A few Republicans out there, struggling to put the IRS scandalette in a larger context, are now saying it shows we need tax reform. It doesn't really, unless their argument is that we've been letting shamelessly political 501(c)(4) organizations get away with a scam and we ought to clarify the law on what such organizations can do. But that's not what they're saying. What they're saying is that the IRS matter shows we need to change the tax code to reflect the same policies they've advocated forever.
It wasn't as though this particular scandal arose because filing your personal income taxes is too complicated or because the corporate tax system is riddled with loopholes. It was something very specific, the law regarding how certain kinds of nonprofit organizations are allowed to operate. Frankly, there's no part of the tax code conservatives care less about. What they're interested in is changing personal and corporate taxes.
A familiar tale: In a small country on the Mediterranean rim, the government chooses to solve an economic crisis by enacting an austerity budget. Regressive taxes will rise. Aid to families will be cut. Less will be left of the welfare state built decades ago. The novice finance minister promises this will heal the economy.
As the people of that unhappy land say: Happy are those who believe.
In 1984, CompuServe launched the first “Electronic Mall,” a Pleistocene-era Amazon with which owners of a TRS-80 personal computer could browse and buy goods over the Internet. Such modern retailers as “The Record Emporium” and “The Book Bazaar” were given prominent virtual storefronts. A full page ad in the May 1984 issue of Online Today boasted, “By the year 2000, the world may catch up with the way CompuServe’s new Electronic Mall lets you shop today.” The world took less time to catch up than that: By 1995, eBay and Amazon had been incorporated; in Amazon’s first two months as an online bookstore, it averaged $20,000 per week in sales. Americans would go on to spend around $700 million online in 1996, and by 1999 sales had grown to $20 billion. Figures released earlier this year by the Commerce Department revealed that Americans spent $225 billion online in 2012—a 400 percent increase in only a decade.
Today is tax day, the yearly opportunity for millions of Americans to shake their fists at the government and declare their contempt for the ideas of mutual concern and collective responsibility. So on this most practical of days, it's good to remind ourselves of some realities. First, the taxes we pay are, by international standards, fairly modest. Second, despite what some would have you believe, the wealthy are not crushed by the burden of taxation. And third, though nobody particularly enjoys giving part of their income to the government, taxes are the price we pay for having an advanced, democratic society.
For accounting purposes, it makes sense to count programs like Social Security, disability insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as government spending. But these kinds of programs are not really government spending because the government does not actually direct how the money is spent. Unlike building a road, for instance, where the government decides that a road should be built and then pays to make it happen, cash benefit programs involve the government distributing money to people and allowing them to decide where to spend it.
In February 1913, exactly a century ago, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress a constitutional green light to levy a federal tax on income. Later that same year, lawmakers made good on that opportunity. An income tax has been part of the federal tax code ever since.
No idea is more central to conservative economic thinking than the belief that cutting taxes leads to higher economic growth. One can certainly understand the appeal of this belief: Itwouldbe great if government could collect the same amount of revenue, but with much lower tax rates, because those rates fostered strong growth.
In response, it seems, to criticism of his economic plan—which will raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans in order to cut taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers—Mitt Romney has released a one-page “plan for a stronger middle-class.” The provisions are what you would expect:
Back to Full Employment, by Robert Pollin. A Boston Review Book. The M.I.T. Press. 187 pages. $14.95
Achieving full employment has been at the center of the progressive project for more than a century. If work is available at decent wages for everyone who wants it, then the rest of the agenda is a lot easier. Opportunity proliferates. People feel a sense of dignity and worth. Human potential is fully utilized. In a virtuous circle, adequate purchasing power has a rendez-vous with the economy’s productive capacity. Tight labor markets give workers the leverage to bargain for decent wages. Social-transfer programs can be reserved for special needs rather than being strained to make up for the fundamental lack of decent income.
The top marginal income tax rate, a testament to our oppression. (Flickr)
When the Tea Party movement started in 2009, some of its adherents made signs that read, "Taxed Enough Already!", since the movement defined itself in large part as a reaction against the oppressive tax policies of the federal government, sucking ordinary people dry in its endless search for cash to fund its freedom-destroying schemes. This was always an insane inversion of actual reality—the truth is that as part of the stimulus bill, President Obama actually cut taxes for almost everyone, and the only tax increase he imposed in his first term was a hike in cigarette taxes. It's true that the Affordable Care Act contains a number of different tax increases (on things like "Cadillac" health plans), but those have not taken effect yet. But to many conservatives, it just feels like they're paying more taxes, because...well, because there's a Democrat in the White House.
Today, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the taxes we have actually been paying, and guess what: the average federal taxes paid by Americans are at their lowest point in the last 30 years:
Barack Obama did a bunch of big things in his first term—passed health care reform and ended the war in Iraq, most notably. If he wants to do something big domestically in his second term (especially since he seems to have lost any inclination to do anything about climate change), one natural area to try would be tax reform. It might actually be possible to arrive at something both Democrats and Republicans could live with, if we put aside Republicans' desire to make sure he never accomplishes anything, ever (which will continue into his second term). Republicans already have their own tax plan, which lays out some goodies they'll give people (especially wealthy people, you'll be shocked to learn) while conveniently avoiding any specificity on how the goodies will be paid for.