Find a better way to argue about income taxes, please
posted at 4:47 pm on April 11, 2010 by CK MacLeod
I hate the following argument, and I tend to think that conservatives are fools to make too much of it. Mark Steyn:
And yet for an increasing number of Americans, tax season is like baseball season: It’s a spectator sport. According to the Tax Policy Center, for the year 2009, 47 percent of U.S. households will pay no federal income tax. Obviously, many of them pay other kinds of taxes — state tax, property tax, cigarette tax. But at a time of massive increases in federal spending, half the country is effectively making no contribution to it, whether it’s national defense or vital stimulus funding to pump monkeys in North Carolina full of cocaine (true, seriously, but don’t ask me why). Half a decade back, it was just under 40 percent who paid no federal income tax; now it’s just under 50 percent.
Such observations recently led Doctor Zero to attempt a thought experiment about excluding “net tax-consumers” from the voting franchise. See, according to the Doctor and Mr. Steyn, or at least the line of thinking with which they’re publicly experimenting, everyone who isn’t (currently) paying any federal income tax is virtually a free rider, a mere spectator, and is no longer adequately invested in public affairs to be consulted – or, worse, is merely in the game to steal more and more from authentically productive citizens.
Tho if you really want to set my blood a-boilin’, and want to risk turning many a potential Tea Partier back into a Democrat, and want to conjure the image of conservatives as confoundingly out of touch, just try abbreviating the above argument – as I’ve heard assorted pundits, politicos, and sinecured think tankers do – to “soon a majority of Americans won’t be paying any taxes.” Even quickly amending that to “no federal taxes” or “no federal income taxes” will at best lower the ol’ blood temperature to “rapid” rather than “boiling off.”
On the face of it, on the level of the real world shorthand takeaway, the argument seems to put conservatives on the side of higher taxes for some number between 0 to 100% of the poorer half of the population, and according to some species of a “fairness” justification. You guys sure that’s where we want to be? At the same time, it ignores some of the primary causes of this creeping re-structuring of the income tax revenue base – e.g., an aging population, increasingly also an under- and unemployed population.
Most significantly to the average irresponsible free riding spectator and thief undeserving of the vote, the argument rather completely ignores, or flagrantly minimizes, all of the taxes and fees that lower income people pay, usually under an extremely regressive structure. Just so everyone’s clear on exactly what that means: the poorer you are, the more they hurt, to the point of hurting a lot.
I’m not just talking about the taxes and fees that Steyn concedes before he gets to his “but” sentence. In a time when the federal government has routinely raided entitlement revenue to fund ongoing expenditures, to the point of defunding the programs, how are Social Security and Medicare taxes anything other than a flat income tax (double-sized for the self-employed) that’s reverse means-tested – since, by virtue of the cut-off (ca. $100k these days), high income people don’t pay into the program at anywhere near the same overall rate that lower income people do? (Atención! – AP - maybe this can help explain those “mystifying” survey results.)
Here’s my thought hypothesis: The Dems opened themselves to means-testing when arguing for the Obama tax rebate, suggesting it would help people burdened by those FICA taxes. Oopsie! Only conservatives were supposed to be evil enough to question the premises of our sacrosanct “equal” “social insurance” contributions. How about dropping the whole insurance charade – it’s always been one – eliminating the cut-off, means-testing both contributions and benefits (including taxes on the latter), putting in a realistic retirement age and cost-of-living-adjustment, then getting back to me when you’ve calculated the impacts of various rates on unfunded obligations? (I’m really curious about this one – but I still have to do my own $&*^@! taxes.)
Now back on the rest of our mere spectator’s burden: Residents of relatively high tax states will typically be paying a second, completely regressive tax in the form of sales taxes, usually pushing 10%, biting every day, sometimes several times a day. Most will pay a third set of usually highly regressive fees for government services on the municipal level and higher – often through utility fees that include within them additional charges from that federal government that we’re supposedly uninvolved with. And relatively low income people are of course the ones hardest hit by gasoline taxes, which will typically include both a federal and a state component. We poor people have also been paying ever higher, noticeably higher rates for everything from college tuition, to smokes, to postage – fed + state + local, directly and indirectly, you think we have the time to sort out which goes to which goes to which? We can hardly stand even to look!
I’m also aware that, one way or another, even before the possible imposition of a new national sales tax (VAT) – for which Mr. Steyn and Doctor Zero seem to be providing a moral argument, regardless of whatever they believe about a VAT on its own terms – all levels of government and indeed the economy are interwoven, via unfunded mandates and regulatory burdens, and increasingly by the massive overhang of federal debt.
I’m guessing that people like me will be paying disproportionately for it all, for that last one especially – possibly through inflation/monetization, possibly by some other means.
Partly as a result of ’08-’09 fiscal crisis, my main business (collectibles sales over the internet) was devastated for a few months: A chart of my turnover would look a lot like the stock market, and the loss of business will be reflected in a lower income tax “contribution” than in prior years. Though I haven’t yet tallied up the results – I may not finish doing my $&*^@! tax return until around 4:50 PM PST, April 15, 2010 – I already know that that I’m feeling pretty darn overtaxed already, even before I calculate whatever small portion of my total tax burden is called “federal income taxes” by people like Mr. Steyn, whose argument (regardless of what Mr. Steyn himself thinks about the big picture) seems to say that I need to send even more money that I don’t have to the government, so that I can feel more invested in what it does.
Trust me, I feel quite adequately “invested” in government policy. I’ve got plenty of skin in the game. Shed more every day. Don’t have much extra skin left at all, matter of fact. Whatever conservatives have in mind with this argument, I cannot see why they think it will get them somewhere to seem to be whining for still more flesh.
cross-posted at Zombie Contentions
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