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Eduardo Porter Calls Out Our Unwillingness to Invest in the Future

In “Considering the Cost of Lower Taxes”, a NYTimes article published earlier this week, columnist Eduardo Porter effectively calls out our nation and voters for their unwillingness to raise taxes to ensure that future generations will have the same level of well being as my generation– the baby-boomers– experienced. Here’s the scene Mr. Porter sets in his opening paragraphs:

In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and federal, state and local governments in the United States raised about the same in taxes, as a share of the economy, as the government of the average industrialized country: 26.6 percent of gross domestic product, against 27 percent among the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nearly 50 years later, the tax picture has changed little in the United States. By 2015, the last year for which the O.E.C.D. has comparable data, the figure was 26.4 percent of G.D.P. But across the market democracies of the O.E.C.D., the share had climbed by an average of more than seven percentage points.

Mr. Porter notes that these other developed countries’ spending was to be expected given Wagner’s Law, which posits that “…government spending as a share of the economy will increase as nations get richer and their citizens demand more and better public services.” In countries that increased their government spending, their citizens are getting “…more and better public services”. In our country, we are not ony getting what we pay for– which is poor health care, an infrastructure that is in disrepair, and widening disparities between the rich and poor— but we are leaving our children and grandchildren with debts that could require them to pay even higher taxes than other developed nations in the future.

Mr. Porter devotes much of his column offering evidence that the US Government’s efforts to change the tax code mirror what is happening in other nations… but he notes that the reforms enacted in other nations are designed to narrow the gap between the plutocrats and the middle class and lower class citizens. This leads him to these conclusions:

I have written about this country’s uniquely stingy tax policy before. Small government, I believe, has proved to be no match for its social ills, too puny to offer much resistance to rampant inequality, stubborn infant mortality or off-the-charts opioid addiction. American voters’ uniquely intense hostility toward trade can, in the same way, be traced back to the government’s ineffectiveness in mitigating trade’s disruptions.

Republicans seem to believe that the best prescription to address the nation’s ills is to slash some $50,000 from the taxes of people earning a million or more. As Isabel V. Sawhill and Eleanor Krause of the Brookings Institution note, the estate tax could generate $1 trillion over a decade just by raising the rate and cutting the exemptions to where they were in the 1970s. Raising the exemption on the estate tax to $11 million, as Republicans propose, will help only a narrow sliver of ultrarich Americans.

It is hard to conclude that the Republican proposal is about anything but that narrow sliver. If it succeeds, it will transform the United States from a low-tax country to a lower-tax one. And the mystery will persist: In cutting taxes as babies die and adults waste away in addiction, what do Americans mean by nation?

Mr. Porter’s closing question is one we must ponder as we review the GOP’s tax bills coming out of Washington. We now know what the GOP vision for the future is… what will the Democratic Party offer as an alternative? 

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