Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Lesson 20 Taxes (Tower of Babel)

I am sitting at my desk reading all the articles about the latest proposal for tax change in the US. What a mess. Despite it being morning, it makes me want to reach for the extra-large bottle of JD. Have you ever tried JD on Honey Monster Puffs? Wow.

So I scratched my head hoping for some sort of stimulation in brain activity and decided it was time to start at ground zero with a lesson on taxes. Imagine us regular folks trying to decide the best route to Mars. I could begin by wondering about rocket fuel, sun spots, and billboards. And that might lead to discussions with neighbors and perhaps heated arguments, but the truth is that we amateurs might never converge on a realistic answer about the best way to get to Mars. There are so many issues! Better to argue about landscape issues.

So how does any of the above relate to taxes and recent tax proposals? The answer is that while the main idea of a tax is pretty simple, it is the use of taxes that makes the topic so complex. What is a tax? A tax is a way for the government to raise money so it can buy its citizens things. We take for granted that cities, states, and the nation should provide things to their citizens. 

Our Bloomington mayor wanted some shiny, new trash collection trucks so he added a new tax for that purpose. He already gets lots of our money for silly things like fire and police protection but he needed a wee bit more for these pretty new trucks. Each house got equally attractive new garbage cans that come in three sizes so it all made sense and none of us complained.

I think I already got off track. The main idea so far is that governments provide for their citizens, and they need money to do so. So they tax us. Taxes come in all shapes and sizes. In the USA, the main taxes the federal government collects are based on our incomes. State and local governments tend to tax incomes as well as goods we buy. Regardless of the source, these governments use the proceeds to take care of their citizens. That seems pretty simple. If the government wants to spend more, it has to tax more. So why are our friends in Washington, DC, so wild and crazy about the recent tax proposals? Have they been watching too many Steve Martin reruns? 

I can see at least three reasons beyond Steve Martin why the tax proposal generates so much commotion. First, the Federal government is allowed to go in debt. So we have a choice when we want to spend more. We can raise taxes or we can incur more debt or we can have a little more of both. Second, we not only raise most tax revenues based on income but we have a progressive tax system that charges higher rates on higher incomes. Third, the tax system is “holier” than Swiss cheese. No offense to Roger Federer implied. These holes are there for a purpose. Most of us are the recipients of at least one tiny little hole. For example, realtors love it when people can write-off the interest they pay when they borrow to buy their new tiny house. It makes it a lot easier to sell a house when the buyer is being subsidized. The same goes for electric cars and pain pills. Geez, how many of these so-called loopholes or deductions are there? Please don’t count them all up – you have better things to do today.

So what have we learned?  Taxes are pretty simple in principle but in practice they are more complicated than a mission to Mars. It is not simply a matter of government raising taxes so it can buy us shiny new garbage trucks. It becomes a series of questions about how every single person – dare I saw every voter – will react to any given specific way to raise those taxes.
            Tax increase or debt increase?
            Tax high-income people or low-income people?
            Tax young people or old people?
            Tax workers or retired people?
            Tax savers or spenders?
            Tax students or professors?
            Impact housing industry or stockbrokers?
            Tax heirs or new children?
            Tax sexy persons or economists?
            Should I go on?

If you answered yes to the last question, then you need help. If you thought the above stuff was fun, keep reading. It gets even more complicated. We blandly assumed that the tax increase is about raising the resources to spend more. But that is never the whole truth. We use the tax system to cure everything from male impotency to invasive Asian carp.

Think of all the hidden tunnels in our discussions today. Some of us want to use the tax change legislation to reform the tax code so it will create more growth. Others want to use it to address the distribution of income. Still others want to use it for short run stabilization of national spending. While all these goals are laudable, a tax change that improves growth might not immediately improve the distribution of income. A tax program that favors more short-term spending might damage sustainable economic growth. And of course, many of us worry about how these tax changes will affect the price of JD.

I am getting close to my word limit so I better sum up. I can do that with two words – Tower of Babel. Okay, that’s three words. That’s not many words compared to the number you will see and hear in the next days about tax reform. And I bet you this: Few if any of the authors of those words will explain what taxes are and what they should be used to accomplish. Each of these selfish people will take the easy road and will loudly point out how one group is to be favored over another. Having a realistic and thoughtful approach to taxes is beyond them. They would rather achieve star status by fussing about the low hanging fruit. Inasmuch, it is difficult to see any proposal that would have any beneficial impacts passed by the mental institution we call Congress. No one wants to be a loser, and no one will admit what goals they hope to accomplish. 

Even if a proposal is passed into law, we will accomplish no national goals, and we will end up pointing more fingers at each other after the tax change than we did before it. 

1 comment:

  1. Dear LSD. Yer kerrict about the impending tax legislation—it’ll not accomplish much ‘cept continuing the finger-point’n and not advance practical goals. Given the latest Senate musings should legislation reach DJT’s desk he could veto it if it doesn’t contain the stuff he wants—but I doubt that’ll happen. To-date, both House and Senate versions complicate the tax code—not simplify it—and neither attempt to do anything about spending and the national debt. Today Alan Greenspan reiterated his observation that entitlements cannot continue to increase and that the debt will limit GDP to less than 3%--and that the 4th qtr. also will be under 3%. A talking head said the tax proposals simply rearrange the deck chairs.

    Yer kerrict ‘bout the tax issue, but I don’t think it’ll affect the price of JD. Don’t worry; be happy.