GOP Will Never Support Good Tax Reform Ideas

Josh BarroJosh Barro wrote a really interesting article about a week ago, The Tax Code Can Be Simpler. But Not Three Pages. It leads off with Carly Fiorina’s idea that the federal tax code could be replaced with three pages. This is in reference to the Hall-Rabushka legislation which, at 1,120 words would fit on three pages. It is also a flat rate tax plan, of course.

Before getting into it, I have a question: would Americans care that the tax code just got much smaller if it meant their taxes went up? Way up?! Indeed, other than demagoguing politicians, I don’t know anyone who cares what size the tax code is. That’s something for bureaucrats to worry about. The rest of just know the small bits of the tax code that we have to know. And if our taxes are really complicated, we get a professional. No one cares if the tax code is “73,000 pages.” (In fact, the tax code itself is 3,728 pages — but anyone who listens to Carly Fiorina for facts deserves the ignorance they get.)

Fiorina is not pushing Hall-Rabushka because it is “simple”; she’s pushing it because it is a flat tax.

But the thing about the tax code is that it is as complicated as it needs to be. Barro quoted Columbia Law School tax professor Michael Graetz saying, “The minute it’s passed, I’m going to call my dean and tell her to pay me only in goods.” Because in order to keep the tax plan to 1,120 words, there are no taxes on benefits. There is nothing about bartering. There is also, of course, nothing about enforcement. What happens if you just won’t pay your taxes. Oh, detail, details!

But that’s the point. I know lots of conservatives who are outraged about the carried interest loophole. How can it be that hedge fund managers can take what is clearly earned income and have it be taxed at capital gains! Very simple: the tax code allows it. But these are the very same conservatives who rant about the number of pages in the tax code — not because they care but because demagogues like Carly Fiorina have made them think that it is a great concern. Do you really doubt that after Hall-Rabushka was passed that every CEO in the nation would see their salaries go down to $1 per year? Of course they would! They’d do everything to avoid paying taxes, just like they do now.

Carly FiorinaThe rest of Barro’s article is about how the tax code could be simplified and made fairer. Hooray! That’s true. I think some of the ideas are great like having the IRS automatically fill out people’s forms and then letting the tax payer make changes. But this is the fundamental problem with the so called reformacons like him: all they do is give cover to the truly vile plans of the conservative movement. If the tax code is actually going to be made simpler, it isn’t going to be done so by Barro’s party: the Republicans. I don’t see the Democrats doing it either, but they stand a much better chance of doing so.

Tax “simplification” and tax “reform” are just euphemisms on the right for changing the tax code so the middle class pays more and the rich pay less. Fiorina is not pushing Hall-Rabushka because it is “simple”; she’s pushing it because it is a flat tax. As the Tax Policy Center put it, “The family exemptions make the flat tax progressive for low-income households. But at the high end of the income distribution, the tax is regressive, just like sales taxes and VATs.” In other words: middle class tax hike, upper class tax cut.

I’m all for discussing better ways to run the country. But I find it vaguely offensive when Josh Barro does it. The truth is that his actual policy positions put him well inside the Democratic Party. Yet he still carries the intellectual water of the Republicans. So candidates like Fionia can run around talking about how “conservatives” have all these great ideas for tax reform. Great propaganda! But they will never get into any Republican tax proposal.

Why Is David Brooks Rich? Because He’s Moral!

David BrooksI read three articles last night about David Brooks: one by Martin Longman and two by Matt Bruenig: one more recent (Why Not Shame David Brooks for Divorcing?) and another that I want to focus on, On Civility. I didn’t know that Brooks had divorced a couple of years ago. And it isn’t the point it. No one actually thinks that people they know should suffer through bad marriages. And no one pretends to know what David Brooks has really gone through in life. I’m sure he’s like everyone with his good days and bad days and secret horrors.

The problem is that David Brooks has made a career of telling vast classes of poor people that if only they would act more like middle and upper class people — people like him — then they wouldn’t be poor. The one core principle of David Brooks is that economic inequality is due to cultural inequality. His is the more intellectual sounding version of, “If those kids would just pull their pants up, everything would be fine!” Or if you want to go back five decades, “If those kids would just cut their hair!” Although Brooks would never admit it, it is poor shaming. People like Brooks never want to admit that their success has anything to do with luck.

The truth is not just that we can’t be uncivil to David Brooks because he’s an actual man. I don’t know David Brooks. For all I know, he’s a computer program — the newest version of CleverBot.

Bruenig’s argument in the earlier article is that it is uncivil to shame David Brooks. He’s a human being. He has feelings. But he and his conservative colleagues Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat are never attacked for their incivility toward the nameless poor. In fact, all three men are held up as “moderates” because they are for things like paternity leave. But that is all part of the underlying philosophy that people aren’t poor because of their situations in life and social factors that have working against them long before they were even born. No, it is because they don’t have those middle class mores.

This is also the beat that uber-racist Charles Murray has been on for years. When he isn’t telling us people are poor because they are stupid, he is telling us that they are poor because of their cultures. This is the state of sociology in the conservative world. Correlation does not imply causation, unless that correlation can be used to justify the same old policies you always want — namely those that continue to enrich your social class at the expense of others’.

But the situation is worse than even Bruenig indicates. The truth is not just that we can’t be uncivil to David Brooks because he’s an actual man. I don’t know David Brooks. For all I know, he’s a computer program — the newest version of CleverBot. The truth is, because of my “colorful” life, people have had no problem being uncivil to me — in much more intimate circumstances than David Brooks has to put up with. The truth is that we can’t be uncivil to David Brooks because he is one of society’s winners. And to attack him would be to attack the whole society.

On the other side of it, attacking the poor is to protect the whole society. It is a way of saying that the society is great. The problem is that these poor people just can’t get it together. It’s like Singapore, which is generally thought the cleanest city in the world. Yet it still has rats. That’s what the poor are to these apologists for the perfection that is the American economic system.

The argument of these social conservatives is that people are poor because they don’t stay married and get a good education. But David Brooks is now divorced. What’s more, he isn’t that educated — as you can tell by the depth of writing. But he must be moral and educated enough — he’s rich! I have a PhD in physics, I am divorced, and I am poor. Aha! That must be related. David Brooks only has a Bachelor of Arts, is divorced, and is rich. Aha! That must not mean a thing.

Morning Music: Food Glorious Food

Oliver!When I found myself listening to Adam Sandler, I figured it was time to listen to Thanksgiving music. He really is one of the most annoying people on the planet. So let’s try to forget about him as quickly as possible. In 1968, the musical Oliver! was released. It is one of the better filmed musicals. The truth is that musicals don’t translate well to the screen. This is because musicals are odd art forms regardless. It’s one thing if people are going to stand in front of you and sing and dance. But film is static. Who are these people singing and dancing for? Obviously, it works best when it is something like Pal Joey, where the numbers are part of the story.

Anyway, Oliver! was directed by Carol Reed, who directed one of my all time favorite movies, The Third Man. And I would rather watch any of that than anything from Oliver! but we do have a schedule, and we must stay on it. Plus, the song “Food Glorious Food” works rather well. And it is a wonderful illustration of inequality of the most unfair kind. This Thursday, I will be eating very well, just as I do every day. But perhaps the universe will equalize things a bit by killing me off soon in a most painful way.

Anniversary Post: Lucy

LucyOn this day in 1974, Lucy — or as her friends know her, AL 288-1 — was discovered. She is our best representative of Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid that lived between three and four million years ago. Her fossilized skeleton is thought to date back to about 3.2 million years ago. What is most interesting about her is she seems to have walked on two legs. At the same time, she had a small skull, like that of non-hominid apes. Thus, we believe that humans walked upright before we developed our ridiculously large brains.

I find this kind of stuff fascinating. We humans are so focused on our brains, but they really are part of a larger evolutionary picture. If not, why don’t all animals just get bigger and bigger brains? Being smarter is not necessarily an advantage. We can see that in our own world. There’s the question people like me hate, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?!” I also relate it to VHS and Betamax. The latter actually had a better quality, but the former was good enough — along with some features that made it more useful. That’s how I think of rich people who started poor: generally smart enough with the right skills for making money — rarely brilliant.

So why bipedalism and then increased brain size? It appears to be because freeing up the hands led to building of tools. And in that, being smarter was a major advantage. So evolution selected for bigger brains only after our ancestors started walking on two legs. As I said: fascinating.