GOP hopefuls hone tax ax


AP Photo

Wednesday is Tax Day, the dreaded April 15, when income taxes are due to the United States government — one part of the tax code not yet on the GOP chopping block. American colonists cried “No taxation without representation,” which, as befits the streamlining of modern life, has become simply “No taxation.”

Twenty years ago, the idea that American citizens should not pay taxes was limited to the lunatic fringe, who would pick over the Revenue Act of 1913 and write elaborate, self-published manifestos explaining why federal income taxes were a Wilsonian conspiracy against the Constitution and natural law. Now mainstream Republican candidates chant it as a mantra.

Look at the first three Republicans to charge out of the gate in the 2016 presidential primary race.

“We need to abolish the IRS,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a conservative conference last month — though not, to my surprise, because taxes won’t be collected, but rather because a low flat rate will be charged so taxpayers will merely write their salary on a postcard, multiply it by a universal figure and be done.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also talks wistfully about eliminating the IRS, and has a number for his flat tax — 17 percent — which, like all flat tax plans, is a half-clever way of saying, “Tax breaks for everybody!” (If the figure sounds familiar, Steve Forbes ran on a 17 percent flat tax in 2000. Historical note: He lost).

Marco Rubio doesn’t want to cut taxes for everyone, just the middle class and the rich, which is code for everyone, since poor people don’t pay much income tax.

The Tax Policy Center estimates Rubio’s plan would cost the government $2.4 trillion over 10 years. The Wall Street Journal called it “remarkably timid” for not cutting enough.

The bedrock of the Republican Party for 30 years has been the notion that our government is bad, by definition. Since cutting specific functions — health care for veterans, say, or milk for poor children — draws howls of protest and can even raise a tingle in anthracite Republican hearts, the focus was shifted to impersonal dollars. Cut taxes, ignore where those missing taxes would go. Starve the body and the head dies.

If you try to get at why government is bad, they’ll say it’s corrupt or incompetent or domineering or illegal — or all four. My theory is they despise the people who are most dependent on government services — especially the poor and minorities — and since publicly despising them has gone out of fashion, they attack the government as a surrogate. I can’t prove this, but then they can’t prove that trickle-down economics works and that never stops them from insisting that giving money to the rich somehow profits the poor.

Speaking of facts, for those eccentrics who, like me, still find facts meaningful, the fact is that our taxes are low however you compare them.

Our taxes are low internationally: Our federal taxes top out at 39 percent. In Great Britain, it’s 45 percent. In Australia, 50 percent. (Comparisons are difficult, with each country having a complicated web of local and national taxes. That suggests these questions are nuanced and complex, and why should I be the only one pushing that crazy idea.)

U.S. taxes are also low historically: Our top federal income tax rate is 39 percent. In the 1950s, it was a jaw-dropping 91 percent. Rich folk still worked. (Nobody actually paid that much — again with the nuance. With deductions, the top effective tax rate was 70 percent. The economy boomed).

Taxation is one of the most common features of civilization, along with baking bread. And there is astounding consistency. Today the top 10 percent of U.S. wage earners pay an average of 19.2 percent in federal taxes. That’s almost exactly the rate paid in ancient Egypt. “Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day that Pharaoh should have the fifth part” it says in Genesis.

To be fair, I should mention the tax position of Hillary Clinton, who this week entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. She feels the wealthy aren’t taxed enough, aren’t paying their fair share in society. Talk about crazy.

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