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Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s Forked Tongue on Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s Forked Tongue on Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

Shortly before the inauguration, Steve Mnuchin discussed the incoming administration’s tax plans and announced the Mnuchin Rule–that “[a]ny reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.”   EXCLUSIVE: Steve Mnuchin says there will be ‘no absolute tax cut for the upper class’, CNBC Squawk Box (Nov. 30, 2016).  At the same time, he argued that those who foresaw a tax cut for the rich accompanied by a tax increase for many in the middle class were wrong:  “When we work with Congress and go through this, it will be very clear.  This is a middle-income tax cut.” Id.

Contrast that with the so-called “tax reform” “framework” that the Trump administration has put out with the GOP establishment in Congress and for which both the House and Senate have made provisions in their budget document by including a (likely significantly underestimated) tax-cut-caused federal deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars.

As this blog and many tax and economic experts have noted (see, e.g., Nunns et al, An Analysis of Donald Trump’s Revised Tax Plan, Tax Policy Center (Oct. 18, 2016), Trump’s tax plan has always favored the wealthy.  In fact, the recently released “tax reform” “framework” is heavily tilted in favor of the wealthy, because the corporate statutory rate cut from 35% to 20%, the elimination of the AMT, the elimination of the estate tax, and the 25% pass-through rate for taxpayers all represent huge tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers who are the ones most likely to have been impacted by those tax provisions.  Meanwhile, there is actually an increase in rate for the lowest-income taxpayers from 10% to 12%, and the elimination of personal exemptions (and possibly other provisions) which may or may not be entirely offset by the proposed doubling of the standard deduction and possibly some increase in the child tax credit.  Thus, some poor families who can afford it least may pay more in taxes, middle income families may get a small tax cut, and wealthy families who don’t need the money at all will get a huge tax cut.  See, e.g.,  earlier A Taxing Matter posts on this issue here and here.

And these “massive” tax cuts for the wealthy, combined with massive increases in the deficit (and borrowing) to fund the tax cuts, likely won’t even trickle down as more jobs for working Americans.  There’s very little support from past tax cuts for businesses and for the wealthy for any kind of economic stimulus, either in terms of more jobs or higher wages.  See, e.g., White House math on corporate tax cuts is ‘absolutely crazy’, Mother Jones (Oct. 17, 2017).   In fact, there is much more support for tax increases on the wealthy resulting in more jobs than vice versa.

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The Times Handles the Trump Tax Cut Framework with Kid Gloves

The Times Handles the Trump Tax Cut Framework with Kid Gloves

There’s been a good bit written about the Trump tax cut framework released just over a week ago.  Most of it points out, as I have here and here, the absurdity of the claims by Trump and GOP spokespeople that this isn’t a tax cut aimed at benefiting the ultra wealthy.  After all, even with few details and no attempt to deal with the really tough issues that would face real tax reform considerations, it is awfully clear that almost everything in the package is designed to make the wealthy even wealthier.

Just a quick review of the way the proposed tax cuts exclusively or primarily benefit the ultra wealthy:

  • elimination of the estate tax, which taxes fewer than 2% of the estates, those that have in excess of $11 million (the couples’ exempt amount) and haven’t used the various trusts and family partnerships to let even more estate value escape tax through valuation gimmicks
    • Not waiting on the tax cut proposal, Trump’s Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin announced in “Second Report to the President on Identifying and Reducing Tax Regulatory Burdens” (Oct. 2, 2017) a current step to let wealthy people continue to use valuation gimmicks to avoid a fair estate tax, through withdrawal of the Obama Administration’s proposed regulation under section 2704 that would disregard the purported restrictions on certain family-controlled entities in setting estate valuations–a regulation clearly merited because of the ridiculous scams of putting assets in family partnerships in order to claim that they are worth 1/3 of their actual value, even though the partnership can be dissolved afterwards with the full value magically returning.  (I’ll deal with the regulatory changes in my next post.)
  • elimination of the AMT, which imposes tax when the taxpayer would otherwise benefit from a surfeit of regular income tax subsidies (loopholes, tax expenditures, deductions, credits).  For a thorough analysis of the AMT, see A Taxing Matter series of 6 posts, beginning here.
  • reduction of the statutory corporate tax rate for the largest corporations from 35% to 20%, which benefits primarily the highly compensated managers (who receive substantial amounts of stock options as part of their compensation) and big shareholders (who tend to be mainly the ultra wealthy who own most of the financial assets) and does little or nothing to help small businesses, that already pay tax rates of 25% or less
  • creation of a single 25% rate for recipients of all business pass-through income (i.e., from partnerships), which benefits almost exclusively the ultra rich, since small business income is already taxed at 25% or less, while wealthy partners in real estate firms would be taxed at the highest individual rate under current law on their pass-through income, and
  • creation of full, upfront expensing, resulting in a non-economic windfall to businesses that will, again, mainly just increase profits passed on to their wealthy owners. (Although this is purportedly a five-year provision, everybody knows that is just a gimmick to pretend that its impact on the deficit is less than would be admitted if it were permanent.  Everybody also knows that the intent is to make it permanent.)

But there are always journalists who try a little too hard to give obviously bad tax ideas a surface claim to reasonableness.  Apparently, even James Stewart, who writes “common sense” entries for the business section of the New York Times, suffers this vulnerability.  See, for example, his “Tax Cuts are Easy, but a Tax Overhaul?  Three Proposals to Make the Math Work,” New York Times (Oct. 6, 2017), at B1 (digitally titled “Tax Reform that doesn’t bust the budget? I’ve got a Few Ideas, Oct 5, 2017).

I like the print title better, since the Trump Plan has clearly already ditched any real idea of “tax reform” for a wholesale attempt at trillions of dollars of tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich.   There are other things that aren’t so good about the article.

1) Stewart calls the Trump giveaway to the rich “the most ambitious attempt at tax reform in over 40 years.”  That’s simply not correct, because it isn’t an attempt at tax reform and it isn’t really ambitious.

  • Ambitious? How can Stewart call a grab-bag of all the old GOP cuts-for-the-rich gimmicks “ambitious.”  Unless he thinks that conning typical Americans who don’t understand much about taxes into thinking that this is a populist tax reform intended to help the middle and lower income classes and not drop more riches on the already rich makes it ‘ambitious’…..
  • Tax reform?  This isn’t tax reform; it’s just a series of tax cuts.  The framework leaves any thinking about tax reform for somebody else to do–which means it really isn’t intended to happen at all.  Later in the article Stewart quotes Holtz-Eakin (right-wing tax cut advocate) and Kevin Brady (same) about the “ambitious” framework.  They’re gung ho.  Brady says it’s ambitious because they are trying to do what the 1986 reform  effort did in several years in only a few months.  Nope–they are not trying to do what the 1986 reform did.  The 1986 reform was a fully bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate, with  Packwood in the Senate and Rostenkowski  in the House leading lengthy hearings and in-depth study of issues, along with a responsible and active Treasury and CBO providing in-depth analysis of impacts.  Trump and the GOP now intend to pass a tax cut for the rich with only GOP support (unless Trump can bully some election-vulnerable Democrats into going along with the travesty).  And they don’t intend the kind of exhaustive study and consideration that would provide real information on who would benefit and who would be hurt.  We’ve already heard that some GOP want to pay an outside (GOP-friendly) consultant to do the “dynamic scoring” and not the CBO, because they want to be sure that it predicts plenty of growth (a number that is easily manipulable, which is why ‘single score dynamic scoring’ is utterly absurd).

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The Tax-Cut Framework Won’t Create Jobs and Digs the Inequality Ditch even Deeper

The Tax-Cut Framework Won’t Create Jobs and Digs the Inequality Ditch even Deeper

Marcus Ryu, a self-described Silicon Valley entrepreneur who created, with others, a company now worth $5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange, argues in today’s Op-Ed section of the New York Times that “Tax Cuts Won’t Create Jobs“, NY Times (Oct. 9, 2017), at A23 (the title in the digital edition is different from the print title:  Why Corporate Tax Cuts Won’t Create Jobs).  He is right.

The tax cuts proposed in the framework set out by the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress claims to be pursuing economic growth that will benefit ordinary people (Trump’s purported base).  These claims are based in part on claims that  U.S. taxpayers (individual, corporate and individual who owns businesses through partnerships) are much more heavily taxed than taxpayers in other advanced countries.  Trump often points to the statutory tax rate for corporations (35%), which is higher than the statutory rate in most other advanced countries. But Trump usually ignores the fact that the vast majority of corporations (including very profitable U.S. multinationals) pay no or much lower taxes, in part because of the many loopholes and deductions that reduce the income that is taxed.  When one considers the nation’s GDP and the percentage of GDP paid in taxes, it is quite clear that the U.S. is actually one of the lowest taxed of developed countries, which often have income taxes, corproate income taxes and value-added taxes (which the U.S. does not have), as well as specialty taxes such as financial transaction taxes (which the U.S. does not have).  See, e.g., Business Insider, Is the U.S. the highest taxed country? (Sept. 6, 2017).

“[T]he most comprehensive measure by which to judge Trump’s claim, combining corporate and individual taxes paid, is tax burden as a percentage of gross domestic product. It compares how much money in a country is put toward taxes with the economic output of the country.  By this measure, the US has the fourth-lowest tax burden of any OECD country, with only South Korea, Chile, and Mexico ranking lower.” [emphasis added]

Trump has claimed that the proposed cuts in the Trump tax-cut “reform” framework don’t benefit the wealthy and don’t benefit him but are for the middle class and those with less wealth and income.  The only way that claim would work would be if tax cuts that are clearly targeted at the rich (elimination of the estate tax, elimination of the AMT, drastic cut in the rate at which wealthy partners pay taxes on partnership income shares, drastic cut in the corporate tax rate  when most of the benefit of tax cuts to corporations is used to pay dividends or do share buybacks for the wealthy managers and shareholders) had such a dramatic impact on overall economic growth and on sharing of the benefit of the tax cuts with ordinary workers that it made up for the fact that almost all of the benefit goes directly to the very wealthy and almost all of the negative impact (via additional borrowing and deficits) will result in fewer benefits from the poor.  That positive balance is so unlikely from these tax-cuts-for-the-rich that they appear to be just another of the many Trump lies intended to mislead the American people.  See, e.g., Business Insider, Trump tax reform plan just got its first brutal review showing how it would benefit the rich and almost no one else (Sept.  2017) (noting that “Americans among the top 1% of earners would see the bulk of the plan’s benefits, while lower- and middle-class Americans — even most upper-class people — would see few benefits,” citing the Tax Policy Center’s study of the framework).

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Part of Patriotism is Paying Taxes

Part of Patriotism is Paying Taxes

As Americans, we pay taxes to allow our government to support important activities that we as individuals or individual businesses either can’t do at all or can’t do as successfully.  Both individuals and businesses benefit from government, so that paying taxes is a wonderful exercise in patriotism.

For individuals, the idea of paying taxes as patriotism may be obvious to many of us, because we think that taxes are an obligation of citizens to support and pay for the many things that the government does that we cannot do ourselves, from running a military defense system to supporting basic research into diseases, helping people and cities and states hit by natural disasters (like Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico), supporting education and research that leads to innovation and economic growth, helping to fund changeovers from dying industries like coal to new and growing industries like solar and wind, preserving areas of public lands for the public rather than allowing them to be decimated by private industry and fossil fuel extraction, preventing huge multinational companies from gouging consumers or polluting our water, land, and air, and the many other things that the government does for the benefit of all Americans.

But the far right in this country has been preaching the opposite for years.

  • There’s a good bit of hypocrisy there, because when Sec. of Health Price (now fired) or current Sec. of Treasury Mnunchin or current EPA Director Scott Pruit wants a comfortable private ride (like Pruitt’s many trips back to Oklahoma to talk to industry magnates one-on-one without any public information, and then de-regulate on their behalf), they love that they can make a slim excuse and take a military jet at the cost of hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars.   Or, like Pruitt, have a “sound-proof room” built for himself (first EPA administrator who thinks he needs it) so he can talk to his industry buddies about how to un-protect the environment without any Americans ever finding out about it.
  • Far right media personalities have made a killing by arguing for tax cuts (that mostly benefit the rich like them) and government shrinkage (of programs that they think they won’t use).
    • Grover Norquist wants taxes to be low because he wants to “shrink the government and drown it in a bathtub.”  That idea has proliferated on the right to many of the programs that are directed to help the most vulnerable amongst us, such as Medicaid, and to programs that exist to help ensure the Americans of all ages and backgrounds enjoy the right to access to health care and decent standard of living in retirement, through Medicare and Social Security. Not surprisingly, Norquist has stated that including a VAT in the U.S. system would be “like shards of glass on a pizza” (see this link) –even though almost every developed country has a VAT as well as an income tax (which is one of the reasons that the comparisons of corporate tax rates is so misleading–it is comparing apples (only an income tax) to oranges (an income tax AND a VAT and usually other taxes as well, such as financial transaction taxes).
    • Rush Limbaugh supports Trump’s tax-cuts-for-the rich ideas.  See “What I was Told About the Trump Tax Plan–and What I Think About It“, The Rush Limbaugh Show (Sept. 28, 2017).  He spouts one falsehood after another about them:  that they are not trickle-down (of course they are), that they aren’t harmful for the poor (of course they are); that they will allow 99% of Americans to file their tax forms on a postcard just because the framework reduces the number of tax rates (absurd:  reducing the number of tax rates  has just about nothing to do with reducing the complexity of the Code for the vast majority of American taxpayers, who already file a simple form because they have mainly wage income that is withheld at the source).  And  no matter how much Rush Limbaugh claims that reducing the corporate tax rate, creating a low tax rate for partnership pass-through income, getting rid of the estate tax and getting rid of the AMT aren’t benefits for the rich (because, he says, Trump has insisted that the changes aren’t supposed to benefit him), the fact is that they are benefits for the rich and the Trump clan clearly will especially benefit, probably to the tune of hundreds of thousands annually and billions upon Trump’s death.  Limbaugh is quite simply just plain wrong.  Because, you see, although rates matter (and we should have a top tax rate much HIGHER than our current top tax rates), the changes that the GOP Six are proposing in the framework are specifically intended to, and do, provide enormous tax cuts to the ultra wealthy.  That’s because the marginal statutory rate is just one piece–the real question is what gets taxed, i.e., how is the “taxable income” amount calculated and what special loopholes are built in to benefit the rich (like the 25% partnership pass-through rate).

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Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

There’s no surprise here.  The Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) is a right-wing “think” (i.e., propaganda) tank that has consistently argued for tax policies that favor multinational corporations and the wealthy.  So IPI has a posting on Sept 29 that is supportive of the so-called “tax reform framework” put out by the Trump administration.

As an earlier post noted here, the Trump framework is a wish list for the wealthy, providing one tax cut for the ultra rich after another:

  • elimination of the estate tax (that only affects the heirs of estates worth more than $11 million);
  • territoriality (that advantages multinational corporations that actually operate from the U.S. but claim headquarters in low-tax jurisdictions);
  • a flat 25% rate on “pass-through income” that gives almost a 15% rate cut to wealthy owners of partnerships in the real estate, joint venture, oil and gas and other businesses (and affects very few true small business owners whose effective tax rate is already no more than 25%, if that much);
  • elimination of the top rates on the progressive individual rate structure (reducing the top rate from 39.6% to 35% (or less));
  • reducing the statutory rate for corporations to a low 20%, when corporations already pay much much less in taxes than they have generally paid under the income tax system while making record profits and paying their key managerial personnel the kind of salaries and percs that have exacerbated the increasing income inequality gap in the U.S.;
  • elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), a provision that was enacted to ensure that wealthy taxpayers are not able to use so many loopholes and special provisions that they escape taxation altogether on their income (the elimination of the AMT being a pro-wealthy tax cut that ordinary folk in the lower two-thirds of the income distribution will benefit not one whit from); and
  • permitting immediate expensing for five years of equipment and similar expenditures by businesses (another provision that will allow mega corporations to make even more profits that can be shared–through bonuses, higher salaries, and share buybacks with the wealthy managers and shareholders of the enterprise and a provision that runs explicitly counter to the actual economics of the business, in which new equipment stays at close to original value in the early years with wear and tear actually economically backloaded onto the last years of the useful life).

As a result of these provisions, the wealthy who own the vast majority of financial assets (including stock in corporations and partnership interests in real estate and other partnerships) will enjoy hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax cuts.  In fact, the major portion of the tax cuts will go to the very wealthy who need them least.

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Trump’s Refusal to Release His Own Tax Returns and California’s Legislature

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Trump’s “Give the Rich a Break” Tax Plan

Trump’s “Give the Rich a Break” Tax Plan

National GOP leaders on Wednesday released a 9-page document that they called a tax “framework” (available here on the Washington Post site) describing in vague terms how they intend to cut taxes for the nation’s wealthiest people while doing very little that serves the government needs. Overall, the GOP framework would amount to about $2.2 TRILLION in less revenue to support federal programs (like protecting the environment from corporate pollutants, supporting higher education loans for students, funding basic university research) (assuming $5.8 trillion loss to lowering rates and shift to territorial system and maybe $3.6 trillion recouped by eliminating as yet unspecified deductions).  See GOP proposes deep tax cuts, provides few details on how to pay for them, Washington Post (Sept. 27, 2017).

  • They promise 3 rates (12%, 25% and 35%, without stating what the applicable income brackets for those rates should be).  That lowering of rates is primarily beneficial to the wealthiest, since the people who just barely get by on their wages (especially with the new corporate regime of calling people in for short shifts, as needed, rather than paying them a regular full-time job) are hit hardest by the payroll taxes that won’t be lowered at all under this plan.  That is, ordinary wage-earners in the middle and lower classes are generally already taxed on a consumption basis–they spend what they earn and have little left for saving for the future.  They pay relative low income taxes but pay significant payroll taxes through withholding on their wages (with no deferral).  This is another excursion into the current GOP’s ‘alternative fact’ universe, where huge tax cuts mainly benefiting the wealthy are sold as a ‘simplifying’ reform that will benefit ordinary people.

 

  • Although the lowest rate is higher than the poorest wage-earning taxpayers pay now, the planners claim that this is still a tax cut because of the “doubling” of the standard deduction for those taxpayers that do not itemize.  However, the personal exemptions are eliminated, so that the combination of the standard deduction and the higher rate is likely to be at best a minimal cut for small families and an actual tax increase for larger families.  See, e.g., this article.

 

  • They promise to eliminate the “alternative minimum tax”, a tax provision that was enacted as a safety provision to ensure that wealthy taxpayers who can afford tax planning and generally can most easily benefit from the various loopholes and tax subsidies written into the code would pay some modicum of taxes rather than get off scott-free from any tax burden. The “framework” (page 5) claims that “it no longer serves its intended purpose and creates significant complexity.”  It is admittedly somewhat complex, but not unduly so with modern tax preparation software which makes that complexity a minimal problem.  I have been required to pay the AMT, and it hasn’t made my life or tax return filing more complex.  In fact, the people who owe the AMT should be paying more tax than they would pay without the AMT, and that means it is in fact serving its intended purpose of ensuring that taxpayers cannot aggregate too many of the various haphazard subsidies in the Code to permit them to essentially escape a reasonable tax burden on their economic income.  Elimination of the AMT is a tax break for the well-to-do:  Trump, for example, has had to pay the AMT (real estate developers are one of the much-favored groups in terms of various tax expenditures in the Code that benefit them).

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Town Hall Meetings on the Ryan Budget Raise Concerns

Various congressional representatives held town hall meetings recently, and the news channels and print media were abuzz with the lively give-and-take, including shouting matches. See, e.g., House G.O.P. Members Face Voter Anger Over Budget, New York Times, Apr. 26, 2011; Republicans facing tough questions over Medicare overhaul in Budget Plan, Washington Post, Apr. 22, 2011.

The issue–the House’s adoption of the Ryan budget proposal and its clear agenda of overturning New Deal safety nets embodied in the current understanding of Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare.

Those at or near retirement are worried that the Ryan proposal will hurt everybody. The Ryan proposal comes with frequent disclaimers about protecting the already older population and needing to act now to protect our grandchildren, a clear effort to massage the message to appeal to current grandparents. See, e.g., House G.O.P. Members Face Voter Anger Over Budget, New York Times, Apr. 26, 2011 (noting Webster’s statement that “not one senior citizen is harmed by this budget” while implying that it is necessary to prevent grandchildren from “looking at a bankrupt country”); Congressional Republicans go home to mixed reveiws, CBS.com, Apr. 26, 2011 (noting North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers’claim that “If you’re 55 and older, your Medicare and Social Security will not change”).

But the Ryan proposal clearly envisions mechanisms that would likely lead to decimation of these programs–either through turning them into limited vouchers (Medicare proposal); turning the funds over to the states to use as they see fit (Medicaid proposal) or limiting benefits (Social Security proposal) in ways that will –probably sooner rather than later– hurt everybody.

  • These proposals take place in a context of expansive, concerted attacks on these “entitlement” programs, often failing to acknowledge the historic support for these programs or their foundation in the recognition that federal support is required to protect against the abject poverty and humiliating degradation that accompanied the Great Depression;
  • Benefits for elderly and sick Americans are cut to provide savings to offset some of the loss of revenues from tax cuts for Big Business and the wealthy, both of whom already pay relatively low taxes, in what hardly seems a bargain to the working poor, the elderly or in fact the overwhelming majority of Americans who are not in the top 15% income or wealth distribution. (This in spite of Ryan’s claim that there is no huge tax cut for big corporations and the wealthy–he asserts that the proposed 25% rate is “in exchange for losing their tax shelters”. See, e.g., CBS.com Evening News coverage of Paul Ryan holding Wis. town meetings, at http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7363939n&tag=related;photovideo )
  • In spite of the high cost for the vulnerable poor and elderly of these budget proposals, they don’t appear likely to achieve their proffered rationale of reducing debt and deficits–in fact, the CBO has said that the Ryan budget proposal will result in higher deficits and bigger debt burdens over the next decade.
  • It appears shortsighted to wring one’s hands about a “bankrupt country” while considering only one potential solution, especially when that solution is highly detrimental to the most vulnerable populations, and without considering the full facts regarding the amount of debt, the ability of the U.S. to weaken the dollar further to aid unemployment and debt payment, the ability of the U.S. to raise taxes judiciously rather then merely cutting spending, or the ability of the U.S. to let the tax law play out as it is currently slated to do (with the Bush tax cuts that were extended 2 more years over their originally intended short life due to sunset in 2012). As Jim Johnson, a former Ryan supporter who has “grown increasingly disgusted” with Ryan noted, “[Ryan] says Medicare is unsustainable. I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s because medical costs are out of control.’ …Why isn’t he attacking it at that level?” Congressional Republicans go home to mixed reviews, CBS News.com
  • Any voucher system for health care will inevitably fail to cover increasing health care costs, resulting in rationing even the most basic health care by socio-economic class–the very problem that Medicare, Medicaid, and the limited health care reforms undertaken by the last Congress were intended to address. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that out-of-pocket medical costs would skyrocket for low-income seniors; the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler (in GOP Lawmakers tout Medicare reform by stretching a comparison to the health benefits they receive, Apr. 29, 2011) notes that the CBO analysis concluded that the Ryan Medicare system would pay only 32% of health care costs by 2030, compared to 70-75% if traditional Medicare remained in place.
  • Addressing the problems in the U.S. health care system solely by market means that put the onus on health care recipients to seek cost-savings has failed miserably over the last forty years and cannot help but fail more spectacularly when the Medicaid backup is weakened and the nature of health care needs is such that one of the best antidotes to market problems (the only one permitted in radical market thinking that objects to regulatory safeguards)–informed consumers who can review options and select among competing providers–is simply not applicable. Car accident victims don’t shop for surgeons; cancer victims don’t know enough to select based on price; etc.
  • The Ryan proposal appears one-sided in its decision to cut spending on potentially vulnerable populations rather than to address the means through which health care is provided or to consider ways to control profit-taking in the health care system. The market ideology of the proposers leaves many options that might work better off the table (single payer; tax on excessive compensation; revamping the non-profit hospital system; attaching strings to the R&D and other tax expenditures in the tax code; using the clout of a national system to negotiate better doctor and drug pricing for Medicare and Medicaid, etc.);
  • Many of those states that would acquire more control over the use of Medicaid funds are controlled now, as is the House, by people who have announced their intent to cut taxes on the wealthy and business while cutting or taxing pensions and health benefits for public employees and cutting funds available for Medicaid and other poverty-directed programs; it is not a difficult leap to see the interrelationship of these trends;
  • Plans to cut benefits for those who may enjoy them in the future pave the way in at least two ways for decisions shortly thereafter to cut benefits for those who currently enjoy them: first, by creating lowered expectations; second, by creating an unfair disparity that supports an “us against them” attitude between the current elderly and those who will get lesser benefits in the future. (Note that this resembles the way the right has encouraged an “us against them” attitude of private workers, who have been deprived of union benefits through the harsh anti-union tactics used by Big Business, against public employees, who have generally benefited in the past from more reasonable attitudes towards unions fostered in legislative bodies that have, in the past, understood the nature of the bargain that public employees make (which might be summarized as ‘work hard, get paid less than you could in the private sector, and accept later benefits in pensions and health care for lesser salary/percs now).

Is is surprising that left-leaning activist groups like Move-On point to the Ryan budget proposal as a “naked, unapologetic attack on working Americans for the sake of Big Insurance and the riches of the rich” (quote from Move-On email on this matter)?

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Inequality–does it matter? should taxes address it?

Bruce Bartlett’s December 15, 2009 piece, Inequality: A Problem?, states Bartlett’s agreement with Dalton Conley that

“the left should stop worrying so much about inequality per se–its costs are overstated, as well as the benefits of greater equality. Instead …
liberals should concentrate more on helping the poor and less on beating up
the rich.”

Now, before we even get into the inequality stuff, you’ll notice that the statement above is loaded with presuppositions. It pre-supposes that liberals are extraordinarily focused on “beating up the rich” and that they are not currently very interested in “helping the poor.” Further, it presupposes that whatever “beating up on the rich” involves, it cannot “help the poor.”

Are liberals focused on “beating up on the rich”? I expect Bartlett would point to bloggers (such as myself) as examples. I have rather persistently argued for higher taxation of the rich and super-rich through more progressive rates and elimination of the capital gains preference which results in low effective tax rates on those whose income is predominantly income from financial assets. The income tax changes over the last four decades have eroded progressivity–instead of the 70% or 90% rate that we had at times in the past on very high incomes, the super-rich with multimillions of adjusted gross income pay the same marginal rate as the merely rich who have more than about $350,000 annually. The rich and super-rich derive the most benefit from the biggest loopholes in the tax code, like the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable contribution deduction, and the property tax deduction. They are the ones who buy muni bonds and get to exclude the interest from income, so that the rate of return on munis is set with the rich as the targeted customer (high enough sp that the exclusion makes the return on munis (with no tax) better than the return on corporate bonds (after tax)). Is that line of argumentation “beating up on the rich”? No, quite assuredly it is not. The wealthy don’t merit punishment for being wealthy. But taxation is not punishment. Taxation is merely the exaction of appropriate tribute based on societal members’ ability to pay, to ensure that the state can continue to function appropriately in service to all its citizens. Making the case that the status quo is overly solicitous of the rich and super-rich is not “beating up” on the rich.

Are progressives not “helping the poor” and in fact beating up on the rich rather than focusing on the poor? No and No. There are lots of ways to help the poor, including volunteering, giving to charities, and others. Many progressives are engaged in all of those ways of helping the poor. We mentor in schools, give to food kitchens as well as to environmental organizations, donate canned foods at Christmas, and work in our communities for better schools, better transportion, better jobs, better shelters, less discrimination. But none of those are enough in a society that has become stressfully bipolar between the well-to-do and the rest (not to mention, the making it okay and the truly down-and-out). Progressives, that is, cannot easily help the poor and ignore the way that wealth has eroded the democratic society in which we all exist, because that erosion is eating away at the possibilities for the poor to pull themselves out of poverty.

Bartlett goes on to say:

I think he is right. I have never understood how I am worse off if
the top 1% of households increase their share of national wealth or income as long as the absolute level of wealth and income of the other 99% is
unchanged. It may be aesthetically displeasing, but it doesn’t impose any
actual costs on anyone as long as the pie is not fixed.”

(Beale here again) The growing income disparity is not merely aesthetically displeasing (which it is) or environmentally harmful (which it is, as the wealthy consume many times their share of the world’s resources in rambling from one multi-million mcmansion to another) or humiliating for many (which it is, especially for those growing numbers in the “servant” class who work at the whim of the wealthy and live in unsatisfactory conditions while watching the wealthy waste in a night what could feed their children for a year). It does impose costs, even if the pie is not fixed. Those costs include the long-term impact to broad-based growth when wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a very few. And one is worse off when the top 1% of the households increase their share of national wealth to the detriment of everyone else. A society with such wealth imbalances is a society that also has enormous power imbalances. Wealth creates power, and that power is almost invariably used to further the aims of those holding it. Democratic institutions are particularly vulnerable, since wealth and power permit the capture of agencies and legislatures, so that the institution is thwarted from serving the broader constitutency in order to do the bidding of the wealthy oligarchs who hold the reins to power. It is this sense in which the populist anger expressed by the teapartiers is most distressing–it is misdirected, seeing evil per se in government and good per se in “private enterprise” and unable to understand the important role of government in standing as protector between the private corporatocracy and citizens.

Bartlett continues:

[N]either does it follow that there is no limit to how much we can soak the
rich without average people suffering some of the consequences. We really
don’t want the rich spending all their time figuring out how to hide their
wealth from the tax man or engaging in conspicuous consumption; we’d rather that they invested their wealth in businesses that will increase their wealth but also create jobs and income for the rest of us, too.

Hmmm. First, we are nowhere near “soaking the rich” in this country. IN fact, we have been making sure, with almost every change to tax policy undertaken in the last four decades, that the rich sat high and dry and comfortable. Moving them down a notch or two to the benches on the same level with the rest of us won’t begin to soak them–it will, in fact, hardly be felt. Second, while we definitely don’t want the rich spending all their time hiding their wealth, telling them that they can just keep it all without paying a fair share of taxes is not the alternative. Decent enforcement rules will go a long way to solving the problem of hiding wealth–broker reporting, which most think is going to happen this year, will help, but restoring funding to the government’s collection efforts and requiring more audits of the wealthy than of the Earned Income Tax Credit would be the best ideas. (I’m not even so sure that I don’t want the wealthy engaging in conspicuous consumption. AT least that way there would be less to pass down to heirs and less possibility of sustainable oligarchy.) Taxing the wealthy moves the dollars to the government, which moves the dollars out into businesses that provide services the government buys, and then those businesses invest the dollars. I like that better than depending on the wealthy to invest and create jobs for the rest of us. I fear they are just as likely to invest as they so often have in the past–in emerging economies where they suck out the natural resources and leave those populations without jobs or much to show for their foreign input, without doing a thing to create jobs here either.

Farther on, Bartlett suggests taxes cannot assist a move to less inequality because their only effect is “by discouraging the rich from earning income.” There the Chicago School thinking comes out–the idea that taxes distort decisions, and if you tax the income of the rich, they just will do without the income. No one has yet satisfactorily explained why the rich don’t still like 50% or 65% of $X better than 0% of new $X. The substitution of leisure for income is a possibility, of course, but that would actually not be bad at all, if it succeeded in capping the amount of wealth for one family and created a gap into which someone else could step to earn money.

Finally, Bartlett suggests that we should do what Europe has done, suggesting that Europe has accepted the compromise of VATs as a conservative tax along with extensive social welfare spending from that tax. This is misleading, since Europe generally has a VAT as a supplement to the income tax (and, in the case of France at least, a bunch of other taxes as well). And it is disingenuous, since tax policies that Bartlett has supported (zero taxation of capital gains) or, apparently, VAT instead of an income tax, would not raise enough in revenues to fund the huge military obligations of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as an improved welfare state. Methinks Bartlett’s version of acceptable social welfare spending would be significantly lower than most progressives’.

There is a lot in Bartlett’s statement that is worrisome, but perhaps the most for me is the disregard for the impact of inordinate inequality on democracy. Most of us don’t think about democracy very often, and we seldom talk about it among diverse groups in ways that can enhance its institutions and its sustainability. A discussion of inequality that so completely disregards the impact of the kinds of gross inequalities that we are seeing more of in this country–where a CEO may earn in half a day what an average worker in his company earns in an entire year, where every single member of the national body that is most influential on our laws (the Senate) is in the highest bracket of the income tax and “rich” in any reasonable measure of the benefits and burdens of society that they bear– is itself cause for concern for our future.

Another writer this month had similar thoughts. Christopher Hayes ends his article on “The Great Leap”, a story of China and its growth and expansion as a world financial power, with the following paragraph comparing the trends in the U.S. and China.

We tend to view China as posing an alternative and threatening model for
the future, one that’s by turns seductive and repulsive, the source of envy and contempt. But after a while I wondered if we aren’t in some way converging with out supposed rival. China has managed the transition from a
repressive, authoritarian, impoverished country to an industrial, corporatist oligarchy by allowing a loud and raucous debate while also holding tightly onto power. Perhaps we are moving toward the same end from a democratic direction, the roiling public debate and political polarization obscuring the fact that power and money continue to collect and pool among an elite that increasingly views itself as besieged on all sides by a restive and ungrateful populace. Hayes, the Nation, Jan. 11/18, 2010, at 17.

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Agribusiness, Food, Vegetarianism—-and Taxes

[cross-posted on ataxingmatter–see posting there for additional comments]

As some of you may know, I am one of the many people who eat a vegetarian diet. I don’t eat cows, pigs, fish, whales, sharks, chicken, turkey, sheep, wild game, tame game… As I sometimes say when people ask me about my diet, I eat everything you eat, except for a very short list of items–the critters that can move themselves from one place to another (or move their appendages) under their own propulsion.

(Note that we often have two words for animals that we eat–their live-form word –e.g., cow, sheep, pig– and their edible-corpse form word –e.g., beef, mutton, pork. That evolved when we borrowed the Romance language word for what we ate but kept the Germanic language word for the animals.)

It started when I was a child–I was one of those who would cut the meat into tiny pieces and then spread it all over my plate so it looked like I’d eaten it. The idea of eating a cow, with those beautiful liquid brown eyes, was repulsive. (My father came from a family with thirteen kids in the hills of Tennessee, so I’d seen cows up close.) I even took a whole piece of veal once and hid it behind the dining room cabinet (taking it out to the wastebasket after it dried)! I refused to eat the squirrel and venison that my dad brought home from hunting trips (mostly, if not always, somebody else’s kill). I even refused to let my cocker spaniel share in that dead stock.

But now that I’m an adult, why do I maintain that diet? I get asked that a lot.

Funny, nobody says (with shocked exression)–“Gee, you eat meat? Why would anyone ever want to eat a toxins-laden dead corpse of an animal that lived a horrendous life and suffered an agonizing death? ” But they do often ask–usually treating it as a good-natured tease about a wacky alternative diet–why I’d want to avoid eating corpses.

James McWilliams got me thinking about this again this morning, when I read his “Bellying up to environmentalism” in the Washington Post for Nov. 16, 2009, where he noted that we should be asking questions in the reverse, that make meateaters feel uncomfortable at defending their own meateating. After all, there’s really no good reason for eating meat other than that someone is so addicted to its taste that he or she can’t exert the willpower to do without it.

The whys for not eating meat, on the other hand, are legion. Let me just list a few here, from the mundane to the truly significant:

1. cooking is easier–throw veggies in a pot and steam them; throw veggies in a pot and make soup, throw veggies in a fry pan and fry them, throw beggies in a pot and bake them; and variants thereon

2. clean-up is a lot easier–none of that icky clinging greasy layer of animal fat on every pan

3. refrigerated leftover use is easier–throw the leftovers in a pot and steam them (etc. from one above) and there’s none of that congealed lard on top of the leftovers in the fridge

4. rotten vegetables in the fridge are less disgusting than rotten corpses in the fridge

5. a decent diet is generally considerably cheaper

6. the more people who adopt a vegetarian diet, the more people who are currently going hungry could be fed

  • one of the many articles I’ve read said something that stuck with me (sorry, don’t have the cite)–that it takes the same resources to feed one meat-eater that it takes to feed about 80 vegetarians.
  • That’s because of the huge waste as you use up primary foodstuffs to feed the animals that will be slaughtered, then use up primary energy stuffs to slaughter, process, ship and deliver the meat to the meat eater, compared to even transported vegetables (localvore, with vegetables, is even more saving of resources)

7. without meat-eating, there are no feedlots where animals literally eat and sleep out the remainder of their short lives in their own shit

8. you can have a small flock of hens who live out their natural lives with nice living conditions (indoor/outdoor)

  • disclosure: I had one hen who lived to be 22; she was still laying eggs up until the week or so before her death from natural causes

9. Hens lay bigger and bigger eggs each year that they live past the first year w(hen most are slaughtered) and they still lay fairly regularly

  • disclosure: 6 eggs every 7 days was typical in my experience

10. Even hens have personalities

  • disclosure: when I lived in upstate New York, I had one named Gumption who loved to fly up to the top of a two-story house and survey her domain, and another named “kiss me” who would follow me around all day like a pet dog

11. Animals that we eat are as smart as–or smarter than–animals that we keep for pets (pigs compared to dogs, for example)

12. Animals care for their young and suffer when their young are taken from them (think dairy cattle and the young that are bred so that the mothers will give milk)

13. Some eating of animals is even more obnoxious than the norm (think “veal calves” that are taken and put in tiny sheds to they can fatten without any musculature development or “foie gras” where geese are fattened by having food stuffed down their throats with a tube)

14. Life is precious: there is no reason to sacrifice animal lives to lead a decent human life, so why do it?

15. Agribusiness–the main way that animals are raised and sold for meat–is an environmental nightmare

  • use of fertilizers to grow the grain that is fed to the cattle that are fed to the humans results in polluted land, water and air and uses up petroleum and other resources
  • consolidation results in long transportation (inhumane to animals; wasteful of oil and gas resources)
  • the subsidies (including some tax expenditures) for agriculture have gotten out of control–costly, misdirected, ill-conceived, and essentially now a form of corporate welfare for huge agribusiness enterprises

16. A meatless diet is healthier for humans than a meat-based diet, so we could cut health-care costs by simply cutting out meat

17. The process of butchering animals is a cruel leftover from the dark ages–people who work in slaughterhouses are inured to suffering, and that may well spill over into their “normal” lives outside work

18. The process of butchering animals is itself a source of harm–

  • sick animals are slaughtered, making it possible that eaters of that dead flesh will be sickened as well (mad cow disease);
  • animals are slaughtered in the midst of their own excrement, and some of that excrement gets into the food chain (making people sick as well);
  • the leftovers from the animal slaughter have to be gotten rid of somehow, leading to even more water, land and air pollution
  • workers are exposed to awful conditions–not just the process of mercilessly killing animals day in and day out, but also the risk of infection and injury on the line

19. The use of antibiotics in animal feed (given to healthy and unhealthy animals alike) ensures that resistant strains will develop even more rapidly, while leaving excess antibiotics not absorbed by the animals to pass out in their urine and excrement and into the land and water to act as toxins to others (including fish and birds and humans) leading to additional environmental nightmares…

20. Agribusiness pig farms and cattle feedlots are a blight on any humans within their vicinity (as well as a disaster for the natural world, noted above under environmental problems) from the stench of the manure (that can pollute the countryside for miles around) to the ugliness of the barren, treeless manure-laden fields.

So what to do? Maybe we should enact an excise tax on all meat products, like a”sin” tax for sodas and sweets and cigarettes. Comments, anyone?

PS Arthur C. Clarke has a great sci fi short story, taking place some time in the future, when a more advanced civilization than ours is aghast at the purported discovery that their ancestors used to–cover the young ones’ ears–eat dead corpses of animals…..Clarke’s ideas were way ahead of his time in lots of ways.

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