« The Kilgore Switch | Main | Will the FEC Ban Blogging? »

Sullivan on Taxes

One voice I've really come to appreciate since he's had a blog is Andrew Sullivan's. He's a good example of how a blog shows off the full richness of a person's personality or thought, so that I appreciate his arguments more than I did when I only read them occasionally, or even when I knew him a little bit in the early 1990s. (Our closest interaction was when he was trying to persuade me in 1991 that Bill Clinton would win the Presidency and be the best president of our lifetimes, and I didn't even think Clinton would win the Democratic nomination. I think we've shifted positions on that one.) I disagree with him plenty, but always find his perspective compelling and challenging, especially on terrorism, and sometimes persuasive, and on gay marriage, very moving.

But on taxes he mystifies me. Yesterday he wrote:

The president could have punted on social security reform and focused on a flat tax as his major second term agenda. If the result were simply flatter taxes, it would be better than no social security reform. ...My own view is that progressive taxation is immoral. The government should treat all its citizens as equally as it can. Punishing people for being successful is morally wrong and counter-productive. We should at least treat hard work neutrally, rather than punitively. (Inherited wealth is another matter, which is why I favor keeping the estate tax.) It's really the same principle behind ending affirmative action and allowing gay marriage: government neutrality in a diverse society, where our differences cannot and should not be micro-managed,

Every sentence in that paragraph is not just wrong, but the sort of argument you expect from a college freshman who just read 50 pages of Free to Choose and Atlas Shrugged.

First, I think I've pointed this out before, but there is absolutely no reason to expect that an administration that has deliberately added more complexity to the tax code than any since the 1986 Tax Reform would advocate a flat tax or any other version of real simplification. They have never talked about it, except in the vaguest terms. The idea that Bush tax reform might involve any kind of simplification is purely wishful thinking.

(It is also worth noting that having progressive rates is not incompatible with simplicity, just as a flat tax can be complex. We could have a four-rate tax system in which you could file your return on a postcard. The complexity and unfairnesses in the current system come not from rates, but from exemptions and deductions, from treating income from different sources differently, and from creating special provisions that phase out and in at different income levels and in different years. All of these complexifications are the hallmarks of Bush tax policy.)

Second, why is progressive taxation "immoral"?? Why is it "equality" to tax everyone at the same percentage? Why not tax them the same amount? Progressive taxation is based on ability to pay, which increases logarithmically. It's patently obvious that the hardship of paying 15% for someone earning $20,000 is far greater than the burden of the same percentage for someone earning $200,000. Sure you can create a low-income exemption, but right there, you don't have "equality" of percentage or a flat rate. I don't mean to get into the weeds here, but once you accept that neither a fixed flat amount -- a head tax -- or a fixed flat rate is fair, then there is no obvious moral definition of what equality is, and a strong case for a mildly progressive scale. (For example, two or three rates, none higher than 35%, with all income taxed equally.)

Again, there may be policy reasons to prefer one structure of rates over another. I tend to favor a fairly low top rate, no higher than 35% or so, with all income treated equally, because I think higher marginal rates would hurt the economy or, more likely, increase both legal and illegal evasion. That is just an educated policy preference, though. It would not occur to me to call another preference on the same question "immoral." (Although an explicitly regressive tax, with higher rates on lower incomes, would surely be immoral.)

Third, just what evidence is there of a direct correlation between "hard work" and earnings. Do we really believe that people who make $35,000 work so much less hard than people who make $200,000? Even Robert Nozick's "Wilt Chamberlain example" contends that a social arrangement in which Wilt Chamberlain makes ten times as much money as anyone else could be just, as long as his earnings were the result of free exchange, but did not depend on arguing that The Stilt's greater earnings were based on working harder than the guy who cleaned the Lakers' locker room. Sure, some high-paying jobs, such as doctors, depend on hard work and sacrifice in early stages; others require 80-hour weeks throughout a career. But plenty of high-paying jobs don't, and many low-paying jobs do. And the vast majority of people in the real world are simply at the mercy of good fortune to find the best job they can with the natural skills and education that an unfair world gave them.

(I wonder how political philosophy professors today deal with the fact that their students have never heard of Wilt Chamberlain, who retired in 1973. Do they have to start calling it "the Carmelo Anthony example"?)

I wouldn't necessarily pick on this if I found it on Powerline or some other wingnut blog. But here's a brilliant, serious, decent person, not flacking for anyone, and this is a strange blind spot, both on the philosophical point and the naive belief that George Bush would ever favor any kind of tax simplification.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 4, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341ce8a553ef00d8345991fc69e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Sullivan on Taxes:

» Bmw levaquin amoxicillin cephalexin from Zyprexa neurontin wellbutrin Godzik Blog
Free search: amoxicillin, levaquin, glucophage, lanoxin, wellbutrin, neurontin, zyprexa, bmw... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 23, 2005 4:01:25 PM

» Drugs & Supplements from Drug Information and Supplement Information
Search: Enter a drug name ... LEGAL CONDITIONS AND TERMS OF USE APPLICABLE TO ALL USERS OF THIS SITE. ANY USE OF THIS SITE CONSTITUTES YOUR AGREEMENT TO ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 14, 2006 10:44:34 AM

» 2006 Colleges, College Scholarships and Financial Aid Page from Database of Online Corporate Financial Information
Information on college scholarships and financial aid, featuring a free college scholarship search... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 30, 2006 10:46:57 PM

» India - One year of UPA and minorities: promises unfulfilled from large on their
as the present government has not even touched the issues it promised to tackle.... [Read More]

Tracked on May 6, 2006 2:14:20 PM

» `We'll See Who's Glaring at the End,' Duncan Says from knocked Michael
the Mavericks guard stood over Finley and glared. San Antonio's Tim Duncan was not [Read More]

Tracked on May 17, 2006 12:39:20 AM

» HealthAtoZ - Innovating Consumer Health from Health and Medicine search engines page
Includes a directory of more than 50000 professionally-reviewed Internet resources, supportive online communities, and a calendar. [Read More]

Tracked on May 18, 2006 12:25:42 AM

» Search in Directory: yo-yo tricks from Directory Map
Directory of hundreds of search engines, organised by country and topic. [Read More]

Tracked on May 25, 2006 9:44:00 AM

» Dictionary Search Page from Dictionary Search
An unabridged dictionary from aalii to zymurgy, including a pronunciation guide... [Read More]

Tracked on May 26, 2006 5:20:10 PM

» Stern Unveils New Plan for Playoff Seeds from winners despite
make Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban feel better about his $200,000 fine from [Read More]

Tracked on May 27, 2006 8:51:14 AM

» Hollywood Creative Directory from Directory Map
Contact information for the film, television and new media industries. [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2006 7:27:38 AM

» SOA: Ensuring a Competitive Advantage through Infrastructure Interoperability to Maximize ROI from added to business
Trackback URI: http://www.prweb.com/zingpr.php/U3VtbS1FbXB0LUNyYXMtRmFsdS1IYWxmLVplcm8= [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2006 8:18:01 PM

» Blue-chips helped by drop in crude prices from in more defensive
up stocks in more defensive sectors including health-care and insurance. [Read More]

Tracked on May 29, 2006 1:11:04 AM

» Goggles give iPod a new look from consumers would
launched its video-capable iPod last year, some questioned whether consumers would embrace watching video on a 2.5-inch [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 12, 2006 6:36:25 PM

» 20 Questions with Dwyane Wade from THE MIAMI HERALD
Batard of THE MIAMI HERALD sits down with Heat star Dwyane Wade for a one-on-one QA. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 14, 2006 2:42:16 AM

» Fish oils may boost young brains from study was conducted
of fish oils can boost young children's grasp of the three Rs reported the Daily Mail (31 May 2006). The report appears to be based on the results of [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 17, 2006 8:31:43 AM

» The Heat Is Dissipating Quickly from going to Disneyland?'
themselves after Game 1, as Coach Pat Riley said, what must they think of themselves after [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 18, 2006 5:56:35 AM

» Fresh MP3 tracks from music process
Fresh, MP3 music download... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 29, 2006 9:07:44 PM

» RB Toolbar from rbtoolbar
RB Toolbar - уникальный и наиболее перспективный и продуманный проект... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 20, 2006 12:01:41 PM

» Bettorsworld.com Lists Ohio State and Notre Dame as Co-favorites to Win the 2007 BCS College Football Championship from most respected
Championship in 2007. (PRWEB Jul 22, 2006) [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 24, 2006 1:01:22 PM

» site map: diamond pendants from myjewelrystore
Select your jewelry...14K White Gold .43ct Diamond & Sapphire Ring G-H SI3 [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 27, 2006 12:18:20 PM

» Palestinian Govt. Prepares Emergency Plan from Hamas-led Palestinian
government has prepared an emergency plan for its first three months of rule. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2006 12:19:30 AM

» People Search in Internet 2006 from Plot Summary for Words
Words - Cast, Crew, Reviews, Plot Summary, Comments, Discussion, Taglines, Trailers, Posters, Photos, Showtimes, Link to Official Site, Fan Sites. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2006 1:37:04 AM

» longhorn hec from People searching
Searchable keywords online... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2006 1:44:21 AM

» First wave of New Orleans schools open (AP) from heavy book sack
12-year-old Jermaine Gibson wasn't complaining a bit about the first day of classes Monday. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 9, 2006 10:21:25 PM

» Bvlgari from Bvlgari Watches
Great Saving On Bvlgari Watches Bulgari Watch Bvlgari Assioma, Bulgari Zero1, Bulgari Watch Tubagas, Bvlgari Diagono Aluminium, ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 9, 2006 10:53:42 PM

» Search Results Page - a from ondmd
Your search results page is packed with information. ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 10, 2006 7:37:39 PM

» Search Results Page - d from much.kiev.ua
Your search results... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2006 2:38:55 AM

Comments

Mark -

In the interest of thickening the theoretical foundation of liberalism, you should cite some random old people's thoughts on progressive taxation. It's what conservatives would do.

Henry Carter Adams, Edwin Seligman, Wesley Clair Mitchell, Richard Ely, John Commons, Robert Hale - those guys were the liberal intellectual backbone of progressive taxation a hundred years ago.

Posted by: Dave M | Mar 4, 2005 4:10:53 PM

As you say, Free to Choose and Atlas Shrugged. It's the unthinking assumption that property exists in a natural state, independent of government, and all government does is snatch off this natural right. There's no sense of thinking about the purpose of government and all its powers, including the power to create property and to regulate its extent and uses.

Posted by: nihil obstet | Mar 4, 2005 4:30:05 PM

I'm a bit floored. Andrew Sullivan?

Posted by: David Weman | Mar 4, 2005 4:41:19 PM

"here's a brilliant, serious, decent person"

This is the same Andrew Sullivan who said that those who opposed the invasion of Iraq were Fifth Column stab-in-the-back traitors?

In the run-up to the war Sullivan was a vicious pit bull who provided cover for the administration lies about WMD's and Saddam's responsibility for the World Trade Center attacks. He's got no decency whatever -- only a very healthy sense of self-interest.

Posted by: | Mar 4, 2005 4:49:47 PM

Andrew Sullivan writes something dumb.

Dog bites man.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 4, 2005 4:58:24 PM

"The middle part of the country--the great red zone that voted for Bush--is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column."

Posted by: David Weman | Mar 4, 2005 5:02:45 PM

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and all that; Sullivan's got a lazy streak in him, but he hasn't entirely given up on thinking.

Posted by: mike | Mar 4, 2005 5:45:33 PM

Andrew Sullivan writes something dumb.


Dog bites man.

We're not exactly talking about Ann Coulter here.

Andrew Sullivan is a serious and somewhat unpredictable thinker. He has, in my mind, ridiculous attitudes about taxation and Noam Chomsky, and was unfairly vicious (especially early on) about the invasion of Iraq.

But you know what? He's a progressive on almost every other issue. His voice on gay marriage is well-known, but far fewer people know how harsh a critic he's been of the Bush Administration's pro-torture policies. He's a hawk when it comes to the First Amendment, and constantly lambasts the religious right even though he himself is a practicing Catholic. Unlike many who favored the war in Iraq, he hasn't hesitated to publish his second (and third) thoughts.

Sometimes he's unfathomable, to put it nicely, but he sure isn't a political hack. There are very, very few people in the public eye who he consistently sides with. To me, that's the mark of an independent thinker.

Posted by: Tom Strong | Mar 4, 2005 7:18:52 PM

"I tend to favor a fairly low top rate, no higher than 35% or so, with all income treated equally, because I think higher marginal rates would hurt the economy or, more likely, increase both legal and illegal evasion."

High paying jobs are a lot harder to hide income from, except for illegal activities like drugs or mafia stuff.

Also, it strikes me that while "hard work" does alter one's placment in the income distrubution (the really lazy have trouble holding any job, and many who just don't like work take jobs with low hour/week requirements), for the differences between those making $150k and those making $15 million is mostly luck. It seems to me (admittedly i don't have any cites) very rare to make six figure incomes unless you put long hours, at least in your first few decades.

Which indicates, high marginal rates for the rich wouldn't reduce the amount of work they do - most high end professionals and executives love their jobs (or at least the competitive nature of what it takes to win in such an environment) and would be working hard no matter what.

Posted by: yoyo | Mar 4, 2005 8:01:01 PM

great post, mark. i never understood the equality arguments for a flat rate vs. a flat fee (which is what i would have considered a flat tax).

Posted by: Phil | Mar 4, 2005 8:08:13 PM

brilliant, serious, decent person, not flacking for anyone

Brilliant? Hm. Smart is as far as I'd go, and that's qualified by huge blinders.

Serious? Get out.

Decent? No way. Forfeited that label three years ago.

Not flacking for anyone? Except himself.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Mar 4, 2005 9:30:54 PM

Just a little fun here...

I believe it would be interesting if we were issued different background colored driver's licenses based on income levels.

You know, the guy standing in line with the gold background would be paying triple sales tax, while those with blue background would be paying the basic rate of sales tax.

That would be something to watch!

Posted by: Movie Guy | Mar 4, 2005 11:09:19 PM

And Ann Coulter would be issued a Red and Gold background driver's license, meaning that she would pay six times the normal sales tax rate.

Only fair for the poor clerk who has to listen to her rants, frowns, and other ill behaviors.

Works for me...

Posted by: Movie Guy | Mar 4, 2005 11:15:32 PM

I've recently exited the salt mines of academic philosophy, and can assure you that everyone knows who Wilt Chamberlain is. He's very famous! For my part, while I found Nozick's substantive views rather appalling, as a fellow NBA fan I've always been heartened that he didn't make the argument with reference to Babe Ruth.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Mar 4, 2005 11:21:32 PM

There's nothing like a good education at an English grammar school to impress us colonials.

Andrew Sullivan is an anti-rationalist. He seems to believe that there is no theory whatever which can justify government's acting to affect society's ends, that is, societies can never have a telos.

Thus, Sullivan would seem to wish to limit government's role to one of -- at the most -- facilitating the relations, formal and informal, of society's members.

It is natural for him to plump for a tax with the least in-your-face moral component.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Mar 4, 2005 11:26:27 PM

(I wonder how political philosophy professors today deal with the fact that their students have never heard of Wilt Chamberlain, who retired in 1973. Do they have to start calling it "the Carmelo Anthony example"?)

One word: Shaq

Nice primer on the progressivity args. Always glad to see these in the blogosphere. May I humbly suggest the "wealthy people put a greater strain on the states' resources" one? Law enforcement, courts, infrastructure, waste treatment, yadda, yadda, yadda. All used by the rich more than the poor.

Posted by: epist | Mar 4, 2005 11:59:13 PM

I think today's students would snicker at the idea of a pro basketball player only making TEN times as much the guy cleaning the locker room.

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Mar 5, 2005 12:26:18 AM

IIRC, Thatcherism jumped the shark when it started nattering about the virtues of a Head Tax.

Hmmm ... do today's young philosophe's even know who The Fonz is?

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Mar 5, 2005 9:56:31 AM

"To me, that's the mark of an independent thinker."

Great. He's an independent thinker. He also writes scads of incredibly dumb commentary. Like they say on Car Talk, he don't got a lot of knowledge, but he does have a lot of opinions.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 5, 2005 11:58:25 AM

re: andrew sullivan

I'm not overly concerned with 'fairness' as a component of tax policy. Absolute fairness is impossible to acheive, because there are so many ways to interpret what is fair or unfair. Seems to me it's more important that tax policy helps us to create the kind of society that we want to live in. An impoverished, desperate, and unhealthy economic underclass is the greatest threat to a stable democratic society.

Posted by: peter jung | Mar 5, 2005 12:09:27 PM

--- brilliant, serious, decent person, not flacking for anyone – Mark Schmitt on Andrew Sullivan

I suspect that most of us who read The Decembrist think its author smarter and more knowledgeable than we. Thus, the amount of push-back, denial, and objection that the above-quoted judgment received from readers is interesting – and I use that word in an academic sense, that is, something worth investigating.

Blogging began as journals shared among friends, and friends can be expected to forgive demonstrated character shortcomings, personality deficits, and general dimwitedness. In the event friends already know how dumb their friends have proved themselves; they don’t need a blog to tell them.

And even when blogs expanded their readerships beyond a circle of friends, they were often anonymous to everyone other than their friends.

What happens though to the authenticity and truthfulness of the style and substance of the expressed opinions when bloggers identify themselves publicly to strangers and offer those opinions up for criticism and their amour propre up for deflation?

Readers who objected to the encomium whose subject is the author of “The Dish” are rendering a verdict not upon Sullivan’s intellectual strengths but upon the depth of the encomium’s author’s judgment in which those readers located an excess of rhetorical flourish, simple naivete, careless misreading, or worst of all, excess admiration of a glittery Toryish wit. (Of course, those readers may have been wrong; the tribute to Sullivan may be deserved).

In defense of their egos must we expect public bloggers either to adopt inauthentic public personnas (Ana Marie Cox, Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, etc.) or to edit their expressed opinions to remove all hints of their characters and personalities?

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Mar 5, 2005 3:54:53 PM

The idea that Bush tax reform might involve any kind of simplification is purely wishful thinking.

Another case of victory through defeat? Beyond simply scape-goating liberals for own legislative failure a la gay marriage or abortion; viz.: privatization fails, pass tax-shelter law AND blame Dems. "Tax reform" fails, pass more top exemptions AND blame Dems.

Expect a similarly weird and nasty campaign, e.g. Bill O'Reilly, 12/9/04: "[T]he AARP policy book ... says, 'tax revenue sources should distribute the tax burden according to people's ability to pay,' -- right out of the Marx handbook. 'Taxation should be progressive.'" (More.)

Henry Carter Adams, Edwin Seligman, Wesley Clair Mitchell, Richard Ely, John Commons, Robert Hale - those guys were the liberal intellectual backbone of progressive taxation a hundred years ago.

Or Abe Lincoln. (From a fascinating history in Wash. Monthly.)

Also, it strikes me that while "hard work" does alter one's placment in the income distrubution (the really lazy have trouble holding any job, and many who just don't like work take jobs with low hour/week requirements), for the differences between those making $150k and those making $15 million is mostly luck. It seems to me (admittedly i don't have any cites) very rare to make six figure incomes unless you put long hours, at least in your first few decades.

I would love to read a history of correlating "hard work" and wealth in this country -- certainly with us since the Pilgrims -- specifically, answering exactly when long-derided speculators and heirs moved into the proletarian column. (My guess has always been around the Red Scare.) (Just to prove I'm really not a Marxist, see John Edwards.)

At any rate, it's clearly a major coup on the part of conservatives that we even need to justify progressive taxation, the only income tax we've ever had (not counting FICA).

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 5, 2005 6:05:38 PM

The idea that Bush tax reform might involve any kind of simplification is purely wishful thinking.

Another case of victory through defeat? Beyond simply scape-goating liberals for own legislative failure a la gay marriage or abortion; viz.: privatization fails, pass tax-shelter law AND blame Dems. "Tax reform" fails, pass more top exemptions AND blame Dems.

Expect a similarly weird and nasty campaign, e.g. Bill O'Reilly, 12/9/04: "[T]he AARP policy book ... says, 'tax revenue sources should distribute the tax burden according to people's ability to pay,' -- right out of the Marx handbook. 'Taxation should be progressive.'" (More.)

Henry Carter Adams, Edwin Seligman, Wesley Clair Mitchell, Richard Ely, John Commons, Robert Hale - those guys were the liberal intellectual backbone of progressive taxation a hundred years ago.

Or Abe Lincoln. (From a fascinating history in Wash. Monthly.)

Also, it strikes me that while "hard work" does alter one's placment in the income distrubution (the really lazy have trouble holding any job, and many who just don't like work take jobs with low hour/week requirements), for the differences between those making $150k and those making $15 million is mostly luck. It seems to me (admittedly i don't have any cites) very rare to make six figure incomes unless you put long hours, at least in your first few decades.

I would love to read a history of correlating "hard work" and wealth in this country -- certainly with us since the Pilgrims -- specifically, answering exactly when long-derided speculators and heirs moved into the proletarian column. (My guess has always been around the Red Scare.) (Just to prove I'm really not a Marxist, see John Edwards.)

At any rate, it's clearly a major coup on the part of conservatives that we even need to justify progressive taxation, the only income tax we've ever had (not counting FICA).

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 5, 2005 6:11:42 PM

Unfortunately, I don't have time to read all of the no-doubt-intelligent commentary here (It's bedtime!), but I'd like to point out where I think Sullivan is coming from. Admittedly, I detest the man.

Mirrlees (1971) "An Exploration of the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation" argues that the optimal income tax structure will approximate a constant marginal rate. So that covers efficiency. Sullivan also has a charmingly simplistic view of 'welfarism,' the idea that the state cannot discriminate among its citizens. Amartya Sen subjects that idea to many effective criticisms, most notably that it bears not at all on our conception of the liberal state--see Anatole France's famous quote that "the law forbids both rich men and poor men from sleeping under bridges".

I suppose that calling progressive taxation immoral is based on the idea that it amounts to one law for people at one income level and another law for another. It's hard to see where that sort of argument would end. Are government transfers to coal miners with asbestiosis impermissible in the so-called liberal state? But I think all your arguments about why only progressive taxation is equitable are irrelevant to those who truly believe that it's immoral.

Posted by: Marshall | Mar 5, 2005 9:40:34 PM

Yoyo is right, I believe, about the luck factor in wealth (beyond a certain level of hard work that's required to get up a rung or two). The mistake the other side makes is in confusing luck with merit, as in wealth equals merit.

But as I mentioned in a prior post, those in the high income levels are using government in a way that lower income people don't - the courts being filled with business and corporate law cases, commerce, fair playing field regulation creation and enforcement, etc. So it's only fair that they pay a bit more. This is a piece of argumentation that is missing from the debate. On a related note, I think most Americans don't really know what taxes 'do' in general. More transparency in public debate is necessary. (yeah, in this media environment that would be easy, right? Sure.)

Again, a plug for Elizabeth Anderson at left2right.typepad.com on taxes and arguments about who deserves to pay what, as well as others. Put 'taxes' in search window to pull up writings.

Posted by: Franklin Delano Sinatra | Mar 6, 2005 12:49:10 PM