Lower- and middle-income workers pay a lot in other forms of taxation, particularly regressive payroll and sales taxes. Indeed, that's one reason Obama wants to offer the middle class a tax cut. I don't like his version of it, but I think he's right that the middle class deserves some tax relief.
But what all Americans need is tax reform. Our tax code is outrageously impenetrable. And we've built a system that treats the wealthy like an inexhaustible natural resource.
Experts on economic development have long noted what they sometimes call the "oil curse." Countries with huge oil reserves become economically wealthy but democratically impoverished, because the government can fund itself without taxing the middle class. As a result, the middle class demands less accountability from government because, heck, they didn't pay for it. (No taxation, no representation.) In the process, the people become subjects rather than citizens.
Both Obama and McCain have a tendency to see villainy as an explanation for our economic woes. Obama thinks opposing tax increases is unneighborly and selfish. McCain has a long habit of denouncing Wall Street "greed."
One moral hazard of such attitudes is that the investor class will start applying its entrepreneurial skills to protecting its existing wealth from the tax collector rather than trying to create more wealth.
But the greater danger is that millions of Americans might believe that all that is keeping them from the good life is the tightfistedness of people doing better than them and a government unwilling to pry those wealthy fingers open. That's a recipe for an unhealthy political culture.
A sane tax code, under any president, would be simple, clear and direct. We're not going to give up on redistribution in the form of, say, the earned income tax credit. But it's important that the working and middle classes feel as if government spending comes out of their wallets, too. Otherwise, the line between citizen and subject is blurred and the costs of government are seen as someone else's problem.
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