We almost had a really interesting conversation about taxes in the waning days of the election. Almost.
To the surprise of few, it was discovered that Barack Obama favors something called "redistributionism." John McCain, it was discovered, opposes it -- which also surprised a lot of people.
To a certain extent, the outrage from folks on the right, at times including yours truly, over Obama's response to "Joe the Plumber" was overdone. It was, after all, Teddy Roosevelt -- McCain's hero -- who introduced the progressive income tax for precisely the purpose of spreading the wealth around. The maverick's campaign saddlebags are heavy with redistribution policies that redistribute wealth as well.
I still believe that redistribution for its own sake is little more than institutionalized covetousness. But that's a subject for another day. What was left out of the national tax conversation was the reality of the situation: America already redistributes its wealth. A lot of it. In fact, we're one of the most progressive countries in the world in this regard.
Now, first let me vent a peeve. Many people think "progressive" means "good," even though something can be progressive and bad, too. When economists refer to a "progressive" income tax, they merely mean a tax rate that increases as you move up the income ladder. (Right now in the U.S., the poor pay somewhere between 0 percent and 10 percent in federal income tax. The middle class pays 15 percent to 28 percent, and the highest earners pay 33 percent or 35 percent.) But most liberals also think that the income tax is "progressive" in the same sense that fair-trade coffee and weepy acoustic-guitar college music are progressive -- i.e. good and enlightened.
Either way, the U.S. tax code is a lot more progressive than you might think. A new study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveals that the United States "has the most progressive tax system and collects the largest share of taxes from the richest 10 percent of the population." Our tax system is, in fact, the most "pro-poor," according to a Tax Foundation analysis of that study, of any developed country's save Ireland. That's right, we're more progressive than France and Sweden.
The bottom 40 percent of income earners receive more from the federal income tax system than they pay into it. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent pay 71 percent of all income tax, despite only earning 39 percent of our pretax income. Taxes on the top 1 percent constitute 40 percent of tax dollars.
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.