President Bush has just sent Congress an “emergency” request for an extra $46 billion in expedited funds for Iraq, Afghanistan and other national security needs. That’s in addition to the $145 billion in war-related spending included in Bush’s original 2008 budget. Which brings me back to the subject of who’s gonna pay for all this.
I listened recently to a right-wing radio talk show host fulminate against liberal “anti-American traitors” who criticize American foreign policy. Within a minute he was on to another of his favorite topics – taxes. “It’s YOUR money!” he thundered, repeating the line we’ve heard so many times before. “It’s not the GOVERNMENT’S money!”
If we’re serious about national defense – as well as all the other things we need (police, fire fighters, roads, bridges, schools, and clean water, to name a few)- it’s your COUNTRY. And the principle for who’s gonna pay should be equal sacrifice.
Equal sacrifice means that in paying taxes, people ought to feel about the same degree of pain – regardless of whether they’re wealthy or poor. This means that someone earning $2 million a year ought to pay a larger portion of her income in taxes than someone earning $20,000 a year. Even Adam Smith saw the wisdom of a graduated tax. “The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion,” he wrote. (Wealth of Nations, vol. 2, ed. Campbell, Oxford U Press, 1976, p. 840.)
Traditionally during wartime, taxes have been raised substantially on top incomes to help pay the extra costs of war. The estate tax was imposed by wartime Republican presidents Lincoln and McKinley. It was maintained through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. Now, under Bush, with Bush’s war costing more and more, it’s being phased out.
During World War I the marginal income tax on the richest Americans rose to 77 percent; during World War II it was over 90 percent. In 1953, with the Cold War raging, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower refused to support a Republican bill to reduce the top rate, then 91 percent. By 1980, the top marginal rate was still at 70 percent.
Combine this logic with the facts I shared with you two blogs ago – about how large a share of national income and wealth the super-rich now claim – and the case for substantially raising marginal income tax rates on the rich should be even clearer.*
* Postscript: The blogger who asserts that 84.6 percent of all federal taxes are paid by the top 25 percent of income earners, and over a third are paid by the top 1 percent, advances a specious argument. First, most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes; in addition, state sales taxes have grown faster than almost any other form of taxation. Both payroll taxes and sales taxes take a much bigger portion of the paychecks of lower-income Americans than of higher-income. Viewed as a whole, the current tax system is quite regressive.
Second, and more to the point, it’s irrelevant how much of the total income tax burden is paid by the top 25 percent, or even the top 1 percent. The ethical and logical issue is what sort of sacrifice individuals are making, or should be expected to make, rather than what sacrifice an economic “class” is making as a whole. The rich have become so wealthy that even if each wealthy American paid a very small share of his or her incomes in taxes, the rich would still, as a group, account for a large share of total income taxes. I find it ironic that conservatives who extol the virtues of individualism and abhor so-called “class warfare” would resort to such a deceptive argument.