided.

The other point that stands out is that these numbers distort perceptions of tax contributions by only including the income tax. There are various kinds of taxes that Americans face, at each level of government (local, state, and federal). By picking a particularly progressive tax, Beck is able to manipulate the data to say what he wants.

If I wanted to make the case that American taxes are regressive (that is, the lower your income, the higher a percentage of your income is paid to taxes), I could do so quite easily through Mr. Beck’s strategy. By focusing only on the payroll tax, I could demonstrate that, since this particular tax is capped above a certain amount, it affects low income earners more than high income earners. Indeed, the effective tax rate for Social Insurance Taxes (payroll taxes) is 8.5 percent for the lowest fifth of Americans, but only 1.6 percent for the top 1 percent. Those aren’t shares, they’re tax rates. See how easy that was to cherry-pick data to make a point?

This this New York Times blog blog post has a good breakdown of the payroll tax:

Officially known as a “contribution,” the Social Security tax brings in almost as much revenue as the individual income tax, and is catching up. By June 2009, annual revenues for the payroll tax collections had reached almost 90 percent of individual income tax collections.

The Social Security part of the payroll tax is about 12 percent of the first $106,800 of employee earnings in a year. The Medicare part is about 3 percent of all payroll earnings (regardless of whether and how much employees make over $106,800).

As a result, people earning over $106,800 pay a lesser percentage of their earnings in payroll taxes than do people earning less than $106,800.

The highest-earning third of United States households pay more individual income tax than payroll tax. But the other two-thirds are paying more payroll tax than income tax.

Higher earners are still responsible for a disproportionate fraction of total taxes, but their share becomes less disproportionate as payroll taxes grow and individual income taxes shrink

The only way to get an accurate picture of the distribution of tax burdens across American society is to consider national income share compared to total tax burden, not only the income tax. So how much of total tax burden do the richest Americans shoulder? Well, according to this New York Times blog, which cites the liberal organization “Citizens for Tax Justice“:

 in 2008 the share of total federal, state and local taxes paid by each income group was relatively close to the share of income that that group brings in, at least as compared to  comparable 2006 numbers for effective federal tax rates:

(Horizontal axis shows the income group. Taxes include all federal, state and local taxes (personal and corporate income, payroll, property, sales, excise, estate, etc.). Incomes include cash income, employer-paid FICA taxes and corporate profits net of taxable dividends.)

So, this chart attempts to balance all taxes (not just federal) that the various income groups paid against the share of the total income each group holds. Does the top 1% pay more, according to this chart? A bit, yes, but it is much more comparable to their income share than Beck’s focus on the income tax would have you believe. Why is this? Well, basically, because although federal taxes are mostly progressive (with some exceptions), state and local taxes are often regressive.

From a New York Times blog:

State and local taxes tend to be more regressive if they rely more heavily on sales and excise taxes, do not have a broad-based personal income tax, or have a personal income tax that is structured in a less progressive way (e.g., a flat-rate income tax).

So, when including state/local taxes (which vary according to area — some states do have progressive tax systems while others have a flat tax rate), total tax rates are generally in line with total tax burden.

And, as noted above, some federal taxes are still regressive, most notably the Social Security tax (payroll tax). Also, although high-earners pay less of their income in Social Security payroll taxes, they often make out better in Social Security than lower-income workers. From “Putting Our House In Order: A Guide to Social Security and Health Care Reform” by George Shultz (a former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, and a Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon) and John Shoven:

Social Security discourages long careers because its system, which is designed to help low-income Americans, winds up helping high-income workers who have short careers. An individual who earns just above the minimum wage over the span of a long career will be correctly identified by the Social Security system as having low lifetime earnings. However, an individual with relatively high earnings per year over a short career span would also qualify as a low average earner by Social Security calculations. This inconsistency occurs because Social Security figures out average earnings on the basis of the highest thirty-five years of earnings, which would include zeros for those years in which an individual had no earnings.

So high-income earners get to retire years ahead of low-income earners, and still receive the benefits, though since they are not working anymore, they’ve stopped contributing to the workforce. Whether or not this is fair or unfair, you’d expect to hear healthy debate about the issue. But you don’t. And why is that? Because it is easier to cherry-pick data about income tax distribution in order to rile people up about ‘unfair’ tax burdens.

  • Claim: “The top 50% of earners paid 97% of the entire income tax bill.”
     Status: True, but misleading, for the same reasons outlined above. Also, the same data Beck cites also states that the top 50%’s share of the income is 87.49%.
  • Claim: The middle class only paid 3% of the tax burden.
     Status: False.

First, we need to define what the middle class is. It’s kind of an amorphous term, so stick with me. FactCheck.org gives a lengthy discussion of what the middle class may be. Take a look:

 It’s possible to come up with a definition of what constitutes “middle income,” but it will depend on how large a slice of the middle one prefers. If we look at U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which divide household income into quintiles, we could say that the “middle” quintile, or 20 percent, might be the “middle” class. In 2006, the average income for households in that middle group was $48,561 and the upper limit was $60,224. But we could just as reasonably use another Census figure, median family income. In 2006, the median – or “middle” – income for a family of four was $70,354. Half of all four-person families made more; half made less…

But others could have different definitions. Baker interviewed a man who earned about $100,000 a year and a woman who made $35,000, both of whom said they were middle class.

Public opinion polls show how slippery the term can be. An Oct. 2007 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio asked 1,527 adults what income level makes a family of four middle class. About 60 percent said a family earning $50,000 or $60,000 fit that description. But 42 percent answered an income of $40,000 and 48 percent said $80,000 were both middle class…

Republic candidate Mitt Romney…defines “middle class” as anyone with an adjusted gross income of under $200,000…

Here, you can see a thinker from the conservative Heritage Foundation arguing that people with $250,000 incomes aren’t wealthy. Does that make them middle class?

So there’s a lot of debate on who, exactly is middle class. The site notes that politicians often change the term to fit their needs. Because of this, and because $200,000 seems a bit high, let’s bypass Mr. Romney’s definition. In fact, let’s give Mr. Beck the benefit of the doubt. Let’s find the lowest number there, and we’ll use that to define the floor of middle class. $35,000 looks like the lowest number up there to me. We’ll use that as the floor. So, in our definition, you need to make above $35,000 to be middle class.

Well, according to the data Beck uses, the top 50% (that non-middle class portion he’s talking about that pays 97% of America’s taxes) begins at $31,987. Which is below one of the lower figures we used to define middle class. Needless to say its much below some of the other proposed figures up there (notably those of Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation).

Now let’s take a look at tax brackets. If you make $31,987 or up and are filing singly, you’re either in the 25%, 28%, 33%, or 35% tax bracket. That’s right, out of the 6 tax brackets, you could be in 4 of them, depending on how much you make.

Some of what Beck says is true. Some is not. But pretty much all of it is misleading.