Archive for category Deflating Conservative Arguments

Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Flat Tax

My neighbor in the apartment across the way is a good-natured centerist who is very interested in issues of taxation. He and I often get into discussions related to our tax system and he’s brought up the idea of a Flat Tax. It sure sounds like a good idea: everyone pays the same percentage of their income. After all, he argues, why should someone making a lot of money pay a higher percentage?

The problem with this idea, of course, is that it’s ultimately regressive, taking a more meaningful chunk of money from the least fortunate in our society. The counter question being, why should someone making only a little money pay the same percentage of their income as someone making much more and is it fair to tax them at the same rate?

Follow me below the fold where I level the Flat Tax in my continuing series Deflating Conservative Arguments.

I’ve found that a lot of people don’t understand how our current progressive income tax system works. Many people think that the tax bracket you reach on your last dollar in income is the one you pay on all your income. I’ve heard people say things like “I got a $2000 raise, but it bumps me into a higher tax bracket” with a disparaging tone in their voice that belies the fact that they’ll be making more money. Fortunately, they won’t really be paying the higher rate on all their income. For example, a single person pays 10% on their first $8500, 15% on their next $26,000, 25% on their next $49,100, and so on. So if you make $34,000 and get a $2000 raise, you’ll be in a new tax bracket, but you only pay the new tax rate (25%) on your last $1500, and your total tax liability will be $5125. This computes to an effective tax rate of 14.23% ($5125/$36,000).

Okay, so now that that’s all cleared up, what about the flat tax? Even some of my more liberal leaning friends have been suckered in by this one. The proposal is that everyone pays the same percentage in federal income tax on all of their income, though proposals vary as to what the percentage should be. In 2008 Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) proposed a 17% flat tax rate. Let’s use this as our example because there is simply no concrete proposed rate that flat taxers are rallying around.

As you can already see by looking up at the previous example, a 17% rate is higher than the 14.23% rate that someone making a modest $36,000 pays today. The break even point is $48,438, meaning everyone making less than that gets a tax increase under a flat tax and everyone making more than that gets a tax break. Let’s look at the lower and upper end of the spectrum for greater relief. Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson (unrelated to former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) raked in $4.9 Billion ($4,900,000,000) in 2010. Though I know this is investment income and therefore subject to the capital gains rate, let’s pretend that it was counted as regular income taxed at the normal income tax rates. If this were the case, Mr. Paulson would be paying an effective rate of 35% under our current system or around $1.715 Billion. If his taxes were slashed to 17%, he would be paying around $833 Million, a savings of around $882 Million. On the other hand, a single person with no children living at the 2010 poverty threshold of $11,344 pays $1277 in federal income tax for an effective rate of 11.25%. If we instate the 17% flat tax, that would raise their taxes to $1928, a hike of $651.

So the question of fairness arises. What is fair? Is it just to lower billionaires’ taxes by half, but increase taxes on the poorest? Is it just? To me, the issue always come back to these simple questions.

So, what is a fair and just way to pay for our society? I believe that those who make the most money have benefited from the system much more than those who make the least. The poor tend to stay poor because they have the deck stacked against them from the get go. If both parents are working and struggling to make ends meet, children are not as able to succeed. If they live in an economically depressed area, they are likely going to schools that don’t have the resources to hire the best teachers or have the equipment necessary to prepare children for college. If you live somewhere where your life is in constant danger due to high crime (due to poverty), it makes it pretty darn hard to study. Conversely, the well off tend to become richer because they have safe places to grow up and don’t have the added stresses of poverty. They go to the best schools with the best teachers and the top of the line equipment, live in the cleanest, safest neighborhoods, and have parents who have the resources to help them achieve. The disproportionate amount of money spent on all of the services that our society provides such as schools and public safety go to the wealthier areas. This is because their local tax base (or private donations) keep their areas nice because they, as anyone, care deeply for their children and want them to succeed. The problem is that not everybody starts out at the same place, so to pretend that is the case is just fantasy.

The reality is that we’re all in this together and we need each other to succeed. Because the wealthy benefit more from our society, and the safety and security it affords them, they should pay more to keep our society (and the government that administers it) strong. It’s the only just thing to do.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: Tax Increases Hurt the Economy

While listening to NPR on our drive home on Tuesday, my wife and I heard Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) say (emphasis mine):

Well we, we believe that tax increases, by and large, and, and for the most part, decrease the economic vitality and, and ability for this economy to recover. Uh, if you tax, uh, something you get less of it, and right now if we tax productivity or if we tax, uh, businesses to a greater degree, we think that you stymie and, and stifle the economy’s ability to grow.

This is a very typical conservative view of the effect of taxation. The only problem is that it’s, “by and large, and, and for the most part,” not true. Join me below the fold as I pop another conservative balloon with the needle of truth in my ongoing series, Deflating Conservative Arguments.

The conservative argument goes like this: increasing taxes takes money out of hands of regular people who would spend that money (as they see fit) and therefore stimulate the economy. There is a grain of truth in this if the government is taking money that would otherwise be spent on consumer goods and services or invested into productive capacity (as opposed to being used for debt reduction, speculative investment, or savings).

Even President Kennedy was for tax cuts and spoke in favor of lowering the tax rate throughout his Presidency. However, when Kennedy took office in 1961, the tax rates, were much higher than they are today. The argument that taxing income at this level would take money out of the economy made a lot more sense and led to the Tax Reform Act of 1964 which lowered all tax rates over two years in a somewhat regressive manner. Note: For purposes of illustration, I am using the rates for Single taxpayers, no exemptions, deductions or credits, and not adjusting for inflation.

The lowest marginal rate fell from 20% in 1963 to to 14% in 1965 (on your first $2000 in income) and the highest marginal rate went from 91% on income over $200,000 in ’63 to 77% in ’64 and then the top bracket was eliminated and the next bracket, income over $100,000, became the new top and was lowered to 70% in ’65. While the richest Americans certainly got the lion’s share of the tax break, the money that those in the lower classes would have gotten would be spent on consumer goods and services and therefore, would have a stimulating effect on the economy. It could even be argued that those in the top income brackets would spend more because the previous tax rates were a large bite of any income over $200,000, so even a millionaire would purchase more things or even perhaps put money into a new American business.

By contrast, today the top tax bracket (35% on income over $379,150) is the lowest it’s been since 1916, the 4th year of the federal income tax. This fact means that much more income is staying in the hands of the rich rather than feeding the governments coffers. If you made a million dollars in 1963, you’d have had a tax liability of $880,680, but if you made a million dollars today, you’d have a tax liability of $326,558. Okay, so you’d have 554,122 more dollars to spend. Great, but how much can someone really spend on consumer goods and services? How many American businesses can one person start and actually handle? How much demand can any one of us actually create?

Nobody knows the answer to that for sure and it is certain to vary to a great extent, but there is a limit somewhere. Once that limit is reached, any income over that amount is excess income that will be saved or put into non-productive (speculative) investments. Therein lies the answer to the eternal question of taxation, (ie. What is the appropriate level of taxation?) The appropriate amount to tax, in the sense of generating the most economic activity, would be the amount that puts any excess income to productive use. This level is probably somewhere closer to the 1963 tax rates than the 2011 rates.

The conservative argument that increasing taxes is bad for the economy assumes that all money that is in the hands of the income earner will be spent in the most economically productive way. This is plainly not true. After someone has reached the limit on their own consumer spending and has started as many businesses in America as they can, they will either use their money to speculate or sit on it. While investing in American businesses does increase our economy’s demand for supplies, equipment and labor in the US, speculation does not. It is merely a bet that such and such business will do well. Speculation adds no demand to the system and those dollars could therefore be used more wisely to do so. Clearly the same is true for savings although some savings is obviously necessary to have a personal cushion and be able to live with dignity in ones old age.

In contrast to the conservative argument, increasing taxation rates on top income earners, such as in the proposed Fairness in Taxation Act, which would implement new brackets of 45-49% for millionaires and billionaires, would actually increase economic activity. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the author of the bill estimates that if it was enacted in 2011, it would generate $78 billion in new revenue. This would then get spent by the government on goods and services, generating more demand for goods, supplies, equipment and labor (read: jobs). This is money that is currently unproductive and would be put to good use.

I would even go so far as to say that lowering (or perhaps eliminating) taxes on the lowest income earners while raising taxes (even drastically) on top income earners will generate the most economic activity as it will simultaneously put more money into the hands of people who will spend it immediately and put money that is currently unproductive back into the economy. Although the People’s Budget does not include lowering taxes on low income earners, it would allow us to balance our budget without cutting needed programs, or endangering social security or medicare and medicaid and put our fiscal house on the path to sanity.

The grain of truth in the argument that tax increases hurt the economy can only be true as far as the assumption that all money that is not taxed is being put to its most economically beneficial use. Raising taxes on top income earners will not hurt the wealthy and it will not hurt the economy. It is a simple matter of fairness and justice.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Myth of Individualism

My rabbi recently told a story about a bunch of people in a boat. One of them started drilling a hole in the boat under his seat and everyone screamed, “What are you doing?!?”. The man drilling the hole said, “What business is it of yours? I’m doing this under MY seat. It doesn’t effect you.” The commentary is, of course, that we’re all in this together even if we think our actions don’t effect others.

To me this is a perfect parable for the myth of individualism. Conservatives have seized upon the idea of individualism to further their argument toward a more corporatist state. Their argument goes that individuals, given access to all pertinent information, will make the best decisions for themselves, their communities, their states and their country. It further considers these all to be the same thing; the best decision for the individual is the best decision for everyone. This obviously ignores any conflicts that may exist among individuals and between individuals and society. It also ignores greed.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is ‘individualism’ a ‘myth’?” According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (subscription only), one definition of “myth” is:

Myth, n. A widely held, but false belief or idea.

According to The Free Dictionary, Individualism is defined as:

Individualism, n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Simply put, this is the theory that I described above. In order to believe in individualism, you must be willing to believe that what we do has no effect on the outside world, that there is no causal relationship between anything that we do and the things we see around us. It’s easy to put the lie to this by simply taking a look at any interaction between people with a material conflict such as the example provided by the boat parable, or perhaps this: the nuclear industry and those individuals working for it are making the best decisions for themselves, but it comes at a terrible cost to many others. The fact that we’re all in this together is why I call individualism a myth.

I would further argue that the myth of individualism causes self destructive behavior. There are plenty of stories of malfeasance to choose from, Enron, BP, fracking, Madoff, etc., etc., etc. All of these came about because someone thought it was the best thing for them to do. They didn’t consider the negative impacts on other people, the environment, health and safety, fairness, equality, justice or economic well being. The prime reason that the decisions leading to all of these crises are made is profit.

As Ambrose Bierce noted in his work the Devils Dictionary:

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

It is beyond any doubt that individualism causes destructive behavior, but self destructive behavior? Well, consider that the individuals making the decisions on behalf of the corporations, or on behalf of themselves (as many of the top decision makers have incentives to make their corporations more profitable), just as the man drilling the hole in the boat, also must live with the consequences of their actions. In many cases, they might not feel those consequences immediately, but eventually, everyone is impacted.

But alas, this myth is a useful one when you’re trying to gain the support of the rural poor to advance the will of the super rich. Many of the people who make up the base of the Republican party are the same people who get beaten down by Republican policy. This is because, like most Americans, they don’t pay any attention to the policy after the election, so they believe the rhetoric. They believe in individualism because when you’re a farmer or rancher, you work the land and raise crops or cattle by the sweat of your own brow. This is the very appealing image of rugged individualism as portrayed by Reagan and before him Teddy Roosevelt. However, when you look at the results of policies of conservative governance, you see a widening of the income gap caused by upward redistribution of wealth.

Meanwhile, although the Republican party (and conservatives generally) espouse individualism as a core value, social conservatives don’t really want individuals to have any real choices that pertain to their personal lives. It really only takes one look at today’s war on women, or their fight against the rights of gay Americans, or their recent onslaught against labor. It’s clear that while they talk a lot about individualism, they really only like it when it means that corporations can do whatever the heck they please.

Many people have been taken in by the myth of individualism over the years. There are always those who are willing to believe that people can make it on their own, despite the fact that everyone needs the things society provides through our government in order to succeed. If it weren’t for our shared systems of education, transportation, sewage, water, (subsidized and regulated) power, public safety, dispute resolution (the courts), etc., it would be impossible for businesses and the individuals behind them to succeed.

The truth is that there really is no such thing as individualism. The whole concept is a falsehood, a myth. The reality is that we truly are all in this together, but in the minds of so many conservatives, you’re on your own.

Cross posted on Daily Kos.

Update: In the linked posting on Daily Kos, a few people have noted in the comments that there are positive aspects of individualism. This is not what the diarist meant to address. I was referring to individualism as a societal theory, not a personal trait. I’m specifically referring to people pursuing their individual self interest as is discussed in the free market ideological theories of Milton Friedman. Sorry if this was unclear.

In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all. This is a false presumption as what feels good to me might be to pillage the village, but clearly this would not be best for the village. People who see themselves as disconnected from the community (even if all they want is to be left alone), do harm to themselves and others whenever they act in a way that is harmful to society.

I’m not saying that we don’t have individual responsibilities or arguing that we should have some sort of big brother watching what we do, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to do things that we like. I am arguing however, that we have an effect on one another, whether we know it (or like it) or not.

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Nanny State

Recently, on a plane trip across the country, I was seated next to a guy who bought the conservative “nanny state” line. You know, the one that goes “Democrats want to set up a nanny state to protect you from yourself.” Although he bought this and other conservative talking points, he was not an unreasonable guy. When I told him that it wasn’t other citizens that I was worried about, but rather voracious corporations, he seemed to get it. The laws that protect us are there as ways to protect us against corporations, who in their lust for profits, will look the other way on all kinds of consumer and worker safety issues. I told the guy, I’m happy that there are people who inspect restaurants to make sure the food is safe and I’m glad that there’s an organization that regulates airlines to make sure they operate safely. This seemed to turn him a bit.

This conservative talking point is one of the strongest they’ve got. Those who espouse it have built up a mythos around it that creates the feeling that the government is overreaching, over-regulating and generally ‘up in my business’. We need to counter this with the fact that regulation protects us from those who would do us harm for the sake of their bottom line. Lets take a deeper look.

Conservatives use fear as their main motivator to move their base and convince the electorate to vote for Republicans. When countered with facts and examples, these fear based arguments don’t stand up. The “nanny state” argument is powerful because it plays on the fear that many Americans have of government intrusiveness into their lives. However, when we look at it, laws that conservatives say are there to protect us from ourselves, are generally there to protect us from corporations and irresponsible citizens. Nobody is going to care if you do something that endangers you and nobody else, it’s a free country and you can walk on your hands down the street of New York City if you want, I wouldn’t recommend it as you may get hurt, but you’re free to do it, and therefore there is no law against it. However, if you walk on your hands across a busy street against a light, there is a law against that (not the walking on your hands part, just the crossing against the light part) because you’re endangering others. If someone hits you because of this, it puts you in the hospital or morgue and them in the mechanic’s shop, hospital or morgue. We have these laws not to make your life more difficult, but to make order from chaos.

Conservatives and Republicans use this argument to rail against regulation on everything from your right to breathe smoke-free air to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In his 2009 article, Professor Paul Schultz argues:

Part of the mission of the CFPA, according to Schultz, will be to ensure that “traditionally underserved consumers and communities have access to lending, investment and financial services,” and that the CFPA should maintain a group of examiners specially trained and certified in community development to conduct CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) examinations of larger institutions.

“In other words, the CFPA will pressure banks to make loans to borrowers that they would not otherwise make,” Schultz says. “Isn’t that one of the reasons we got into so much trouble in the first place?”

Really? This guy thinks it was too much regulation that caused the financial collapse?

Au contrare, it was the corporate greedheads who pushed for and achieved the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, effectively eliminating much of the regulation of the financial industry and thus allowing them to make riskier loans then bundling them and selling them as mortgaged backed securities. These securities became known as the “toxic assets” that, when individuals started to default on their loans, brought about the global financial crisis.

If the reason that we “got into so much trouble in the first place” was that banks were making “loans to borrowers that they would not otherwise make”, where is the self interest of the banks? Was it in making sure the loans they made were going to be paid back? While that would make sense from a business point of view, it doesn’t seem that they followed their best interests here. Why? And if the CFPA didn’t exist yet, how was the government responsible for “pressur[ing] banks” to make these loans?

The reason that the banks were not following what would appear to be their self interest in making loans that would be paid back is because the lack of regulation realigned their self interest. They could make a loan to anyone and then sell it on the secondary market and not bear the responsibility if the loan went bad. Under the Glass-Steagall Act, banks couldn’t do this because the Act separated commercial and investment banking. Therefore if a bank made a loan, they couldn’t sell securities and vice-versa, thus they couldn’t securitize these bad loans (ie create the “toxic assets”) in the first place. Repealing this legislation allowed the banks to do so and they did it because they would make more profit by reselling these bundles of high risk debts to the unknowing market. What used to be the in the self interest of banks (profiting off of creating loans that would be paid back) was changed by the lack of regulation into generating greater profits from duping some poor suckers into buying packages of loans that were likely to default. In other words, the profit motive undermined the entire global economic system casting us all into the abyss of a recession.

While some regulation could rightly be seen as government overstepping its bounds, intruding on our civil liberties and infringing on our rights, most regulations are to prevent the people from becoming victims of corporate greed. When it comes down to it, almost everyone understands the basic concept here and the need for the government to regulate, so when we hear the term “nanny state” being thrown around, we need to be able to have a civil conversation bringing our friend, neighbor, acquaintance or loved one back to the reality that government regulation serves the purpose of justice in defending us from those who would do us harm just to make a buck.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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