Last Wednesday (Oct. 26, 2011), I debated the Cato Institute's tax policy guru Chris Edwards about the right's various "flat tax" (FairTax, 9-9-9, USA Tax, consumption tax) proposals, on New Hampshire's public radio station's hour long program "The Exchange", hosted by Laura Knoy. You can catch the program on the NHPR site, at "The Flat Tax is Back" (Oct. 26, 2011). (The live format is an initial discussion in response to the host's directed questions, followed by call-ins from the public.)
I argued, as you might expect from my previous postings on this matter, that the various proposals for some form of VAT/consumption/wage-based/flat tax do not make sense at a time of inordinate income and wealth inequality in the United States. Consumption taxes are regressive, and most proposals from the right--including Herman Cain's three step progress, with 9-9-9 as the midpoint, towards a national retail sales tax, and Rick Perry's proposal for an 'option' of a 20% national sales tax--simply will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They are terrible ideas at any time as a substitute for both the somewhat progressive income tax and the somewhat equalizing estate tax. They are especially terrible ideas in a period when inequality has returned roughly to the same level as it was in the Gilded Age and when plutarchy threatens to devour our democracy.
Edwards made some rather inconsistent statements--including acknowledging that all of these proposals call for elimination of tax on all income from capital and from all estates, and then a later statement that the flat tax would be fair because it would tax people alike on their total income! He also relied on straw man arguments--another favorite of the Cato Institute representatives that I have seen before, used to divert attention from the fact that they cannot really answer the real question at issues. Chris relied on the laughable Laffer-curve based argument of which Cato is inordinately fond and which has been adopted and repeated ad nauseum by the right, that tax cuts result in greater revenues to the rich that result in enhanced job growth. I reminded him and listeners that our greatest growth was from WWII to 1981 when we had very high tax rates, demonstrating clearly that high tax rates do not cause weak growth. (Of course, 1981 is the critical time, because the Reagan cuts ushered in the right's reaganomics dominance with tax cuts, deregulation, militarization and privatization that led us to the current Great Recession--aided in part by the weak-kneed Democrats who went along rather than standing up for worker rights.) Chris's response to the empirical evidence that tax cuts do not lead to broad-based growth or job creation was "we can't ever go back to the high rates of the 1970s again." Of course, that was a straw man argument. Nobody is arguing for 90% rates. I am arguing, however, that the flat tax--with its zero percent rate on most of the income of the uberrich and its very low rates on the rest of their income--will hurt the poor because it is distributionally unfair, and hurt the economy generally because it will lead to revenue shortfalls that will force spending cuts to programs that matter to the wellbeing of society.
Anyway, listen to the program. Your thoughts welcome in comments to the blog. (And sorry for miffing my chance at the "last word" at the end of the program. It was an instance of getting tangled up in what I wanted to say and ultimately failing to make the point with any power at all. What I was aiming for was something along the lines of the following:
Reagan passed the 1981 tax cuts, and then Congress realized what a problem the resulting deficits would be so was energized to pass increases in taxes. Problem was, most of the cuts favored the rich (were cuts in income taxes and in depreciation expenses providing cuts in income taxes, etc. ) and most of the increases disfavored the poor (i.e., were regressive payroll taxes). IN 1986, however, there was a broad process of Congressional review, resulting in the 1986 tax reform act that eliminated (for a very short time, as it turned out) the category distinction between capital gains and labor income. That was a major, good innovation that grew out of a sustained, measured, thoughtful though imperfect process. There is no indication that election of more hard right candidates will lead to any such similar reform process today. If elected, the hard right candidates are likely to push for, and may get, tax changes that continue to enrich the rich, like the flat tax or 9-9-9 tax plans being put forward by Perry and Cain.