Bellyaching About Taxes

I’m getting tired of the constant bellyaching about lowering taxes, often by the same people yelling we should reduce the deficit or spend more for the military, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sometimes both. Our tax structure is unfair, because the federal government lowered taxes by pushing responsibilities to the states, and states have done the same with local governments so that property taxes bear too much of the burden. But the notion that the top income tax rates are too high is just nonsense.

With the largest tax breaks going to very wealthy people, and only crumbs for the rest of us, their bellyaching about tax rates is cynical and unpatriotic. Send these tax hawks, so worried about the top tax rates, to live in the third world where their money will go further – send them abroad as foreign aid, while we happily do without their carping at paying for decent government. Polling data shows that half of US conservatives would plunge the country further into debt if they could have bigger tax cuts. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Americans pay lower taxes than all but a couple of industrialized countries, far lower than the EU. Our governments have been left without the ability to do what they should be doing. Americans love traveling in Europe and come back glowing about the amenities, the rail lines right to the airports, the local and intercity transport, the safety and cleanliness, the preservation of ancient structures and modern bridges. European governments take care of their people. We just let each other sink or swim and call it tough love when people work multiple jobs if they’re lucky, go without health care, lose their homes when hit by unexpected medical bills, and hardworking people become homeless because minimum wages don’t pay for housing.

The deficits Washington and the states face aren’t an accident. They have been sold by tax hawks who want to take government away from you and me by starving it of the funds needed to do the job.

For most of us, tax reductions are crumbs dropped on our tables to make us willing to support much bigger breaks for millionaires. The real cost of those tax breaks to the rest of us, is far greater – to our health, our safety, the future of our children, and necessary government services.

Tax reductions won’t do much for us. That they worked in the Kennedy Administration, or some other time, is irrelevant. Each successive break comes off lower and lower tax rates. And each time does more and more damage to government services, and increases the inequality of Americans.

Tax breaks no longer stimulate the economy. The Bush tax breaks stimulated the building of luxury homes and fueled the housing bubble. They did not stimulate the economy. Tax breaks have no real connection with stimulus. Money can be hoarded, spent on art collections, invested abroad, used for luxuries or off-shore diversions – anything but pouring the money back into the U.S. And when Americans are having a tough time making ends meet and have little to spend, the argument for private investors to invest here is weak.

The cynical irony of tax breaks is that people try to sell it by telling you it’s your money, but they give your money to other people and starve the government of the funds to do a decent job at the things you and I need from government.

This isn’t patriotism. It isn’t good policy. It’s corrupt. And it is not justifiable.

It’s time for a useful nuclear option – let Harry Reid and his colleagues in the Senate meet hardball with hardball. They keep trying to govern while congressional Republicans are making war on America. It’s time to fight back.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 23, 2010.

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