Public discourse on American tax policy, as we generally hear it, usually begins with the election of President Reagan in 1980. The discussion, if it develops at all, proceeds through a garbled debate about the effects of the tax changes during his two terms in office, slides quickly through the Bush I tax increases, drifts to the Clinton tax increases on the wealthy, and finally settles on Bush II’s tax cuts set to expire on December 31, 2010. This discourse usually does not take too long. Despite the many nuances and actual effects of this 30 year history, most of the discussion, both public and private, ultimately gets distilled into 2 crude summaries, as follows:
Republicans: “Tax cuts are good. With less revenue to wastefully spend, the beast of government is starved, and its unnecessary spending is reduced. Further, all citizens, with their tax burdens reduced, are more productive and have more money to invest, save, and spend. As a result, there is greater prosperity for all.”
Democrats: “Tax increases or decreases are, of themselves, neither good nor bad. The amount of taxes that the government must collect depends upon the various needs of its citizenry and general economic conditions of the country. The weight of any necessary tax burden and upon which groups of people it falls, nonetheless, should be fair and equitable.”
I am not trying here to make short shrift of either the Republican or Democratic official positions, if there indeed are such things. I am simply trying to distill the mantras that are repeated ad nauseum by political pundits, commentators, policy wonks, and government policy makers These chants have become not only tiresome but just plain insufferable. What has resulted is that the public policy debate never seems to elevate itself beyond these buzz phrases. On the rare occasions when it does, standard canned pieces of innuendo usually follow. However, there is a definite reason for this: the art of political persuasion does not require more.
Both political parties have known for a long time that tax policy is not something that people want to spend time listening to or discussing at any length. The subject of taxes is usually a topic that people enjoy complaining about, but there is not too much tolerance for in-depth or at-length reasoning. Quite frankly, for most people, tax topics are immensely boring. Glassy eyes develop quickly on the particulars. Politicians know this and use it effectively in the choice of their rhetoric.
Paul Krugman has correctly pointed to this when referring to Republicans as “tax-cut zombies.” Say the word taxes in connection with almost any assertion to a Republican, and “cut taxes” is the instant push-button response. Of course, whether or not the “cut-taxes” response is a logical fallacy with respect to the statement being asserted is irrelevant to the discussion. Depending on the assertion being made, “cut taxes” may indeed be a logical argument. But the underlying logic of any argument is never penetrated when the first response is always so quick, so pre-packaged, and so seemingly rigid. No matter, the Republicans know that a quick and dirty tax-cut blurb is what people like to hear.
The Democrats, on the other hand, while not having had the complete tax-cut brain transplant, have managed to produce their own form of Zombi-ism. They don’t assert “tax cuts;” they simply don’t assert anything. They have learned to literally stampede away from the discussion of tax policy. However, when pressed, most Democrats will spit forth some version “right now, we probably need to wait and see,” or, “a tax cut may be in the future, but not right now,” or “we’re going to do what the American people expect us to do.” They may expand their comments to say that more careful study needs to be made, but that is about the extent of it. All and all, there is little substance from the Democrats – hollow rhetoric, at best; sophistry, at worst.
I suppose some of what is described above is a result of our “sound-bite” media. Say it quick, say it loud, and say it more times than your opponent. Make it like advertising – say it, write it, and promote it a million times. Eventually, like a soporific, it will first numb the senses, then induce a stupor.
I just hope that we awaken sooner rather than later.