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8. Republicans like taxes, too.
President Reagan signed into law 11 tax increases, targeted at people down the income ladder. His administration and the Washington press corps called the increases “revenue enhancers.” Reagan hiked Social Security taxes so high that by the end of 2008, the government had collected more than $2 trillion in surplus tax.
George W. Bush signed a tax increase, too, in 2006, despite his written ironclad pledge to never raise taxes on anyone. It raised taxes on teenagers by requiring kids up to age 17, who earned money, to pay taxes at their parents’ tax rate, which would almost always be higher than the rate they would otherwise pay. It was a story that ran buried inside The New York Times one Sunday, but nowhere else.
In fact, thanks to Republicans, 1 in 3 Americans will pay higher taxes this year than they did last year.
First, some history: In 2009, Obama pushed his own tax cut—for the working class. He persuaded Congress to enact the Making Work Pay Tax Credit. Over two years, 2009 and 2010, it saved single workers up to $800 and married heterosexual couples up to $1,600, even if only one spouse worked. The top 5 percent or so of taxpayers were denied this tax break.
The Obama administration called it “the biggest middle-class tax cut” ever. Yet in December 2010, the Republicans, poised to regain control of the House of Representatives, killed Obama’s Making Work Pay Tax Credit while extending the Bush tax cuts for two more years—a policy Obama agreed to.
By doing so, congressional Republican leaders increased taxes on a third of Americans, virtually all of them the working poor, this year.
As a result, of the 155 million households in the tax system, 51 million will pay an average of $129 more this year. That is $6.6 billion in higher taxes for the working poor, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated.
In addition, the Republicans changed the rate of workers’ FICA contributions, which finances half of Social Security. The result:
If you are single and make less than $20,000, or married and less than $40,000, you lose under this plan.
But the top 5 percent, people who make more than $106,800, will save $2,136 ($4,272 for two-career couples).
9. Other countries do it better.
We measure our economic progress, and our elected leaders debate tax policy, in terms of a crude measure known as gross domestic product. The way the official statistics are put together, each dollar spent buying solar-energy equipment counts the same as each dollar spent investigating murders.
We do not give any measure of value to time spent rearing children or growing our own vegetables or to time off for leisure and community service.
And we do not measure the economic damage done by shocks, such as losing a job, which means not only loss of income and depletion of savings but loss of health insurance, which a Harvard Medical School study found results in 45,000 unnecessary deaths each year.
Compare this to Germany, one of many countries with a smarter tax system and smarter spending policies.
Germans work less, make more per hour and get much better parental leave than Americans, many of whom get no fringe benefits such as health care, pensions or even a retirement-savings plan. By many measures, the vast majority live better in Germany than in America.
To achieve this, German single workers on average pay 52 percent of their income in taxes. Americans average 30 percent, according to the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development.
At first blush, the German tax burden seems horrendous. But in Germany (as well as Britain, France, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and Japan), tax-supported institutions provide many of the things Americans pay for with after-tax dollars. Buying wholesale rather than retail saves money.
A proper comparison would take the 30 percent average tax on American workers and add their out-of-pocket spending on health care, college tuition and fees for services and compare that with taxes that the average German pays. Add it all up, and the combination of tax and personal spending is roughly equal in both countries, but with a large risk of catastrophic loss in America, and a tiny risk in Germany.
Americans take on $85 billion of debt each year for higher education, while college is financed by taxes in Germany and tuition is cheap or free in other modern countries.
While soaring medical costs are a key reason that, since 1980, bankruptcy in America has increased 15 times faster than population growth, no one in Germany or the rest of the modern world goes broke because of an accident or illness. And child poverty in America is the highest among modern countries—almost twice the rate in Germany, which is close to the average of modern countries.
On the corporate tax side, the Germans encourage reinvestment at home and the outsourcing of low-value work, like auto assembly, and German rules tightly control accounting so that profits earned at home cannot be made to appear as profits earned in tax havens.
Adopting the German system is not the answer for America. But crafting a tax system that benefits the vast majority, reduces risks, provides universal health care and focuses on diplomacy rather than militarism abroad (and at home) would be a lot smarter than what we have now.
Here is a question to ask yourself: We started down this road with Reagan’s election in 1980 and upped the ante in this century with George W. Bush.
How long does it take to conclude that a policy has failed to fulfill its promises? And as you think about that, keep George Washington in mind. When he fell ill, his doctors followed the common wisdom of the era: They cut him and bled him to remove bad blood. As Washington’s condition grew worse, they bled him more. And like the mantra of tax cuts for the rich, they kept applying the same treatment until they killed him.
Luckily, we don’t bleed the sick anymore, but we are bleeding our government to death.
David Cay Johnston received a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for exposing tax loopholes and inequities. A columnist for Tax.com and professor at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management, he has also been called the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States” because his reporting in The New York Times shut down many tax dodges and schemes, just two of them valued by Congress at $260 billion.
The author of two bestsellers on taxes, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, Johnston’s new book, The Fine Print, will be out later in 2011.