Tag Archives: budget

On Taxation and Entitlements: Essay for March 17, 2012

Two articles of interest hit the New York Times this week that each of us should read. “A Nation of Too Many Tax Breaks,” by Eduardo Porter, graced the front page of the Business Section. It chronicled the seeming disparity between the collection of taxes and the distribution of tax breaks in America by quintile. The second was an essay by Thomas Friedman describing the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. They both deserve some air time.

Any analysis only provides a tiny glimpse of the complexities of the problem statement: Is taxation and redistribution of wealth in America a fair deal? First off, there is nothing simple about the distribution of government spending or about the manner in which such funds are generated through taxation. Neither is there anything fair about how it is done. Both policies reflect a complex series of compromises and programs designed to aid one sector of the population at the expense of another. Those policies cut both ways. Over time, the original intent of such policies become muddy indeed, yet we are saddled with their consequences seemingly forever.

Take the Porter article for starters. Said Porter, “Taxpayers in the top fifth of the population shoulder three quarters of the Federal tax burden and receive only 10 percent of the entitlement spending…[while] Families in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution pay about 1 percent of taxes and receive about 60 percent of entitlements.” He goes on to point out that on the tax break side, the upper quintile receives more tax breaks on an average of $214,000 in income than those in the lower quintile receive on $8400. No kidding.

This dichotomy would appear to emanate from the lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends, benefits associated with those who have investment income. They naturally reside in the upper income brackets, thus skewing any inequity conclusions that Porter asserts. The obvious conclusion one takes from this so-called analysis is that there is a disparity that can be reconciled by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans in the form of increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends. This timeworn and threadbare argument always suggests that the wealthy in America were all born with silver spoons in their mouths; that nobody actually worked to earn their wealth; or that they came by it unscrupulously. It is not true. Most wealthy Americans earned their money. And any distinction hardly matters.

Enter Tom Friedman. He is definitely a thinking man’s columnist. I don’t often agree with his conclusions but his presentation of fact is usually compelling. He’s the kind of man with whom I’d like to have a cup of coffee. Freidman sees, as do I, the necessity of a balance between the actions of public and private America. A country where the excesses of unchecked capitalism cannot stifle an economy and the excesses of government regulation does not strangle the private sector. It is more than that, he argues. He speaks of striking grand bargains between competing interests. Perhaps it is one like that nearly struck between President Obama and Speaker Boehner last summer.

There are many such bargains to be struck that involve repairing a crumbling infrastructure increasingly incapable of moving goods to market; invigorating an educational system that has become the most expensive in the world but is producing only mediocre results; that addresses the growing gap between the needs of the youngest against the needs of the oldest in our society.

Most importantly, the Federal budget deficit must be closed. And it must be done without smoke and mirrors and without demonization of the advocates on the revenue side and on the spending side. The truth is that the tax system is severely broken. Spending must be decreased through Mr. Freidman’s grand bargains and revenues must be adjusted through tax reform. Corporations do not need the special treatments the currently receive. They are quite capable, or should be quite capable, of competing on their own. If they are not, they should be left to mercy of market forces.

Capitalism was not invented in America but it reached pinnacles of greatness in the 20th century, a greatness that has lost some luster as we claw through this 21st century. Our objective in this political debate in 2012 should not be to paint either side as evil, unless they really deserve it. I am willing to recognize that eliminating a special tax break for a privileged constituency might actually result in them paying more taxes. Now that is what I call fair.

Let the spending cuts begin.

Press on.

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On Ordinary People: Radio Essay for November 20, 2010

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On Ordinary People: Essay for November 19, 2011

With almost 40 years of travel experience under my belt I have become something of a subject matter expert in the field. Name the mode and I have experience in it. By sea, by rail, by motor coach and automobile, I’ve done it. And in each class of service, too. Two years ago I received my updated frequent flyer card from American Airlines. It designates me as a million-miler. Now I get to check my bags for free.

There once was a certain romance about travel. I started my career on ocean going ships that plied the seven seas. The British coined the term posh in the days of the Raj to describe first class travel to India before the days of air conditioning. Port Outbound, Starboard Home accommodations would keep you on the shady side of the ship during the long hot voyage. My wife’s grandfather was a frequent flyer back in the 1940’s. Allegheny Airlines even featured him in a print ad. Then there is travel by rail. People would spend days and nights traveling by train. Arlo Guthrie’s depiction of rail travel was an endless card game punctuated with cigarettes in the parlor car.

When I wrote this, I was sitting in South Station waiting for my son to arrive by bus. Hollywood was never very kind to busses. They were depicted as dank and cold on the inside, stopping along some dusty road deep in the south to pick up a drifter, bus travel was the domain of common folk. It still is. Today’s busses are comfortable and feature movies, the internet and power outlets in every seat. And by common I mean ordinary people: those who have places to go and people to see without crazy amounts of money to spend on planes or time to waste in an airport with the ramp delays and weather.

As I looked around the terminal I saw a reflection of America that appealed to me. There were a thousand people with a thousand different stories. I saw their industry in quickened steps; I saw determination on their faces. They were of many races and colors and backgrounds yet they shared the common purpose of moving onward towards their next endeavor.
Bus terminals are not the domain of the elite but they ought to be. When those of the corporate jet set are without their planes, they are unlikely to be on the Megabus from New York but they should try it now and again. We can learn a lot from the denizens who partake of this most egalitarian of transit modes. In fact, we can all take a lesson from those ordinary people with extraordinary talents who make our world run. They make courageous calls every day on how to make ends meet and how to balance the demands of raising a family under expectations that continue to diminish.

Our elected officials ought to join us in the bus terminal, as well. Limousines and NetJets are no way to commune with the common man. You won’t find the ordinary man at Occupy Wall Street, either. When our elected officials hob-nob with the elite to exchange access for money on one end, then pause for the photo op at Dewey Square at the other end, one thing is clear: there is no ordinary man in sight.

The ordinary people of our country are caught in a vice. The political elite are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while our ship of state founders. These elite are fat, dumb and happy engaging in turf wars while our futures are at stake. The ultimate example of abrogation of responsibility is the Super Committee in Congress who is charged with making unpleasant decisions that neither chamber of Congress would make last summer when raising the debt ceiling became a crisis. In Washington, a crisis postponed is as good as a crisis solved. With their backs against the wall the big question is whether they can come to a courageous compromise just like ordinary people do every day. The problem is that they have not yet demonstrated that they have the courage that ordinary people display every day to solve that problem. Funny thing is the last word they would use to describe themselves is ordinary.
In that I concur. Maybe they need to take a Greyhound.

Press on.

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On Occupying Congress: Radio Essay for October 22, 2011

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Speaking with Carolann Doherty Brown: October 15, 2011

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Conservatively Speaking: October 15, 2011

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On an Economic Solution: Radio Essay for October 15, 2011

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