In George Will's latest column, the Washington Post writer proves just how much of a lackey he really is for the one percent. Progressive taxation is his target this time around, and like other conservatives, his two main grievances are that it promotes slow economic growth and is just too complicated. On the other hand, he argues, a flat tax is beautifully simple and would create a boom raising all economic tides (sounds familiar). I will return to these arguments in a moment, but must first look at his comments on inequality. Before claiming that there is a “nonexistent case for progressive taxation,” Will postulates that economic inequality, a phenomenon that progressive taxation has been shown to mediate, is mostly caused by the innate differences between human beings.
“Arguments for [progressive taxation] are invariably arguments for increased equality of social outcomes,” writes Will. “Because individuals have different vocational desires and different aptitudes for adding value to the economy, inequality is inevitable. Because individuals have different social sensibilities, opinions will differ about what degrees of inequality are intolerably unlovely.”
That human beings differ in abilities is something no one can rightly deny, but it is a minor aspect of why economic inequality has become so grotesquely high today. (Innate differences have always been around, but not this kind of inequality.) Will seems to ignore the economic institutions of today and treat each individual as economically autonomous. This may have been somewhat appropriate for 18th century America, when farmers and artisans produced or crafted their own commodities (owning both their labor and the instruments of production) and sold them on the market. But today we have a much more complicated world, made up of multi-national corporations and global markets, and most people have only their labor to sell for wages.
This foolishness is revealed by statistics from 2014 that show the top 25 hedge fund managers earning more than all of the 158,000 kindergarten teachers combined, which for those on the left is indeed “intolerably unlovely.” Think about this and ask yourself: Are 25 hedge fund managers worth more socially than 158,000 kindergarten teachers, and do they add more value to the economy? Now think about this: Should these hedge fund managers pay a higher tax rate than these teachers or other middle class people (e.g. firefighters, nurses, truck drivers)? With the carried interest loophole, they tend to pay a lower rate, which, again, most on the left do find “intolerably unlovely.”
Will goes on to say that “inequality, even when unlovely to some, is unjust only when it arises from unjust social arrangements.” What Will and his conservative cohort never seem to consider is whether economic inequality causes social/political inequality (as well as what it means for social stability). As I pointed out in a previous article, political and economic inequality have been considered interrelated throughout much of American history, going back to the founding fathers. It seems rather obvious that the more unequal individuals are economically, the more unequal they will be politically. And in a post-Citizens United America, where the wealthy can legally buy influence in Washington, this is even more true. As researchers at the London School of Economics write:
“Several studies from the US context have shown that political institutions and public policy are indeed most heavily influenced by the policy preferences of the wealthiest segments of the citizenry, while middle and low income citizens have virtually no impact on politics.”
Will’s view on economic inequality explains why he ultimately does not favor a progressive tax. From his perspective, it is simply punishing those who add more value to the economy and society. Once this fantastical notion crumbles under the reality of our modern economic structure, however, so does this idea of punishing merit.
Now, onto his specific gripes with progressive taxation. “Proportionate taxation [i.e. a flat tax] always is what progressive taxation never is: simple,” writes Will. “What justifies progressive taxation, and characterizes progressivism, is confidence that at any moment in society’s endless evolution, what is equitable can be known and society can be fine-tuned to achieve it. Which is how we got our baroque tax code.”
It is a popular notion among conservatives that a progressive tax code is inherently complicated and that a flat tax code is synonymous with simple. But this is simply untrue. Progressive taxation did not create the complicated tax code that we have today, but instead the endless number of loopholes and tax breaks and deductibles, many of which benefit the wealthiest Americans (e.g. carried interest, tax breaks (i.e. subsidies) for oil companies). Ultimately, it is lobbyists who complicate our tax code, not the different brackets. For conservatives, “simplification” is more or less a euphemism for lower taxes on the wealthy.
Finally, there is the argument that tax cuts for the wealthy create economic growth, and this economic growth trickles down to the masses. This is, of course, the basis of Reaganomics, which failed miserably (although it didn’t really fail, the entire purpose was to help out the one percent, which it did). As a Reagan hack, supply-side economics will always be dear to Mr. Will’s heart, regardless of its validity or lack thereof.
Perhaps the best tax code would be one that reflected the desires of the majority of Americans (I know, crazy, right). According to March polls done by the Pew Research Center, a majority of the public believe that “corporations don’t pay their fair share” in taxes and that “some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share.” The Associated Press had similar results in a February poll, finding that 68% of Americans believe the wealthy pay too little in federal taxes.
It seems the majority of Americans whole-heartedly support a progressive tax and understand the ills of inequality, which is more that can be said of George Will.