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I'm With Stupid: Taxing My Feeble Grasp of Math and Percentages

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I just got off the phone with my mother, who has become a staunch conservative as she's aged, and I asked her when she thought America was at its best in her lifetime. She was just about to tell me when she was called away and had to hang up.

Given her political bent, I would guess the Reagan era, but who knows? She might have gone for Eisenhower. She seems to look back on her teens fondly enough.

One of my mom's big laments is taxes, this idea that the rich are paying for everyone else, and to an extent she has a point. No one should get away with paying nothing. I don't care how poor you are; you use services provided to you by the governments of your city, state and country. If you really can't pay anything, then you should be working for a welfare check and paying a portion of it in taxes.

But back to the bigger tax issue. I think if Obama wins -- and it's looking like he might -- Democrats should agree to set taxes at Reagan-era or Eisenhower-era levels, just like Republicans seem to pine for. In return, the ultra-rich have to agree to pay their taxes. No more hiding income in Swiss bank accounts or Cayman Islands funds.

All conservatives seem to talk about is Reagan, so I just naturally assumed that taxes were really low during his presidency. Then I made the mistake of looking stuff up. In 2011, the lowest federal income tax rate, for individuals making less than $8,500, was 10 percent. The highest tax rate, for individuals making more than $379,150, was 35 percent.

For 1981, Reagan's first year in office, the highest tax bracket, for anyone making more than $294,907, was 70 percent. From 1982 to 1986, the highest tax bracket paid 50 percent. In 1987, the number dropped to 38.5 percent. Then, in 1988, the last year of Reagan's presidency, the highest tax rate dropped to 28 percent.

I'm not good at math, but it seems to me that for most of the Reagan years, rich people were paying a hell of a lot more than they are now. Yes, they were paying less in '88, but the first Bush -- "Read my lips: no new taxes!" -- had to raise taxes in 1991 to pay for things like the Reagan-era tax cuts. Funny how conservatives don't seem to remember his presidency as fondly as Reagan's.

Going back a little further, to the Eisenhower years, doesn't really help the cause. In 1953, the highest tax bracket paid 92 percent, and anyone making more than $84,037 was paying at least 42 percent. By the end of Eisenhower's presidency, 1960, anyone making more than $200,000 was in an income tax bracket of 91 percent.

Now, I don't know anything about taxes, and I'm sure that someone could explain what I seem to be missing (please be civil if you do), but for the life of me, I can't figure out what, exactly, conservatives want in the way of taxes. Would we all love to pay no taxes? Of course. Who wouldn't? But we have to set taxes at rates that pay for everything. If we were paying for everything under Reagan or Eisenhower, maybe we should adopt those tax rates.

Of course, the problem isn't really the tax rates; it's getting people to pay those rates. According to some calculations, roughly 46 percent of Americans pay no income tax. That's absurd. The tax rates clearly state that anyone making less than $8,500 should still be paying 10 percent. How are people paying nothing?

On the flip side, billionaires, who have profited most from the services and infrastructure provided by government, have come up with an infinite variety of ways to shield their income from taxation. I think we can safely assume that virtually no billionaires pay anywhere near the 35 percent expected of them.

I don't want to make this political because I think we hear the same old tired rhetoric every election, and nothing seems to change regardless of who's in office. But I think that whoever wins, we should all take a deep breath after the election and give ourselves a little time out to come to terms with things.

Then, instead of attacking one another for another four years, why don't we focus anew on what patriotism really means? And let's contribute what we can to America's success instead of sheltering millions to add to our billions or expecting something for nothing.

Todd Hartley honestly can't figure this one out. If you can help him, please read more and leave a comment at zerobudget.net.