[IMGCAP(1)]I'm sure that, like me, you were relieved to hear that Stephen King has finally weighed in on the Buffett Rule, which would attempt to make sure that millionaires pay as high a tax rate as their secretaries.
King is one of my favorite writers—I'm racing through this column with indecent haste so that I can start his most recent book, The Wind Through the Keyhole—but I'm sorry to say that the article he wrote for The Daily Beast was not his best effort. It seems mainly to argue that rich people like money (which I'll buy), Chris Christie is fat (which is true, and kind of funny—but mean, very mean) and so millionaires should pay more in taxes (wait—what?). I'm not saying they should or shouldn't, I'm just saying that the logic King deploys to prove his point is not exactly rigorous.
This should not be a surprise—most discussions of tax policy and government spending throw off more heat than light. Everyone has their own numbers, their own projections, their own agendas. Logic, generally speaking, is not highly valued. Nor is civility, common sense or, in the end, effectiveness.
The real problem, though, is that we're not even talking about real money.
Take the Buffett Rule. In the form that some supporters are currently trying to get passed, it would raise $47 billion over 11 years. That's less than $4.7 billion a year (assuming it's spread evenly—and am I the only one who thinks this trick of giving one big number and then spreading it over many years should be outlawed?). According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2011 budget deficit was $1.3 trillion. $4.7 billion is basically 0 percent of our deficit.
So why are we wasting our breath on this? Why is Stephen King devoting valuable writing time—time he could be using to finish up that sequel to The Shining (grown-up Danny Torrance! Sweet!)—to arguing an issue that won't actually fix any problems? Why is Warren Buffett spending even a second on it, when he could earn enough in that very same second to pay down our entire national debt?
Some will undoubtedly say that discussions about how much and in what way people should monetarily support their country, and how we should spread the cost of government, are worth having. Some will also say they're fun. Both are right, to a point, but I suspect that's not really what's going on.
What's happening is that we're scared. By spending lots of energy and invective on the Buffett Rule, we can satisfy ourselves that we've treated our debt problems with the seriousness they deserve, but without having to have the frighteningly real arguments that we need to have.
We can also avoid having to grapple with more than one or two actual numbers. The Economist recently published an interesting chart that ranked some high-cost tax expenditures. As you move up the list, you begin to see where the real money goes (or, in this case, doesn't come in)—but no one is seriously suggesting major changes to the tax deductions for employer health insurance or mortgage interest.
And that doesn't even begin to touch the discussions we need to have about Social Security; Medicare; Medicaid; and federal, state and local employee pensions—the areas where the numbers really start to add up.
Sooner than we expect, we're going to have to start talking about the real money—trillions, instead of billions. And it will come from everyone, not just millionaires—in the form of lower or foregone Social Security benefits, less generous municipal pensions, and more expensive health care.
Now that's scary.
No wonder we don't want to talk about it.
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