Read my lips: ‘Some new taxes’

I tend to procrastinate, so it’s tax time for me. That has me thinking about taxes, and wondering how we, as a nation, ended up defining tax-paying as evil incarnate.

It started with the Republicans, Reagan to be exact, but even Democrats duck and cover whenever the T-word comes up. Back in the 1980s, Reagan hooked together taxes and “big government,” evangelizing a whole new brand of evil. Sure, there have always been anti-tax forces in the United States, but prior to Reagan, the idea was mostly popular with a tiny slice of the very wealthy elite. Somehow Reagan managed to convince the broad base that taxes were bad for them, too.

We can claim some pioneering spirit on this one. Back in the New Deal, Nevada started positioning itself as “one sound state,” touting low taxes and low services—a place for the wealthy elite to sequester themselves and their bank accounts.

Before Reagan, taxes were seen as a necessary price of admission to a civilized society, an investment in the future. Some of the highest tax rates in our history were during the 1950s, a time of rising affluence in this country and rapid expansion of our structural and intellectual capital base. Note: rising affluence, expanding economy and jobs, high taxes.

Since Reagan, nobody has managed to argue effectively against the anti-tax idea, and the concept became so deep and so entrenched that even today, as we struggle through this wrenching, jobs-vaporizing economic collapse, very few people dare to link our current woes to George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which by the way, created a far larger percentage of the current deficit than Obama’s economic stimulus plan, TARP included.

It’s been 30 years since our country started down the supply-side, low-tax path, and as clear as the failure of this idea is, I’m amazed that more people don’t point out the emperor’s naked, shivering self. That infrastructure our grandparents built with their taxes? It’s collapsing from years of fiscal neglect. Our schools, once the uncontested leaders of the world, are slipping to the bottom of the industrialized nations. We hand over our leadership role to China, Europe, India—all of which are madly investing in their own educational and physical infrastructure with taxes.

I am reading Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0, in which he writes about the rising international threat of failed states. I know better than to suggest that the United States is in danger of becoming another Sudan, but it pulled me up short to realize that the characteristics of failed states have a lot in common with those sectors most starved for support in our tax-hating economy. When governments “no longer provide basic services such as education, health care, and food security, they lose their legitimacy.” Brown writes. “A government in this position may no longer be able to collect enough revenue to finance effective governance. Societies can become so fragmented that they lack the cohesion to make decisions,” i.e., about reforming our incredibly broken health care system.

The idea that taxes are an evil blockade to economic progress is powerfully contradicted time and again in modern history—in fact, the opposite is often true. Economic downturns follow on the heels of tax cuts, prosperity rises after well-designed tax increases stabilize and support a rising economy. Reagan himself raised taxes in 1982 to reduce the deficit, stimulating the ’80s boom, just as the economy expanded after Clinton’s 1993 tax increase.

Over the years, theory became ideology—a myth that functions to obscure reality and provide a convenient, if totally false, rallying cry for politicians willing to gain power on simplistic platitudes and an electorate that can’t be bothered to question them. The price we pay for failing to challenge this myth—as a state and as a nation—is enormous.