Shared Sacrifice in the Fiscal Crisis

July 18, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on Britannica Blog on July 18, 2011.

The debt ceiling discussion has been full of talk about “shared sacrifice” and a “balanced approach” and proclamations that “we can’t ask for cuts from the vulnerable without getting new revenues from the most fortunate people in our society.” But this is a fundamentally flawed argument.

The main thing our government does these days, despite the lack of any constitutional authority for it, is tax some people and transfer money to other people. Many of us find ourselves on both sides of that process, as much of the federal government today is a vast system of transfers among the middle class. But there is no moral equivalence in the two sides of the transfer system. On the one hand, the government takes money by force from people who have earned it. On the other hand, it gives some of that money to people who have not earned it. Taking yet more money that people have earned is simply not equivalent to reducing the size of a government transfer.

Currently the top one‐​tenth of 1 percent of American taxpayers pay 18 percent of the income taxes. The top 1 percent pay 38 percent of the income taxes, and the top 5 percent of taxpayers pay 59 percent of all income taxes. Just what percentage do President Obama and his allies think would be appropriate?

Everybody talks about the return of Keynesianism these days. We’ve ratcheted up federal spending in a vain attempt to put people back to work. But Lord Keynes himself suggested that 25 percent of GDP was the “maximum tolerable proportion” that the government should take. And total government spending in the United States is already around 39 percent and headed up if we don’t make changes. We are creating an unaffordable and economically destructive transfer state.

It’s rhetorically appealing to say that “millionaires and billionaires” should sacrifice to solve our fiscal problem. But the most productive people in our society, the ones who invent new products and bring them to market, manage the businesses that deliver the services we need, allocate capital where it’s most needed, cure our diseases, and in other ways deliver goods and services that we choose to pay for — those people are already paying a top federal income tax rate of 35 percent. On top of that you have to add about 2.4 percent for Medicare taxes, plus an extra 0.9 percent “Medicare surtax” on high earners, plus state taxes that average about 4 percent but can range much higher. It is morally problematic to take so much money from anyone, and taking higher percentages from some people than others adds further moral complications.

We have a spending problem. Government has become too big and too expensive. What Christopher Hitchens wrote about the financial crisis applies to our whole system today: “Everybody was promised everything, and almost everybody fell for the populist bait.” And now we’re running out of money.

But here’s a way to satisfy both those who see spending as the problem and those who want the highest‐​taxed Americans to pay yet more: Start cutting subsidies to businesses and the rich. Let’s cut out the big‐​business subsidy machine, the Export‐​Import Bank. Let’s get rid of farm subsidies. Let’s tell affluent people who build houses in coastal flood areas to pay for their own flood insurance at market prices.

Americans aren’t undertaxed. And that certainly includes the most productive people in our society — the ones whom President Obama disparages as “the most fortunate.” We shouldn’t be raising taxes. But as we face up to our overspending problem, we can certainly cut out transfers to the rich along with trimming all the other spending programs that “promised everything to everybody.”

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