All posts by Ary

The Time Is Right for Progressives to Change the Way They Talk About Taxes

Remember the last time you said “if I ran the world….”?

Surprise! In the next thirty seconds, you have to design a new society. You set the rules – decide if there is a central government, how much it spends on schools, food stamps, the military, healthcare, and everything else. Here’s the catch. You have to decide before knowing what family you’ll be born into or how smart or strong you’ll be. You have to make the rules without knowing your place in the world.

Really, think about it.

Personally, I would create a world where I’d have access to quality healthcare and education even if I was born to the poorest of families. The richest would pay more in taxes to support these services, and they would benefit from a world without widespread poverty and crime. I’m willing to limit the riches I’d claim if I happened to be born in the top 1 percent in order to eliminate the possibility of destitute poverty.

This hypothetical – the “Veil of Ignorance” – is how some political theorists assess the morality of a rule. Would people agree to be a part of the system without knowing their own role?

This is what the Occupy movement is about, even if no one is articulating it quite that way.

Who would create a world where the richest 400 people own more than the bottom 1.5 million people combined? Where “making it” is less dependent on skill or hard work than on the money you were (un)lucky to be born into?

None of us would design that world. But that’s America today.

I’m not running for office, so I’ll come right out and say the obvious. America needs higher income taxes on the super rich. It’s fiscally necessary and morally right. And it’s not part of a crazy, lefty, socialist agenda. In fact, it’s old fashioned: it’s what our parents and grandparents did. In the mid 1940s, annual income above $200,000 was taxed at 94 percent. The top tax rate remained above 70 percent until 1980. Today the top income tax bracket is a measly 35 percent, and is only paid on income above $379,000. Further, many of the richest people avoid paying even that much because of huge loopholes.

Did America fall apart because of higher taxes in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s? Did jobs dry up? Did businessmen lack motivation to succeed? Of course not. We put a man on the moon. We created the artificial heart and MRI machine. The unemployment rate responded to world events – just as it does today. It was an era of American leadership. Our grandparents knew we had to fight World War II and we had to innovate, and they were willing to pay for it.

We have to change the way we talk and think about taxes. Taxes are our contract with each other. For those of us not serving in the military, paying taxes is the most patriotic thing we do each year. Taxes are what we pay to live in a world where we attend free public schools; can call 911; have free elections; enjoy paved roads and clean water; have federally insured banks; use legal tools to form profit seeking corporations; and sleep well knowing the Emergency Room is open if we wake with terrifying pain at 3am.

Taxes are what we pay to live in such a great country. The tiny fraction of people who have benefitted far more than the rest of us from these services should pay more.

And it’s time for our politicians to say so.

Today, it’s very risky for anyone running for office to say we should raise taxes at all. It shouldn’t be. OWS is already changing the national dialogue, but it needs a message. The first demand of the Occupiers should be clear: close the gap. Raise taxes on the 1 percent; use the money to ensure the 99 percent get a fair chance at success.

Let’s go back to the good ol’ days when income above $400,000 was taxed at 70 percent. I’m pretty sure I could survive on $400,000 plus 30 percent of whatever else I earned each year. Couldn’t you?