Aside: Please forgive the hiatus from blog activity, due to a regrettable combination of technical glitches and personal commitments. Tax developments, of course, wait for no man or woman, so there is much to discuss. I'll begin with this post by noting the limitations in our current tax discourse, as each side frames the controversy in ways intended to prejudice the listener to the framer's ideological stance. I'll continue next by concluding my series on the Alternative Minimum Tax and by discussing the Tax Reform Panel's proposals (and a related and astonishing interview with Connie Mack).
As the President's Tax Reform Panel comes in with proposals for drastic changes in our tax system and politicians across the country begin to stake out positions in preparation for the next months' battles over the budget reconciliation bill, the proposal for eliminating the multimillionaires' estate tax, and an additional installment on plans to eliminate taxes for the super-wealthy while shifting more of the burden to middle and lower class families, it is important to pay attention to the way that each side frames the issue.
Stuart Levine, in his October 24th "I want an argument" blog, noted the way framing can distort a discussion about tax priorities, as revevaled in the context of the New Jersey governor race between Forrester and Corzine. Not unexpectedly, Republican Forrester is employing the attack tactics that have served the right-wing well since McCarthy. He frames the debate in terms of who is trying hardest to cut the most taxes. Once the measuring stick is "cutting taxes (without regard to distributional impact)," then anyone who favors fewer cuts can be cast as supporting more taxes than the opponent. Of course, supporting more taxes is, by the measuring rod established, automatically considered indisputably bad!
As Levine notes, the only way to fight that attack is by reframing the argument. The goal is to engage the argument about taxes. All tax cuts weren't created equal. Tax cuts that put more money into the hands of the working poor will likely lead to increased spending that benefits the poor and provides a spur to the economy-- if provided additional resources, the poor will use them to satisfy their many needs; and their spending will boost the industries that meet those needs. Tax cuts that put more money into the hands of the superwealthy just add to their savings--they are already unable to consume all their wealth. In fact, there's strong support for increasing the progressivity of the income tax rate structure by creating additional income brackets at the top for millionaires and multi-millionaires and billionaires.
Although Americans seem to be acquiescing more and more in the dumbing down of political discourse, it is to be hoped that they would actually relish a real debate about these issues rather than the sloganeering race to the tax-cut bottom that the right is pushing now. Levine, at least, views it possible.
"I believe that American voters are capable of understanding a real debate, not a psuedo-debate that is nothing more than a string of soundbites. I believe that candidates for public office can articulate real arguments, detailing how public monies can be used responsibly and, just as importantly, favoring cutting (and raising) taxes in ways that are equitable. "
If the out-of-power Democrats continue to allow the right to frame the arguments, they will never break through the presuppositions--biases, if you will, towards particular approaches to tax policy-- that have been built into the framing. Reframing an argument can at least allow critical policy discussions to begin. And once those discussions deal openly, deliberately and fully with the challenges facing the nation (billions of dollars to restore the Gulf Coast hit by Katrina, and now at least another $10 billion to restore south Florida after Wilma; $5 billion or more a month sunk into the endless abyss of Iraq, in order to prepare the way for an Iranian-type Islamic state paralleling Afghanistan; billions more needed to be invested in health research to deal with avian flu; billions needed for higher education, etc), ordinary Americans will have a chance to understand the choices to be made and to make those choices more wisely.
Framing the issues better, including being willing to talk about needed tax increases, may not be as politically costly now as it was even one or two months ago. With Bush's political capital diminished by the scandals raging through the administration and the Congressional leadership under a similar ethical cloud (not to mention criminal indictments), there is perhaps an opening for frank talk about the economy, the needs of the government, and the disastrous consequences of the 2001-2004 tax cuts. Even the Wall Street Journal's David Wessel has come out in print asserting the need to raise taxes.
But if we fail to establish the policies that matter--some redistribution of large estates at death to address the increasing imbalance of resources; increased progressivity to ensure that those with the highest capital incomes pay their fair share of the tax burden--we cannot expect success to bring about greater understanding of the actual effects of legislation and greater participation by engaged citizens in tax policy choices. Ultimately, we want Congress to enact tax bills only after sound deliberation. We want Congress to eliminate the gimmicks (such as the sunset clauses in the Bush administration tax bills in 2001 and 2003). We want tax legislation that appropriately allocates the costs of government among the citizenry.
Having the courage to ask the tough questions and raise potentially unpopular alternatives is a prerequisite to achieving those goals. Resisting the simplistic framing offered by the right-wing to bias the debates is a necessary corollary.