Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Might As Well Just Give Them Bats And Let Them Hash It Out Directly

I find myself wearied... wearied wearied wearied... by all the back and forth between the various representatives of the 99% and the 1%. Predictably, the former want the rich to pay more taxes while the latter, being rich themselves, obviously want to keep their money. In a lot of ways this an echo over the perennial battle over the minimum wage; one side (probably well-correlated with the 99%) wants to raise it and the other wants it to stay as it is (or lower it or do away with it entirely). The two sides deploy their proxies, fight for political dominance, and eventually hash out some sort of temporary armistice that lasts only long enough for the most recent battle to get lost down the memory hole. And then the whole damn thing starts up again.

The problem, it seems to me, is that each side's default starting position misses the point. It does no good to automatically assume that the rich are overtaxed (or undertaxed); the inevitable outcome of such a conflict is that the various groups end up paying taxes in direct proportion to their political power. That's hardly the basis for a fair system of taxation. People who are genuinely interested in solving the problem ought instead to ask "What does a fair system look like?" or, more directly, "How can we know when someone is (over/under)-taxed?".

Now admittedly that's a difficult question, but from where I'm standing it seems you ought to have at least a pencil sketch of an answer before you open your mouth. I'm continually gobsmacked (yes, gobsmacked) by people who give the appearance of never having thought about the question at all, and only slightly less annoyed by people who cite some idiosyncratic interpretation of the ability-to-pay theory which falls apart under the most casual scrutiny (you run into that a lot in Seattle). Even if we accept the broad premise that the 1% aren't currently pulling their weight under any reasonable theory, how do we know where the proper balance lies? Should they pay 40%? 50%? If they could live comfortable lives while rendering up 90% of their income should we require them to do so?

These are questions which can be answered; people will disagree, of course, but its not like we're trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the fact that nobody seems to be asking them in the first place inclines me to ignore the entire fucking discussion.

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