Anderson Cooper misstates key fact on taxes during GOP debate on CNN

Zachary Roth
October 19, 2011

While moderating Tuesday night's Republican debate from Las Vegas, CNN's Anderson Cooper misstated the facts about a contentious discussion involving taxes and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

"You said in the last debate that everyone should pay something," Cooper said at one point to Michele Bachmann. "Does that mean that you would raise taxes on the 47 percent of Americans who currently don't pay taxes?"

Wait, 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes? That's not true.

It is true that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income taxes, because they get tax credits worth more than the amount of tax they owe. But income taxes are hardly the only federal taxes that people pay.

The average middle-income household pays almost 10 percent of its income in payroll taxes, as David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote last year. Because payroll taxes are taxes on wages, they're not much different from income taxes. Payroll taxes are supposed to fund Social Security and Medicare, but for years the government has taken in more Social Security taxes than is needed to pay benefits, and has spent the money on other government programs.

That average household also pays about 1 percent of its income in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 1 percent of its income in corporate taxes, through the stocks it owns.

That's certainly not nothing, as Cooper would have it.

You can watch the moment here:

Cooper's high-profile slip-up is all the more surprising because the issue has been in the spotlight lately. In response to the Occupy Wall Street protesters' claim to represent 99 percent of Americans, some leading conservatives founded a website called "We are the 53 percent"--that is, the percentage of Americans who do pay federal income taxes.

How did Bachmann respond to Cooper's question? "I believe absolutely every American benefits by this magnificent country," she said. "Absolutely every American should pay something, even if it's a dollar."

Luckily for her, they already do.