They say tax reform will never work.
They say the federal income tax simplification proposed by the Treasury Department doesn't go far enough.
They say it would be unfair to people in high-tax states like Maryland, Virginia and the District.
They say tax reform would be bad for big old business, bad for new little businesses, bad for labor. They say tax reform is a danger to the economy, an attack on the family home and -- worst of all -- a threat to baseball.
"They" ought to know, because "they" are the ones who are getting fat dining on the Swiss cheese we call the federal tax code.
Without an exception worth mentioning, the critics who are attacking the new tax simplification effort are the very people who now succeed in making the rest of us pay their taxes for them.
The instantaneous outpouring of opposition to the Treasury's tax proposal is a classic lesson in the ways of Washington business: Set up a straw man and knock it down. Divide and conquer. Wrap your selfish interests in the American dream and dare anyone to call you an opportunist. And when all else fails, blow smoke and cry "wolf."
The most cogent case you can make for tax reform right now is to list all those who have already come out against it. What better endorsement is there than opposition by the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association, the home builders, the real estate industry, the supply siders, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, lobbyist Charls Walker and tax writer Dan Rostenkowski.
Some of these outfits denounced the Treasury's proposal before it was even issued. Congress hasn't held a single hearing on the flatter tax plan -- let along drafted the details -- the Internal Revenue Service hasn't written a single regulation, yet the opponents claim they can already calculate to the dollar what it will cost "the average taxpayer."
I'll let you in on a little secret: It's not the average taxpayer they're worried about. And the reason they can be so specific about the impact of tax reform, is that they know how little taxes they've been paying compared to the rest of us. And they know that any significant reform is going to make them pay more.
The first thing you have to understand about tax reform is that tax dodging is a zero-sum game. Every dollar in taxes that one person avoids is a dollar that somebody else has to pay.
Remember that the next time someone whines that tax reform will be "unfair" because they will have to pay more. Ask them how much they pay now and why they should pay less than other people.
Remember, too, that the goal of all three tax reform proposals under discussion in Washington is to create a federal income tax system that is simple and fair. There's nothing unfair about making people who don't pay their share of taxes pay more. Opposing tax reform on the grounds it is unfair to those who will have to pay higher taxes is like objecting to the 55 mph speed limit because it is unfair to undertakers and auto body shops.
Using the same divide-and-conquer tactic that created our complex and contradictory tax law, the special interests are all claiming that their loopholes are different and therefore must be kept open. Or horrible things will happen.
Consider the reaction to proposals to tighten up on business deductions. Among other things, the Treasury plan would put a ceiling of $15 on the deduction for business lunches and would stop people from claiming that buying football and baseball tickets is a business expense.
To hear the screams of the baseball owners, the great American pastime might not survive if businesses couldn't deduct the cost of tickets. If you believe that, I suggest you get in line to buy season tickets to the Redskins; when all the businesses stop buying tickets, you'll be able to get some. Fat chance. It's hard to imagine there's anybody in Washington who thinks RFK would not sell out every game if the tax deduction for business tickets were cut off. But some people in Congress probably will vote as if that were true.
Think of it this way when you're sitting home watching the game on TV: You're paying higher taxes so some fat cats can sit in their company's skybox sipping drinks and nibbling canapes at half-time. When you're picking up a Big Mac on your lunch hour, remember that you are not only paying for your own burger, you are paying higher taxes so business people can enjoy two tax-deductible martinis, a prime rib and a pickle at Duke Zeibert's.
The restaurant industry would have you believe the true beneficiaries of the tax-deductible lunch are the poor folks in the kitchen washing dishes, who might lose their minimum-wage jobs if the expense-account crowd had to buy their own lunches.
That straw man is a veritable Godzilla compared with the specious claims of the real estate industry, which now gets more tax subsidies than any other business. The Realtors put out a scare story last week claiming the value of your house will plummet if we get tax reform. At least that's the contention of the economists who are paid to help the real estate lobby prop open its loopholes. What really happens to home prices remains to be seen.
More than a few people would welcome a decline in house prices, because then they could afford to buy one. The tax deductions that were supposed to make it easier for people to buy homes have inflated the price of real estate and forced up interest rates, making it impossible for hundreds of thousands of Americans to get the house of their dreams.
The real estate people aren't telling you that. They don't like to admit that the scandalous tax advantages of real estate investing are one reason why downtown Washington is glutted with empty, unneeded office buildings at a time when local biotechnology and electronics firms are crying for capital.
Nor do they bother to emphasize that the home mortgage interest deduction is the one write-off that is sacrosanct in the administration tax bill and sure to be preserved by Congress. Because tax rates will come down with reform, the mortgage deduction will be worth less and therefore tax reform is bad, the real estate economists claim. By Realtor's logic, then, you're better off paying higher taxes, because your deductions are more valuable.
If you believe that, it's not a house you ought to buy, it's the Brooklyn Bridge. The current owners of that particular bridge -- the people of the state of New York -- are also trying to sell a equally dubious argument against eliminating all deductions. Ending the deduction for state and local taxes would be unfair to residents of high-tax states, they claim. New Yorkers won't be able to afford to pay their huge city and state tax bills if they can't take that amount off their federal taxes; taxes will have to be cut and the poor will suffer.
Before you buy that New York baloney, you ought to recall the golden rule of tax deductions: Every dollar that one taxpayer deducts, another pays. The federal taxes that New Yorkers avoid by writing off their high state levies are federal taxes the rest of us have to pay. As a result, other Americans subsidize New York's mismanagement, corruption and high taxes.
New York has the highest state and local taxes in the country. The District is second, Maryland fifth and Virginia 14th, but none of them has stooped to New York's self-serving obstructionism on tax reform.
We can be proud of that. If the nation is ever to get a tax system that is truly simple and fair, it will require more of us to put the common good ahead of our precious deductions. There is only one thing that stands in the way of tax reform: the greed of those who benefit unfairly from the present system and make the rest of us pay more taxes. Remember that when "they" tell you it won't work.