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Monday, February 23, 2009

 
Giving Away The Tax Argument

by dday

One result of the budget mess being resolved here in California was a variety of tax increases (which were mostly flat or regressive and not all that good). The spending cuts were actually larger. However, in two of the weekend editions of the Los Angeles Times, right on page A1 above the fold, there was a graphic of a "tax calculator," which projected the additional taxes an individual would pay based on certain factors like income, number of dependents and values of vehicles. They have a corresponding tax calculator on their website where users can type in the data and get the precise tax hit coming to them. The Sacramento Bee has the same thing. Talk radio was having a field day with these calculators over the past few days, getting people to call in and disclose their statistics and telling them how much money they will owe. I heard a lady making $126,000 a year ranting about an $800 tax increase, and nobody seemed to find that absurd.

In my life, I have never seen a "spending cut calculator," where someone could plug in, say, how many school-age children they have, or how many roads they take to work, or how many police officers and firefighters serve their community, or what social services they or their families rely on, and discover how much they stand to lose in THAT equation. Tax calculators show bias toward the gated community screamers on the right who see their money being "taken away" for nothing. A spending cut calculator would actually show the impact to a much larger cross-section of society, putting far more people at risk than a below 1% hit to their bottom line.

But of course, people who are perceived to depend on state services probably don't log on to the LA Times and the Sacramento Bee websites very often to calculate their tax burden. In reality, we all depend on the state for roads and law enforcement and libraries and schools and county hospitals and on and on. And in Los Angeles County, one in five residents - almost 2.2 million people - receive some form of public aid. So wouldn't it make sense to portray the real cost of spending cuts in the same way that tax increases are portrayed?

And we're seeing this on the national level as well. During the Presidential race the Obama campaign kept putting out "tax calculators" and emphasizing their tax cut plans for 95% of Americans. Now the DCCC, the Democratic campaign arm in the House, is specifically targeting House Republicans for opposing the stimulus package, foregrounding that they voted against "the largest tax cut in American history". Here's a sample robocall they are putting into these districts:

Hello, I’m calling on behalf of House Democrats with an important message about the economy.

Did you know Congressman Thad McCotter voted against President Obama’s economic recovery plan, endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? McCotter’s empty rhetoric can’t hide that he voted to raise the AMT tax on 22 million middle class Americans and against the largest tax cut in history.

Call McCotter at 734-632-0314 to ask why he voted to raise taxes on middle class families.

Check out www.recoveryforamerica.org to learn more.

Paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 202-741-1350, not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.


It's great that they're engaging in some off-cycle organizing and campaigning. But the message is stupid, short-sighted and reinforcing to conservative frames. First of all, 65% of the stimulus consisted of spending and investment, much of which is wildly popular, and also the only way it will work, through fiscal spending filling in the gaps for decreased private investment and consumer spending and creating more jobs and more demand. Tax cuts aren't only a minor part of the bill, they have less stimulative value. If this works, it won't be because of tax cuts, it will be in spite of them. And, as Brian Beutler notes:

We'll all be better off if as many Americans as possible swap out their tax cut mania for a sense that government can, in fact, meliorate the country's biggest problems. I, personally, would like to keep the number of people who think tax cuts saved the economy to a minimum. The fewer the better--both for progressives and progressivism.

The government's eventually going to have to raise taxes to pay for all this, after all. Democrats will almost certainly be the ones to do this and there's no reason they should be sabotaging public support for those increases years in advance.


The media already highlights the tax side of the equation over spending, dramatically portraying tax increases while relegating spending cuts to paragraph 27. It feeds the tax revolt and distorts the debate. And it's completely irresponsible. And the DCCC is simply enabling this.

Taxes are the price we pay for a functioning society, and America is worth paying for. Joe Biden tried to run with this message once during the campaign and got his head cut off, so now Democrats are turning back. They are trying to take tax cuts "off the table" with rhetoric that accepts the right's frame. When both parties are running on who will cut your taxes the most, it cheapens the value of federal investment in providing for the future, and the ability for government to prove its value as a guarantor of those most basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as promoting the general welfare.

If we're embarking on a new effort to convince the public that government can work, you don't start by bragging about starving it of resources. You can't win a fight with Republicans about cutting taxes. It's a race to the bottom and the losers are the least of society.


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