What Tax Dollars Can’t Buy By Master ROSS DOUTHAT
OVER the last 30 years, the U.S. economy has generated more large fortunes and more stress for the middle class. While the rich have grown extraordinarily rich, median wages have barely increased, the costs of health care and higher education have jumped, and socioeconomic mobility has lagged behind that of other developed nations. Americans have never begrudged the wealthy their success, as long as they had a chance to rise higher than their parents, and perhaps get rich themselves. But our era of diminished expectations is putting that in doubt.
My God, that Ross Douthat is a reasonable, knowledgeable man! He acknowledges our problems and disappointment in a balanced, middle of the road way.
From the drum circles of Zuccotti Park to the hustings of Barack Obama’s re-election push, a suddenly invigorated liberalism thinks that it has the answer to this angst: a renewed demand for higher taxes on America’s richest 1 percent. And if all you care about is reducing measured income inequality, then the Occupy Wall Streeters and their Democratic admirers have it right. Tax millionaires sufficiently and you’ll end up with a more equal society. The tallest poppies will be trimmed, and some of their income will find its way to someone’s else pocket.
Sure, if all you care about is a society in which an obscenely wealthy few lord over the teeming masses, on whom they are inflicting ever more poverty and control. But would it be fair to pick the pockets of the rich? Yes, they use more resources while pushing more and more of their operating expenses on the taxpayer, but let's face it, if you want to tax their money you'll have to take it out of their cold, dead hands. All that money buys a lot of mercenaries.
But true social mobility and broadly shared prosperity are not so easily achieved. Remember that those tax dollars, once collected, would not be disbursed with perfect effectiveness to the most deserving members of the American middle class. Instead, they would be used to buy a little more time for our failing public institutions — postponing a reckoning with unsustainable pension commitments, delaying necessary reforms in our entitlement system and propping up an educational sector whose results don’t match the costs.
And if you were to tax the rich, Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class, it's not like you'd get the money anyway! It would all go to the undeserving old fogies and little "urban" kids. Not you.
More spending in these areas won’t necessarily buy us more mobility. The public-sector workplace has become a kind of artificial Eden, whose fortunate inhabitants enjoy solid pay and 1950s-style job security and retirement benefits, all of it paid for by their less-fortunate private-sector peers. Some on the left have convinced themselves that this “success” can lay the foundation for a broader middle-class revival. But if a bloated public sector were the blueprint for a thriving middle-class society, then the whole world would be beating a path to Greece’s door.
So the best thing to do is to let the rich evade paying taxes. Just like Greece.
Our entitlement system, meanwhile, is designed to redistribute wealth. But this redistribution doesn’t go from the idle rich to the working poor; it goes from young to old, working-age savings to retiree consumption, middle-class parents to empty-nest seniors. The Congressional Budget Office’s new report on income inequality points out that growing Medicare costs are part of the reason upper-income retirees receive a larger share of federal spending than they did 30 years ago, while working-age households with children receive “a much smaller and declining share of transfers.” Absent reforms, this mismatch will only grow more pronounced: by the 2030s, Medicare recipients will receive $3 in benefits for every dollar they paid in.If the rich pay taxes they'll just go to pay the old people's hospital bills. What do you care?--you're not old.
Then there’s the public education system, theoretically the nation’s most important socioeconomic equalizer. Yet even though government spending on K-to-12 education has more than doubled since the 1970s, test scores have flatlined and the United States has fallen behind its developed-world rivals. Meanwhile, federal spending on higher education has been undercut by steadily inflating tuitions, in what increasingly looks like an academic answer to the housing bubble. (If the Occupy Wall Street dream of student loan forgiveness were fulfilled, this cycle would probably just continue.)
And don't even get me started on the kids, the losers.
The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans. It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.
What does the middle class get when we tax the rich? Nothing! Those selfish, greedy unions and old folks and schoolteachers grab it all!
The alternative to this liberalism should not, however, be the kind of reverse class warfare currently being championed by the not-Romney candidates in the Republican field, whose flat-tax fantasies would ask working Americans to bear more of the burden for public institutions that have been failing them for years.
Ummmmm, Romney. Sigh.
Rather, it should be a kind of small-government egalitarianism, which would seek to reform the government before we pour more money into it, along lines that encourage upward mobility and benefit the middle class. This would mean seeking a carefully means-tested welfare state, a less special interest-friendly tax code, and a public sector that worked for taxpayers and parents rather than the other way around.
He'd get rid of government and thrash those liberal special interest groups and lift good freedom-loving Parent-Americans up from the clutches of the teeming masses.
This was the potential message that had some of us excited about the prospects of either a Mitch Daniels or a Chris Christie candidacy. Given his background and his bank account, Mitt Romney is an unlikely champion for a more egalitarian conservatism. But it wouldn’t be the first time that an American patrician has emerged as a champion of the common man.
Oh Mitt, how patrician is your nose and how noble is your brow! Lift your mighty swift flaming sword and pierce your enemies with it! Love us, protect us, tell us we're special!