Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Two just-published articles -- one by New York Times business writer David Leonhart, the other by Slate's Annie Lowrey -- make the argument that we could balance the budget, or come close, simply by doing nothing legislatively, a key reason being that the temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts would expire at the end of 2012. Lefty bloggers are eagerly citing both articles.

Arguments like these, even in thought-exercise form, are a pet peeve of mine. It's not that I don't want to see taxes on the rich restored to Clinton-era levels -- I do (and then some). And it's not as if we might not benefit from carefully wrought tax increases on non-rich people, which would then be sold to the non-rich in a mature way, preferably only once we're in an economic recovery that extends through all classes of society. (Yes, I realize I've just listed three pre-conditions -- carefully structured taxes, a mature debate, and a real, broad-based recovery -- that may literally be impossible in America now.)

But what we have here, in the Leonhardt and Lowrey pieces, is something that's going to be ridiculously easy for the right-wing media to distort: Liberal Journalists Recommend Massive Middle-Class Tax Hikes to End Deficit. And I'm sorry, but why would swing voters not think that's an accurate description of what Leonhardt and Lowrey are saying? And if some liberal politician picks up on these arguments, then the headline is that a "massive middle-class tax increase" is a Democratic debt-reduction plan.

A related pet peeve of mine is a liberal-wonk chestnut: the notion that we really need to jack up gas taxes in order to get Americans to switch to public transit and energy-efficient vehicles. (To learn how that one gets demagogued by the right, talk to Steven Chu.) Both of these tend to be advanced by people who can easily weather them -- those who know they could take the tax increase, and those who have arranged their lives so that they're not dependent on large gasoline expenditures just to get to work (hello, Atrios).

I could take the tax hit too, and, hell, my usual commute to work is a long walk. Still, I know a lot of ordinary people would be seriously burdened by a tax increase (or don't know that they wouldn't be), and I know that, in vast swaths of this country, driving (and driving long distances) is an ordinary person's only real alternative in order to work and shop for necessities.

So I don't think it benefits liberals to airily endorse, or seem to endorse, these messages. A lot of lefties said "Let all the damn tax cuts expire" during the lame-duck session, but that was really bad politics. If nothing else, it's bad politics because it lumps the Bush tax cut for ordinary Americans with tax breaks the rich get -- which reinforces the mainstream conventional-wisdom notion that we, regardless of class, are all responsible, in an undifferentiated way, for America's economic and fiscal troubles.

And yes, I know that the ultimate point Leonhardt and Lowrey are trying to make is that our pols keep making debt-increasing choices. It's a point worth making. But the problem isn't that all our politicians are equally fiscally irresponsible -- it's that Republicans irresponsibly propose tax cuts, then bully and demagogue those tax cuts into law, after which the tax numbers become the economic baseline for ordinary Americans. This isn't everyone's fault, it's the Republicans' fault. The status quo wouldn't be the status quo if Al Gore had been inaugurated in January 2001.

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