More Taxes, Less Deficit

The American electorate has a very short span of attention. Just two years ago, we resoundingly approved President Clinton's focus on cutting the deficit, which had increased alarmingly in the Reagan and Bush years. Now, though the deficit has decreased significantly since Mr. Clinton assumed office, we are through worrying about it and back hungering for tax cuts.

It is a standing joke in this country that certain statements, such as, "The check is in the mail," are always lies. The most famous lie in politics is a promise to cut taxes and increase spending. Today's promise, elaborated in the Republicans' Contract With America , to cut taxes and the deficit simultaneously is similar "deja voodoo". Want some evidence that we are on the wrong track? Both the Republican proposals and the weak Democratic counter are very specific about tax cuts and vague about the spending cuts necessary to lower the deficit.

The best way I have found in my own life to get out of debt is to pay it down as much as possible. A courageous leader-- for a brief period, Mr. Clinton seemed like one-- would say, "we will raise taxes, cut spending, pay the deficit down, then lower taxes when we can." Promising deficit reduction and tax cuts simultaneously is reminiscent of those ads which promise weight loss without exercise or dieting.

The "new" Republicans will not be able to do it, any more than Mr. Reagan could do it, and I seriously doubt any of them believe they can. Instead, we are playing the usual game of "fuck the future"--we'll take care of ourselves, and let those who come after worry about the legacy we leave them. Our complex system of checks and balances, both between and within the branches of government, make it very difficult to hold anyone accountable. Five years from now, when the deficit has doubled, we will certainly hear Mr. Gingrich, if he is still on the political scene, blaming President Clinton, just as various Republican voices attempt to pin the blame on Jimmy Carter for the Reagan-era deficit.

The contrasts between the Republican tax plan and the Democrats' attempt to pre-empt the issue are striking. Charts published in the December 25 New York Times, attributed to the Treasury Department Office of Tax Analysis, indicate:

  1. Twenty-four percent of total taxes collected in this country are paid by people who make more than $200,000.00 a year.

  2. These people constitute 2% of the total population.

  3. Mr. Clinton's tax plan, which never amounts to more than a 1% reduction in the taxes of any income group, does nothing for the over $200k crowd.

  4. The plan detailed in the Contract With America would grant the highest cuts, 3%, to people in this income category.

Which raises a couple of ethical issues worthy of consideration:

Q: Is it fair for two percent of the population to pay 24% of the taxes?

A: Absolutely yes (and please note that I am in this 2% myself). As far as I know, repealing the graduated income tax is not part of the Republican program. If we acknowledge that we need a graduated income tax, it follows that the most highly compensated will pay the most taxes.

Q: Is it fair for the highest tax cut to benefit the most highly compensated?

A: No. Whatever talent, intelligence or effort contributed to our success, this country has been very good to us. It is our responsibility to give something back. I don't mind being taxed (at less than confiscatory levels) as long as the money is being well-spent. Deficit reduction and universal health care seemed like two excellent uses for my money.

Q: Why would the Republicans hand the highest benefit to two percent of the electorate?

A: Because that's where most campaign contributions come from. As long as we permit the existence of our thoroughly corrupt campaign finance system , my two percent of the electorate will own Congress, and make a fool out of those of you in lower income groups who voted for them. Mr. Gingrich has refused to reveal the identities of ninety percent of the contributors to Gopac, the PAC that financed many of the Republican candidates in 1994. The list would make interesting reading, because it might tell you who the Contract With America, especially its unwritten sections, is really for.

There's another saddening element to the tax cuts being promised by both parties. In 1986, the Tax Reform Act simplified the tax system, eliminating special favors and benefits hidden in the tax code. One notable accomplishment was the elimination of most of the phony tax shelters which had been prevalent until then. Tax "reform"--really tax reaction--in 1995 will bring all the special interests and tax lobbyists out of the woodwork to restore the nonsense of yesteryear.

Honest politics (an oxymoron?) involve taxing sensibly, spending carefully, and reducing the deficit. Both party's proposals involve a dishonest algorithm: immediate benefit and later harm for which no-one will admit responsibility. Mr. Clinton might reply to this that he is giving the public what it clearly demanded in the 1994 elections. However, true leadership sometimes involves standing firm and educating the electorate in what it needs, rather than always granting its desires.