Suzanne Fields

Some of the Republican candidates wanted to audition for Comedy Central the other night, aiming their one-liners at Herman Cain. But the pizza man is no joke. Cain is able, you might say. If his rivals are not taking him seriously, they should. Everyone else is.

Stand-up comedy is for professionals, and the comedy candidates, particularly Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann, showed us why. Cain was the early target for his 9-9-9 tax reform scheme; he would tax personal income at 9 percent, and enact a national income tax of 9 percent and a corporate income tax of 9 percent.

"I think it's a catchy phrase," Huntsman jibed. "In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it." Bachmann tried a little broader humor (aimed at Bible readers): "If you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it around, the devil is in the details." She meant upside down, not turned around, but we get the point.

Many economists on both right and left argue that Cain's 9-9-9 scheme wouldn't work. The rich might pay less, but the poor might pay more. Roberton Williams of the left-leaning Urban Institute argues in USA Today that "on the top end, 9 percent is a lot better deal than what people at the top are paying." He cites an Urban Institute estimate that taxpayers who make more than $1 million a year typically pay 18 percent in personal income taxes. "Going to 9 percent is going to save them half. That's nice savings. That's the income tax side."

Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks it's not at all certain that a consumption-based sales tax can work "alongside an income tax, no matter how low the rates." Governments being what governments are, the rates probably wouldn't stay at 9-9-9, as the government appetite grows. "Will a 9-9-9 plan inevitably over the years become a 15-15-15 plan and ultimately a 30-30-30 plan? Or worse?"

Cain dismisses his critics with the passion of a businessman who saved a dying company when nobody else could. Critics who say his plan would not raise enough money "are absolutely wrong because they did a static analysis," he told a television interviewer before this week's debate, billed as a debate about the economy and how to fix it. "We had this done with the dynamic analysis by an outside firm, so they are making an erroneous assumption."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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