Tag Archives: taxes

If It Walks Like a Duck, Call it a Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Rampell had a must-read column in the Washington Post, beginning with “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that feller behind the tree!”

Rampell focused upon the rampant hypocrisy of the “no tax” ideologues:

Jonathan Gruber has been vilified for (among other things) noting the “tortured” way that sections of the Affordable Care Act were written in order to stay in the good graces of both the Congressional Budget Office and the public. But such budgetary gamesmanship has long been an open, and bipartisan, tactic in Washington. When “spending” became a dirty word, Congress phased out earmarks. In their place, it doled out treats to special interests through the tax code, now awarding more than a trillion dollars each year in federal tax breaks, carve-outs and loopholes. Arithmetically, letting someone pay less in taxes is identical to spending money on them, but voters don’t see things that way….

Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Examples abound. Call it a toll. Call it a fee. Finance local government with smoke and mirrors.

This “no tax” chicanery plays to our worst impulses, the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and piss on the public good” attitudes that have crippled efforts to improve our communities and build a more inclusive, robust public square. But as intellectually dishonest as the “that’s not really a tax” strategies are, they’re a subset of a larger, even more troubling phenomenon: we’ve stripped our language of content.

I’ve frequently noted–in response to overheated rhetoric from the Right–that President Obama really can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi, because those words have meanings, and they are different. (And actually, in a sane world, neither remotely applies to the President, whether you like his policies or hate them.) Science is not a system of “beliefs” equivalent to religion, because falsifiable empirical facts are not matters of “faith.” LGBT folks don’t have “lifestyles,” they have orientations. I could go on and on.

The problem with misuse and abuse of language is that we lose the ability to communicate with each other. When words no longer have generally accepted meanings, we are just making sounds–and when those words are turned into epithets and insults, intelligible conversation comes to a screeching halt.

Language is one of the most important achievements of the human race; it is fundamental to human progress. We jeopardize more than we realize when we debase it.

Tax and Mend

In the last few days, I’ve come across a couple of intriguing tax proposals aimed at reducing the gap between the 1% and everyone else.

We already index taxes for inflation, so Yale economist Robert Shiller wants to know why we can’t index them for inequality as well — and tax the rich at higher rates as the nation’s income becomes more concentrated at the top.

Shiller and his colleague Leonard Burman suggest a plan that would offset the loss in tax revenue that occurs when we index for inflation by imposing higher tax rates on income falling in the top tax brackets.  (Shiller, clearly an optimist, thinks this approach might even be achievable in the current political environment.)

Shiller thinks we need to see our income taxes “as a colossal insurance system, guarding against extreme income inequality.”

Good idea, but I’m not as optimistic as Shiller–I don’t think such a proposal would survive the displeasure of the guys who pay the lobbyists.

A bill I really like has somewhat better prospects, and has actually been introduced in California.

California’s pending Senate bill 1372, introduced by state senators Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock would tie state corporate income tax rates to corporate pay disparities.

Corporations in California currently face an 8.84 percent tax on their profits. The DeSaulnier-Hancock legislation would up that rate to 13 percent for companies that pay their top execs over 400 times what their typical workers are making.

The same legislation lowers the state corporate tax rate to 7 percent on companies with a CEO-worker pay divide less than 25-to-1. Under the bill, all firms with a ratio under 100-to-1 would end up with a tax cut, all above with a hike.

Carrots and sticks….

Connecting the Dots

It’s time to say goodby and good riddance to the month of April–the “cruelest” month, presumably because federal taxes are due. And let’s face it, no one likes taxes.

And every year,  the avalanche of anti-tax articles is predictable as April showers.

Over at The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes an important point: people resent paying taxes when they don’t see what that money is buying. I’ve made that same argument in the local context, and it is actually easier to see what our local money buys: police and fire protection, garbage collection, parks, schools and the like. Those local public goods are more visible than the goods our federal taxes purchase.

That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today—whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries—or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

We can legitimately argue about lawmakers’ priorities. We can–and should–monitor government at all levels to insure that its operations are businesslike and efficient. We can debate whether government should do some things at all.

But while we are griping and doing everything we can to reduce our bills, we should take note of Cohn’s admonition, and remember that our tax dollars buy a lot of things that most of us agree–however grudgingly– make our lives safer and better. Things we would miss.

In the private sector, we acknowledge the truth of the old adage: you get what you pay for. Somehow, we ignore that homely truth when it comes to taxes.

 

Been There, Done That, It’s Not Quite So Simple….

In a recent post to Inforefront.comChris Cotterill plows some well-tilled ground, essentially pooh-poohing the notion that cities and towns need more taxing authority in order to provide a decent level of municipal services.

We just need to do more with less. It’s a tired trope.

Some of his recommendations are reasonable–consolidated purchasing and maintenance operations, for example. Some aren’t: outsourcing or outright sale of city functions (the “holy grail” of those who believe that the private sector can provide services more efficiently no matter what the nature of the service–a belief not supported by the evidence); a hiring freeze (several city departments are already headed for “decimated” status), the exclusion of spouses from healthcare coverage (you think it’s hard to get good employees now?), and outsourcing operations of golf courses (because that worked so well during the Goldsmith Administration).

These recommendations have been around–and many of them implemented–since I served in the Hudnut Administration. The problem is, even if they all worked as Cotterill thinks they would, they wouldn’t begin to generate savings sufficient to address the problems we face.

Of course, there are some major improvements that might generate substantial savings–although they didn’t make Cotterill’s list. The Kernan-Shepard report identified the incredibly wasteful Trustee system; and I’ve argued before for consolidation of the eleven school districts in Marion County that collectively serve fewer students than IPS used to enroll. Unfortunately, we not only lack the political will to make those changes, our antiquated taxing system–with its dedicated funds–wouldn’t allow those savings to be used where they are most needed.

Should government services be delivered efficiently? Of course. Are some local government priorities misguided? Yep. Will addressing either of those issues solve the very real problems facing our underfunded local government units? In your dreams.

Mayor Ballard defended the recent deal with the Pacers by pointing out that the money going to the CIB can’t be used for other things, like police. That’s true–and it’s a far bigger problem than a lack of consolidated purchasing.

We need meaningful home rule, and the ability to allocate tax revenues to our most pressing problems. Giving local government actual authority over its own decisions would also improve transparency and allow citizens to hold local lawmakers accountable.

Of course, our arrogant overlords at the General Assembly are unlikely to agree.

While Partisans Fiddle…

Congressional Republicans and Democrats continue to do battle over taxes, with most Democrats advocating a moderate hike in the rates paid by those making over 250,000/year, and the GOP insisting that a raise in (historically low) rates amounts to “class warfare.”

It’s a classic conflict between irreconcilable worldviews: rightwing Republicans label taxation for anything other than military spending and corporate welfare as socialism;  the more radical see taxation as theft. Democrats respond that taxes are the dues we pay for civilization.

Meanwhile, we have stalemate.

I wonder if the antagonists might be able to “cut the baby,” Solomon-like, by agreeing to pursue corporations actively evading their civic responsibilities.

The largest American multinational companies parked an additional $206 billion of profits in offshore accounts last year, according to Bloomberg, bringing the total amount of profits stashed where U.S. tax officials can’t touch them up to about two trillion dollars.

 The 307 companies that Bloomberg examined now hold a combined $1.95 trillion offshore, allowing them to avoid paying U.S. taxes on those earnings. The majority of the total is concentrated in just a few corporate hands. The largest 22 of those companies hold more offshore than the other 285 combined.

 Surely, even the purveyors of  “makers and takers” rhetoric can see how wrong this is. After all, the corporations playing these games are shifting the tax burden to those who aren’t able to do so.

Talk about theft.