Saturday, December 8, 2007

Reframing the debate over taxes - NYT

And by "reframing" we mean "using intellectually dishonest arguments to get our way":

Because of our inability to talk sensibly about taxes, the United States has been sliding toward second-class status in the world economy. Our national debt, for example, has increased by more than $3 trillion since 2002. Once the world’s largest creditor nation, we are now its largest debtor. We are currently borrowing more than $800 billion a year from the Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans and others — loans that will have to be repaid in full with interest. These imbalances have sent the dollar plummeting....

One strategy would be to inform voters that the “it’s your money” argument is incoherent. Taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that it is illegitimate for the government to collect taxes. But if that were true, there could be no government and no army, in which case, the United States would have long ago been conquered by another country. Then we’d be paying compulsory taxes to that country’s government...
Progressive taxation is not about envy. Top earners have captured the big share of all income and wealth gains during the last three decades. They’re where the money is. If we’re to pay for public services they and others want, they must carry a disproportionate share of the tax burden...

First, we are not "sliding toward second-class status in the world economy." Our status in the world economy is determined by GDP, not by the level of government debt. By that measure, we are doing just fine, thank you.

Second, it is intellectually dishonest to say that we are the largest debtor nation (in absolute terms) without pointing out that, as a percentage of GDP, our debt is lower than Japan and many continental European countries, many of whom have far higher tax rates.

Third, no one is proposing we take the "it's your money" argument to its logical conclusion and eliminate all taxes, so Frank is knocking down a straw man. The argument refers to the marginal tax dollar, and resonates with many taxpayers who justifiably feel that much of any tax hike will be squandered.

Fourth, progressive taxation is not necessary to ensure that big earners pay a disproportionate share of the tax burden. Under a flat tax system, big earners also pay more than others - though whether they would pay enough is subject to debate.

Fifth, although America certainly needs to invest more in its infrastructure going forward, many of these investments could be privately funded through the types of build-operate-transfer arrangements that have been successful in other countries. This approach ensure that users of the infrastructure pay for it and helps alleviate taxpayer concerns about squandered revenue.

Finally, Frank is conflating the issue of the government fiscal deficit with the current account deficit. The fiscal deficit certainly doesn't help, but at 1.2% of GDP it is hardly at crisis levels. I know of no knowledgable observer who believes the fiscal deficit is a primary cause of the dollar devaluation. After all, Europe is hardly a paragon of fiscal responsibility.

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