What Mr. O'Neill said was that he thought it quite wrong to conduct economic policy in a "robber baron" rhetorical context in which attention is given to who gets what after tax reform. "I think it is really corrosive to have this argument. ... It's not worthy of where we are."
The allure of ad hominem arguments is as ever irresistible. The news accounts tell us that Paul O'Neill made $59 million in salary and stock options last year, from which we are supposed to deduce that he is especially inclined to favor rich taxpayers. To be sure, a few will reflect that the experience of a man who brought about the reformation of an entire industry (aluminum) is worth much more to the United States prospectively than the $59 million paid to its chairman. But on one matter, attention needs to be paid. It is: Should heavy emphasis be given to the incidence of taxation reform? Or merely to the economic impact of it?
Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities was shaken by what he saw as the implied consequences of Mr. O'Neill's criticism. "You have to allow a conversation about who would get the benefits of various tax-cut proposals without being accused of waging class warfare." Yes, but the mode in which such discussion is conducted is readily seen as such when the effort isn't to analyze disinterestedly, but to curry resentment. The same day that we heard from Mr. Greenstein we heard from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle just the kind of thing Mr. O'Neill is getting at: Mr. Daschle said the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. But that has nothing at all to do with the question whether the proposed tax reform is desirable.
It isn't as though President Bush proposes to tax the poor more heavily. The taxation of the poor is already heavy, but it is done not through income taxes but payroll taxes, and neither Al Gore nor Ralph Nader proposed reducing those, given the shortfall in sight 25 years from now on Social Security payments.