You can add New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt to the parade of liberals, Democrats, Obama allies and fellow travelers — such as John Podesta, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Volcker, and Robert Rubin — calling for higher taxes, preferably a value-added tax.
But Leonhardt goes those folks one better in his new column. He extensively quotes conservative (and controversial) economic analyst Bruce Bartlett, a VAT proponent, who says Republicans are no longer credible on economic policy. That is, of course, another way of saying Leonhardt no longer thinks the GOP or conservative economics (hardly the same thing) are credible, assuming he ever did. And that seems unlikely given the tone and substance of his column.
Yes, let’s talk about credibility and start with a few howlers by Leonhardt:
1) “Most Democrats now acknowledge the central idea of supply-side economics: tax rates matter.” Have Democrats really conceded this point? Have they accepted the necessity of the Reagan supply-side tax cuts back in the 1980s? Doubtful. President Obama, for instance, has stated that he doesn’t think the high, unindexed-for-inflation tax rates of the 1970s were a disincentive to work, savings and investment. He concedes only that they may have “distorted” investment decisions by encouraging people to seek out tax-shelters. Not surprisingly, the Obama tax cuts were typically Keynesian, short-term and consumer demand focused. The job tax credit that the White House is considering would be more of the same.
(And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Democrats and liberal economists get wistful about the 1950s and its 90 percent top marginal tax rate. These also tend to be the same folks who credit the 1980s economic boom to falling oil prices, Paul Volcker’s inflation fighting, Jimmy Carter’s deregulation and typical cyclical rebound after a deep recession. In short, every possible explanation other than Reagan’s tax cuts.)
2) “Taxes are supposed to rise as a country grows richer.” Ah yes, Wagner’s Law, named after 19th century economist Adolf Wagner. Smart guy. Except that Americans decided to break Wagner’s Law starting in 1978 with the property tax revolt in California and deep cuts in the national capital gains tax rate, followed by the Reagan tax cuts. You might say that Laffer’s Law (as in Arthur Laffer) and the experience of the 1970s superseded Wagner’s Law by demonstrating how high taxes rates can choke economic growth and productivity.
Wagner is probably correct that richer societies demand more services, but who says that government has to provide them? They can be privatized, such as Indiana did with its toll road. And there is scant evidence that American desire higher taxes, as evidenced by recent election results in California (voters rejected higher taxes) and little support for higher energy taxes.
3) “But some basic arithmetic — the Medicare budget, projected to soar in coming decades — suggests taxes need to rise further, and history suggests that’s O.K.” Or the government could cut spending. Pushing back the retirement age on Social Security and tweaking its benefits formula turns a $5 trillion present-value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus, for instance. That’s just one idea. It is not an unalterable, incontestable reality that government spending cannot be reduced.
Give voters a choice between a) more government programs and a 33-50 percent increase in their tax burden and b) low taxes and free-market approaches to problems like healthcare. Let’s see which they choose.
And as far as the impact of tax increases on economic growth, let me quote a paper co-written by Christina Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers: “Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output … [and] tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects.” There you go.
4) “One of the country’s two political parties has no answer to an enormous economic issue — the fact that the federal government cannot pay for its obligations.” Must have missed the memo on how Democratic healthcare reform solves America’s deficit problems since, at best, the various plans are only roughly deficit neutral over the next decade. Also, Democrats have recoiled at the idea of taxing healthcare plans to pay for expanded coverage, an idea that many economists say also is necessary to reduce overuse of pricey, premium medicine.
And recall how Democrats harpooned Republican attempts to reform Social Security during the Bush administration, with many also refusing even to acknowledge that the system was in crisis.
Not that Republicans have much to crow about when it comes to spending. The GOP defense of out-of-control Medicare spending is completely political, as was the Bush administration’s decision to expand Medicare without paying for it.
Bottom line: Ultimately what tax-hike proponents fail to persuasively argue is why they believe that once government had access to greater revenue, especially via a VAT, it wouldn’t just spend the additional dough?
Americans know how that game works.
Moderate Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner have made the case that unless spending is cut and government reformed, big tax increases are fantasy policy. That’s right. First cut spending, then raise taxes if absolutely necessary.