Why Tax Policy Isn’t Easy

I remember a day in the late 2000’s that crystallized the challenge with tax policy. One of the students who worked in my office came in upset by the tax structure in the United States. He stated that it was an unfair redistribution of wealth and he asked for my opinion. I don’t remember my exact words, but they went something like this:

Any tax is a redistribution of resources, so it really isn’t as simple as taxes are good or bad. There are two questions that need to be discussed: is the revenue side right (i.e. how the taxes are assessed and collected) and is the expense side right (i.e. how the spending priorities are determined and spent). I guarantee you, everyone has an opinion about both rights.

From his reaction, I got the impression that my answer was unsatisfying. So, I picked a single example and shared my point of view. I observed that although there are places in the world that can produce food more inexpensively than the United States, there is a strategic need to ensure sufficient cultivated and cultivatable land within our borders to feed our populace. So, there has been a long standing practice of farm subsidies and tariffs to ensure that the agricultural industry survives — not every farmer, but the industry. I shared that I was sure some of my federal income tax went to that, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell him how much.

He paused and looked at me. I could tell he was still looking for an answer, a simple answer, about whether I thought taxes were unfair. I shook my head. “My dad always said that fair was a term in baseball describing the area between the first and third baselines. Taxes aren’t fair or unfair. I’m more than willing to talk tax policy, but it’s going to be deeper than fairness.” We didn’t talk about taxes again.

And that is why tax policy is hard. For every person that feels like investing in a strong military is a strategic imperative I can show you someone who feels that we would be safe enough spending less. For every person who feels that public higher education is necessary for a well-educated populace, there’s someone else who feels that a pay-to-play system works fine. Healthcare. Stadium subsidies. Parks. Roads. Public safety. Fire services. Retirement safety nets. Libraries. Disaster relief. The mortgage deduction. I guarantee you that there is something that is part of the current system that you value or benefit from — something you would see as a ‘right’ expense. And there is probably some revenue generating mechanism that you also feel is ‘right’ or closest to right.

The problem — as I see it — is that there is just too much data. We can’t really consume it or discuss it to get past generalities. And I am speaking about my own capabilities, too. I heard a podcast today about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal — >6,000 pages of resource redistribution. Could I possibly understand it well enough to have an informed opinion? No. Some industries and products are given protection from competition, some are not. Why? Because someone deemed them strategically important. Is that right? Depends on your perspective, I guess. They interviewed a guy whose company manufacturers waders (for fishing) and he was going to enjoy another 8 years protected by 35% import duties. He thought that was right even though if you buy waders you might pay more.

All I know is that I recognize that no one gets something for nothing. And, I want my kids (and yours, and the stranger in some town I’ve never heard of) to be educated — because like Jefferson I believe that a well-educated populace is needed for a strong democracy. I want to know that I can trust a bridge when I  drive across it and that I can rely on safe and clean drinking water coming out of my tap. I want the elderly and veterans whose contributions I have benefited from to have at least the basics of shelter, food and care. It that right? To me it is, or right enough when you’re trying to build a system for 325 million people.

So, I will try to avoid being baited into either sound byte extreme, no matter how much I love you or value your opinion of me. I will listen to your ‘rights’ and I will share my ‘rights’. I will be excited to learn about your reasons and how your life experiences have formed your rationale. Really, I can’t wait.

Just don’t ask me if taxes are fair — not unless you want to talk baseball.

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