Archives: 11/2007

Treating Successful Taxpayers Like Piñatas

New data from the Internal Revenue Service confirm that the so-called rich are paying a huge share of the tax burden. As Richard Rahn explains in the Washington Times, “The IRS just released the numbers for 2005, and they show the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid almost 40 percent of the nation’s total income tax bill, and that the top 5 percent paid 60 percent of the taxes.” This is normally considered an economic issue since people on the left argue that higher tax rates on the rich are a never-ending source of money for politicians, while people on the right explain that low tax rates encourage productive behavior and boost growth. But the disproportionate tax burden on successful taxpayers, combined with the fact that a huge share of the population does not pay any income tax, also is a moral or philosophical issue. As Walter Williams writes:

The fact that there are so many American earners who have little or no financial stake in our country poses a serious political problem. The Tax Foundation estimates that…”When all of the dependents of these income-producing households are counted, there are roughly 122 million Americans – 44 percent of the U.S. population – who are outside of the federal income tax system.” These people represent a natural constituency for big-spending politicians. In other words, if you have little or no financial stake in America, what do you care about the cost of massive federal spending programs?

Jonah Goldberg also is concerned about this development. In his Townhall.com column, he explicitly warns that the nation’s social capital will be eroded if a large share of the population learn that the tax system is nothing more than a way to confiscate other people’s money:

…our politics seem to be suffering from a “rich people curse.” We treat the rich like a constantly regenerating pinata, as if they will never change their behavior no matter how many times they get whacked by taxes. And we think everyone can live well off the treats that will fall to the ground forever. … Democrats keep telling the bottom 95 percent of taxpayers that
America’s problems would be solved if only the rich people would pay “their fair share” of income taxes. Not only is this patently untrue and a siren song toward a welfare state, it amounts to covetousness as fiscal policy. … it’s unhealthy for a democracy when the majority of citizens don’t see government as a service they’re reluctantly paying for but as an extortionist that cuts them in for a share of the loot.

These concerns may be somewhat overstated because there is still considerable income mobility in the United States, so many people who today are not paying tax presumably envision that they will be swept in the tax net in the future. But there probably is a tipping point, a level of taxation and redistribution that results in a permanent economic sclerosis. Indeed, some speculate that nations such as Italy are now incapable of reform because the electorate is dominated by people who have concluded that they have a right to live off the income of others.

Sarkozy Attacks Capitalism Again

French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be “right wing” by French standards, but that still puts him on the left side of the spectrum on economic issues. In a recent speech, he again embraced protectionism and said Europe should avoid “untrammelled capitalism.” But since Europe has avoided so-called untrammeled capitalism for the past 100 years or so, he can probably put his mind at rest. The EU Observer reports:

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has outlined a vision for Europe that would see “untramelled” capitalism pushed far down the political hierarchy to be replaced by a focus on cultural and spiritual issues with more than a hint of European protectionism. …Noting that “economic values seem to win the day over other values,” Mr Sarkozy said that it is a mistake to overlook culture. …The French leader gave a lot of time to protectionism - a concept that has fallen out of favour in the EU since the more market-oriented eastern member states joined the bloc in 2004, coupled with the current European Commission with its strong liberal profile. “The word protection should be not be outlawed,” said the president adding that “we must be able to protect ourselves as much as others do.” …He went on to say that while Europe has chosen a market economy and capitalism, this should not give rise to “untrammelled capitalism.”

Earmark Hall of Shame

The New York Times reports:

Buried deep in the largest domestic spending bill of the year is money for a library and museum honoring first ladies. The $130,000 was requested by the local congressman, Representative Ralph Regula, Republican of Ohio. The library was founded by his wife, Mary A. Regula. The director of the library is his daughter, Martha A. Regula.

Other “namesake projects” in the bill include the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, named for the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; the Thad Cochran Research Center at the University of Mississippi, named for the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee; and the Thomas Daschle Center for Public Service at South Dakota State University, honoring the former Senate Democratic leader.

The bill also includes “Harkin grants” to build schools and promote healthy lifestyles in Iowa, where Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, is running for re-election.

The federal government is taking $2.9 trillion of our hard-earned money this year. That will include the need to borrow $155 billion because even the record $2.8 trillion tax haul isn’t sufficient to cover all of America’s vital needs. Like the National First Ladies Museum and the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. Really, have they no shame? Politicians tax Americans to build monuments to themselves, or to provide jobs for their families.

Projects that are actually needed–federal courthouses, perhaps, or highways–might appropriately be named for great Americans of the past. But naming monuments for living politicians is a bit too reminiscent of North Korea or Turkmenistan. Perhaps if we’re going to name public works projects for living people, they should all be named for the people who actually pay for those projects–the taxpayers. So we could name them Taxpayers’ Highway, Taxpayers’ Federal Courthouse, Taxpayers Airport.

But at least those are useful projects. The earmarks mentioned above are for fripperies and indulgences and monuments to the ego of politicians. Members of Congress should be ashamed to spend the money taxed away from working people on these tributes to themselves.

Bush’s Budget Messaging

President Bush is in full swing with his new get-tough approach to the budget, and that’s great. But his team needs to work out the inconsistencies in his message. Here are some bites from the president’s speech today in Indiana:

“The majority [in Congress] was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it’s acting like a teenager with a new credit card … To them, every bill on the floor is an opportunity for a tax hike. Congress has proposed tax increases in the farm bill, the energy bill, the small business bill, and the children’s health bill. If you find a bill that doesn’t have a tax increase, just wait a while – they’ll put one in there.”

The Democrats are matching their big spending with big tax hikes, while Bush just wants to spend and pass the tab onto the next generation. So isn’t Bush more like the teenager with the credit card?

Then there is the ongoing problem of lambasting the Dems for big spending, while demanding ever more for the war, yet without offering any substantial budget cuts for offsets. The president continues:

“When it comes to taxes and spending, they don’t have a very good record, but here’s a good way to start, is to make sure that Congress passes the war supplemental funds we need …”

I applaud the president’s record of opposing all tax hikes, and support his new interest in vetoing spending bills to save a few dimes here and there. But it just sounds silly to put statements like this in his speeches because nobody believes them:

“As we debate the [economic] decisions, you got to understand there are two very different philosophies being played out. My philosophy is that the American people know how to spend their money better than the government can. That’s the core of my philosophy…”

Not to Say We Told You So, But…

The latest reports from Massachusetts warn that with just seven weeks left until the state’s mandate for individual health insurance goes into effect, more than 100,000 residents have failed to buy the required insurance. That represents nearly 20 percent of the state’s uninsured population and more than half of the uninsured with incomes too high to qualify for subsidies.

According to insurance industry insiders, the plans are too costly for the target market and the potential customers – largely younger, healthy men – have resisted buying them.

How could anyone know that an individual mandate for health insurance would be unenforceable? Oh yeah, we told them.

The Antitrust Religion in Action

This summer, David Boaz noted how sad it was that Google’s top executives have apparently diverted their attention away from developing the next hot new technology toward building their Washington presence. Declan McCullagh notes that Google’s generosity, which has flowed primarily to Democrats, may be coming back to bite them, as disgruntled Republicans have suddenly gotten religion when it comes to antitrust and are demanding that Google’s acquisition of Doubleclick receive close scrutiny. Strangely, those same Republicans weren’t so worried about a spate of mergers that involved large telecom firms like SBC and Verizon. I’m sure the disparity has nothing to do with the telecom industry’s generous contributions to their campaigns.

As I point out at Techdirt, these sorts of shenanigans shouldn’t surprise us. Modern antitrust law gives government bureaucrats seemingly unlimited discretion to second-guess corporate mergers based on the flimsiest of pretexts, or to attach arbitrary conditions to merger approvals. Last winter, for example, as a condition of the BellSouth merger, two FCC commissioners coerced AT&T into accepting “network neutrality” rules that Congress had earlier failed to adopt, rules that apply to no one else in their industry. And don’t forget the XM/Sirius debate, in which terrestrial broadcasters—their principal competitors—trotted out the ludicrous argument that the merged company would have no competition. XM and Sirius’s fundamental sin seems to be that they hadn’t invested as much money on Washington lobbyists as the NAB had.

The rule of law demands that government decision-making proceed according to objective, clearly-defined, and predictable rules. Antitrust law as it’s currently enforced doesn’t qualify, and as a result it’s ripe for abuse. And if you believe Edwin Rockefeller, this isn’t new. He argues that antitrust law has always been primarily a weapon for politically-connected companies to use against their rivals.

Trim the Fat — with a Nano-Knife

John Boehner, the leader of House Republicans, responds to a Washington Post editorial challenging him to identify what he would cut out of the budget to avoid “an irresponsible tax increase” to offset a reduction in the Alternative Minimum Tax. Seeking to restore the GOP’s fiscally conservative image, publicly challenged to offer a plan, employing all the resources of the House Republican Caucus, these are the budget cuts that Minority Leader Boehner came up with:

* $3.2 billion to revive outdated programs, such as one funding exchanges “with historic whaling and trading partners.”

* $1 million for the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas.

* $300,000 for an “Exploratorium” in San Francisco.

* $100,000 for an educational program conducted aboard a catamaran in California’s Monterey Bay.

So out of the $2.9 trillion federal budget, the leader of the House Republicans manages to come up with one $3.2 billion appropriation and three tiny earmarks that appear to be personal projects of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Boehner is right when he goes on to say, “Moreover, the editorial missed the point. Congress doesn’t have a revenue problem. Revenue is at an all-time high after the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which have triggered economic growth that is ‘paying for’ an AMT patch many times over.” But he then notes, “Rather, Congress has a spending problem.”

Indeed. The Republican Congress of which Boehner has been a leader has increased spending by a trillion dollars in six years. And out of that massive gush of taxpayer dollars, Boehner can find only $3.2 billion in unnecessary spending. Which is perhaps why polls now show that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on the issue of cutting government spending.