Simp and Simpler

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, November 30, 2007; 1:18 PM

The American tax code is hideously and needlessly complex. People say they want something simpler. Now two Republican presidential candidates are probably committing political suicide by offering people what they say they want.

The central gimmick of Fred Thompson's recently announced tax plan is to offer people a choice. They can pay taxes under the current rules -- with some juicy new breaks added from the big and small businesses wish lists -- or they can pay a so-called "flat tax," with lower rates and fewer deductions. So anyone who wants a simpler tax code could have one. But for some of them (people who get a lot of deductions now), the simpler tax will be a higher tax. How many people, do you suppose, will choose simplicity over complexity, even if simplicity will cost them more? My bet: approximately zero.

Like most flat-tax advocates over the years, Thompson puts a thumb on the scale by combining flatness with a large tax cut. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center figures that Thompson's plan would fall a mere $2.5 trillion short of revenue over the next decade, compared with the current system. Two and a half trillion to play with makes it easy to arrange for more people to see their taxes go down than up if they choose the flat-tax alternative. But this has nothing to do with simplifying the system. If you don't care how much debt you run up, you can give everyone a tax cut without bothering about simplification. You can stop collecting tax at all! That would be nice and simple.

The real strategy of Thompson's plan is a familiar one from past Republican tax plans: give large breaks to business and the wealthy (such as abolishing the estate tax), bribe the middle class to go along by offering smaller breaks to them, and don't worry about paying for it all.

But maintaining your indifference to the size of the bill you are running up requires nerves of steel. You must never waver, never never express the slightest concern that lost revenue may be a problem, and never never never even hint at where you might go to find the money. Thompson followed the script, putting out word that the explosion of economic activity after his tax reform would bring in too much money to even count, yadda yadda yadda. Then, unfortunately, he blinked. He revealed that he is a political amateur by making ominous noises about finding some savings through changes in Social Security benefits , which has to mean cuts in Social Security benefits or no money will be saved.

Raise your hand if you would be happy to accept lower Social Security payments in exchange for a simpler tax code.

I thought so.

Mike Huckabee, currently enjoying his 15 minutes, makes a slightly different political mistake, which we might label, for lack of a better term, total honesty. He has endorsed something called the Fair Tax, which involves repealing all federal revenue sources -- the income tax, Social Security tax, estate tax, everything -- and replacing them with a 23 percent sales tax on everything except education. The Fair Tax propaganda says frankly that it is intended to be "revenue-neutral." That is, it would bring in just as much money as the taxes it replaces. No monkey business about explosions of new revenue.

This makes it easy to figure who would win and who would lose in Huckabee's so-called "fair" tax. It's a zero-sum game: every dollar someone's taxes go down is a dollar someone else's go up. What you spend every year is the amount you earn minus the amount you save. On average, Americans save practically nothing, but wealthier people save more. Very poor people actually spend more than they earn, while Bill Gates and Warren Buffett couldn't spend more than a small fraction of their income if they tried. So wealthy people are going to see their taxes go down, which means that poor and middle class people are going to see their taxes go up.

There's a complicated business in the Fair Tax about rebating it for spending up to the poverty line, but that doesn't change the basic math of revenue-neutrality, that if rich people pay less, poor and middle class people pay more. And they will feel it more. Including state sales taxes, there would be a governmental surcharge of a third or more on everything you buy. That's part of the idea: to make people feel the weight of government, in hopes that they will want less of it. Fair enough, if they can sell it. Here, too, though, honesty makes the plan a hard sell.

Huckabee's tax plan is honest in a third, and especially disastrous, sense: it is long and full of details. It has the same obsessive, endearing and ultimately fatal desire to dot all the i's and cross all the t's as Hillary Clinton's notorious health care reform. It would certainly be simple, at least for the typical citizen, who wouldn't have to file any forms at all. But it would not be simple to administer. ("SEC. 205. BAD DEBT CREDIT. Any person who has experienced a bad debt (this does not include unpaid invoices) is entitled to a credit which is equal to the tax rate times [the amount of the bad debt divided by (1 minus the tax rate).") Got that? And this is from the "plain English summary," which you can open at almost any random page and find rich grist for opposition mills. The discussion about taxation of "hobby activities" (Section 701) alone fairly cries out for misrepresentation.

Neither Thompson nor Huckabee has anything useful to say about the real problem, which is the huge gap between revenues and spending that President Bush, having inherited a surplus, is leaving behind. Thompson's willingness to take on Social Security would earn him some points for courage if he were planning to use the money to reduce the deficit or address the entitlements problem. But he wants to pour the money into new tax cuts for business, which is not just a bad idea but an incredibly lazy one. There's more to running for president than buying a round of drinks at the country club and asking what's on people's minds.

Meanwhile, Huckabee's revenue neutrality at least would not make the problem even worse. For this, the business wing of the Republican party is hysterically labeling him a "fiscal liberal."

A what? For Republicans, the epithet "liberal" used to mean someone who wanted the government to spend a lot of money that it didn't have. Then it meant someone who wanted the government to spend what it had, but no more. Now, apparently, you are a "liberal" if you only want the government to spend a few hundred billion dollars a year more than it has.

Actually, the spending debate is now over, or should be. The GOP bluff has been called. Republicans had six years in which they controlled the White House and (for most of that time) both houses of Congress. They could have cut any spending they wanted. They did the opposite. None of the realistic Republican presidential possibilities is discussing spending cuts except in the vaguest terms.

But if you peer into the abyss of debt and say that what this country needs is another tax cut, that makes you a good conservative.

The writer is a columnist for Time magazine and an occasional contributor to The Post.

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