The Corner

Re: Flattening

Ramesh, I think I’d probably be better off debating Tom Seaver on the four-seam fastball than debating you on tax policy. But your response is not doing it for me. Let me take the first two points you make in order, and then make some more general observations.

1.  Too cute by half: You conveniently left out the core of my criticism of Christie’s accuracy. Right after what you quoted (namely, my assertion that you were “not even accurate in claiming that Christie has noted ‘accurately that [Lonegan’s] tax plan raises taxes on large numbers of non-rich people.’ What establishes that Christie is accurate?”), I continued: “The fact that Lonegan would raise taxes on some is not disputed — Lonegan concedes that his flat tax would raise income taxes on some people (mainly people who aren’t paying them now). Christie’s claim is that the figure is 70 percent. Are you vouching for Christie’s accuracy?” (Emphasis added.) You repeated the part that was not in dispute, declared victory, and then didn’t even acknowledge, much less try to answer my core point, which is that Christie has inaccurately claimed Lonegan would raise taxes on 70 percent of New Jerseyans.

2.  “Reducing the progressivity of the tax code” is not eliminating the progressive income tax, as Lonegan wants to do. It is endorsing the progressive tax but on a more moderate scale.

As for the rest, I think we just have a difference of opinion about what is politically feasible. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that one succeeded in persuading the electorate that everyone should pay a proportionate share of taxes and that if people then think their taxes are too high the answer is to reduce the size of government. You may be right that “people in lower income categories . . . would be at least as likely to respond by demanding a restoration of their favorable tax rates as they would be to become hardliners on spending.” But that ignores the context in which such demands would be made. We would only just have succeeded in convincing people of the merits of flattening taxes and targeting spending as the path to prosperity. Under those circumstances, the renewed demands by lower income people would lose — at least for a time, while the flat tax had a chance to prove itself. 

Moreover, I respectfully suggest that you are short-selling the capacity of competent politicians to persuade the public on the societal benefits of limited government and accountable citizenship. You are focusing myopically on low-income people and the requirement that they pay a modest amount of tax. But these purported downsides would not be presented in a vacuum; they would be presented as part of a plan to improve the economy and promote prosperity — attracting more businesses, creating more and better jobs, and improving their lives. Moreover, low-income people are not the only people involved here. Middle- and higher-income people who are paying the freight for this explosion of government (and debt) are getting angry. Everywhere they look, they see people who play by the rules getting screwed while sloth and dysfunction get subsidized. They are starting to see in a concrete way that low-income people with no skin in the game will continue to demand more services that the people paying the freight will be expected to shell out for, even though the payers may not want the services or may believe the services could be performed better and cheaper if government were out of the equation.

I don’t mean to imply that this is easy persuasion work. But if we don’t try because it seems too politically daunting, we will never rein government in. The Left was very perceptive in seeing the financial meltdown — on the heels of an unpopular war and exploited by a gifted new leader — as a political moment that made possible all sorts of Big Government intrusions that would not have seemed possible even a year ago. Rahm Emanuel wouldn’t waste a crisis and we shouldn’t waste a backlash. We can’t just content ourselves with what seems politically possible at the moment. A vibrant movement changes what is politically possible.

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