The Corner

Tax Reform and Social Security

Andrew Sullivan supports Social Security reform, but thinks Bush should push tax reform first: something like the 1986 reforms, closing loopholes and cutting tax rates, or something “even more ambitious.” But this isn’t just a question of sequencing. There isn’t a chance that Bush would seek the kind of tax reform that Sullivan has in mind. Sullivan worries that Social Security reform would make Bush, and conservatism, look like a servant of Wall Street and rich people. The tax reform he favors, on the other hand, would end corporate tax shelters to lower people’s tax rates–so Bush and conservatism would take on a more populist cast.

But the kind of tax reform Bush himself favors–judging from his record, the published and unpublished thoughts of his advisers, and plenty of reports (including my own)–would cut taxes on saving and investment, certainly by individuals and probably by corporations too. That kind of tax reform would be just as easily caricatured as Social Security reform will be. Nor would Sullivan’s version of tax reform be a boon to the party: If the 1986 reform benefited either Republicans or conservatism, it isn’t obvious.

Finally, I don’t think that the appeal of conservative economic policies has declined since the 1980s because those policies have become less populist. I think it has declined because of changed conditions. The income tax has grown more progressive in respects that reduce the popular appeal of tax cuts. And the politics of the economy has favored Democratic candidates for four straight presidential elections. If economic conditions are perceived to be very good in 2008, conservative and Republican policies may become more popular. The increase in the number of investors is another changed circumstance that has affected the appeal of conservative economic policies, of course, in the other direction.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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