President Obama’s (latest) soak-the-rich plan is bringing out the worst in his fellow liberals. If you want to understand exactly what’s wrong with their mindset on taxes, and why it is irreconcilable to reality, you must read Michael Tomasky’s column in the Daily Beast today.
Not because Tomasky points out the deficiencies. On the contrary, he recites nearly every one of them with gusto.
To begin, Tomasky states that taxes — not spending, not debt, nor cultural politics, nor anything else — have been “the biggest problem in our politics for the last 30 years.” By “biggest problem,” he apparently means what follows:
The anti-tax revolt that started in 1978 in California (Proposition 13) has destroyed this country. Our taxophobia has made the rich vastly richer and reduced the amount of money for the public benefits the rest of us depend on, and a hundred other horrible things besides.
One can hardly argue against “a hundred other horrible things” that Tomasky hasn’t specified, but there’s plenty to discuss about what’s wrong with the rest of that second sentence.
Part 1: “Our taxophobia has made the rich vastly richer…”: Really? The top marginal tax rate in the Internal Revenue Code is what’s made the rich “vastly richer”? Not such economic trends as the shift toward an information-based services economy, or the ever more rapid rise of global manufacturing competition, or the change in the way corporate boards have awarded executive compensation? Or any of the things Tomasky means, several paragraphs later, when he acknowledges, “A hundred factors affect economic performance”?
Certainly, lower tax rates have allowed higher earners to keep more of what they earn, which has compounding effects on wealth, but the tax code does not explain why those higher earners are earning more than did the higher earners of earlier generations. Which is where the “problem” Tomasky identifies really begins. If you agree that this is a problem, the tax code is not the place to “fix” it.
Part 2: “…and reduced the amount of money for the public benefits the rest of us depend on…”: I didn’t realize columnists at the Daily Beast were on welfare — and with “the rest of us,” Tomasky is necessarily excluding those public functions (e.g., the military) that benefit everyone regardless of income. But that’s a side point. Have lower tax rates really “reduced the amount of money” sent to the government?
From 1944 (the first year federal revenues exceeded even 14 percent of GDP) through that year Tomasky so rues, 1978, federal revenues averaged 17.6 percent of GDP.
From 1979 through 2010, the last complete fiscal year, federal revenues averaged 18 percent of GDP.
Hmmm. That can’t be correct. We all “know” that Republicans since Reagan have been starving the beast. The post-1979 data must be skewed by the Clinton years, right?
Well, federal revenues certainly flourished under Bill Clinton, averaging 19 percent of GDP. But even if we exclude 1993-2000, federal revenues since 1979 have still averaged 17.7 percent of GDP — that is, just a tad more than they averaged before 1979.
OK, Wingfield. But we all “know” that George W. Bush completely obliterated the federal fisc with his ruinous tax cuts.
Not really. Federal revenues from 2001 to 2008 averaged 17.6 percent of GDP. Exactly what they averaged before that dread year of 1978.
It turns out that the Clinton years were an anomaly in modern tax history. Do Tomasky and his fellow travelers truly believe that those eight years were the only ones in which America wasn’t being “destroyed”?
So, the premise of Tomasky’s piece is demonstrably wrong. But that doesn’t stop him from making another crucial error.
Presumably, he writes, President Obama’s plan “will include taxing capital gains and carried interest at the same rate (for millionaires only, that is, not for middle-income Wall Street dice-rollers) as regular income.” Presumably, he’s right about that.
Yet, a bit later, he suggests that Rep. Paul Ryan is “stupid, a liar, or something even more malevolent, a morally diseased ogre who secretly believes with his delirious mentor [Ayn Rand] that the rich deserve every handout government can offer them” for saying Obama is engaging in class warfare and claiming these tax increases won’t work economically. Set aside for now Tomasky’s repugnant rhetoric — it hardly qualifies as an argument — that anyone who disagrees with Obama’s position on taxes must lack intelligence, honesty or morals. He unintentionally undermines his own claims — and the argument for raising capital gains tax rates — here:
Under what recent president was the economy strongest? Bill Clinton. Under what recent president were tax rates the highest? Bill Clinton. I don’t claim direct cause and effect. A hundred factors affect economic performance. But I certainly and emphatically claim that recent history disproves Ryan’s [claim that tax increases don't work] to such an extent that he can’t possibly be taken seriously.
If Tomasky won’t claim direct cause and effect, it’s not out of modesty. It’s because it’s not true.
Under which years of the Clinton presidency was the economy strongest? I don’t think anyone would dispute that it was the years 1997 through 2000, when real GDP growth surpassed 4 percent every year. But which part of tax policy changed during this second term of Clinton’s? Not the individual income tax rate; that increase came in 1993. No, it was the tax rate on capital gains, which actually fell in 1997. Tax receipts and the economy soared.
Now, they soared because of the tech bubble, which produced the growth and stock earnings that were taxed in such large numbers. Like Tomasky, I’m not claiming direct cause and effect. But unlike him, I know it defies logic and the facts to claim that the Clinton years prove higher taxes on capital gains won’t hurt the economy.
I’ll leave Tomasky to his opinions as to whether all of this will make for good politics. But, if the American public understands what really happened during the past 30 years, he’ll be wrong about that, too.
– By Kyle Wingfield