Good news for a change

by Henry Farrell on September 6, 2003

“Teresa Nielsen Hayden”: posts on a story that I’ve been interested in the last few days; how some conservative Alabama Christians have come out in favor of higher, less regressive taxes in the state. This may be a flash in the pan; for one thing it’s unlikely that these Christians are going to be successful in persuading Alabama’s public to sign on to tax reform. But it’s potentially important nonetheless. Grover Norquist and his ilk have been uncannily successful in boiling down a rich and complex tradition of thought into a single, sloganistic programme of all tax-cuts, all of the time. It’s nice to see some principled conservatives reacting against this.

The “TAP article”: that Teresa cites to sees these Christians as reminiscent of Dorothy Day; I think that may be going a step too far. These people aren’t interested in substantial redistribution of wealth so much as in ensuring that the poor have the basic minimum of opportunities which will allow them to look after themselves; decent education, access to justice, perhaps some form of public health care. Still, a “superior moral justification for selfishness”: it ain’t. I wish them luck.



Jacques Distler 09.06.03 at 5:20 pm

We’ll see.

The New York Times reports today that this initiative is headed for a resounding defeat at the polls. The tax-cut lie has gotten pretty deeply embedded in the public consciousness.


Nicholas Weininger 09.06.03 at 5:34 pm

Well, if opposition to this tax increase is part of a search for a “superior moral justification for selfishness”, then favoring it might surely be part of a search for a superior moral justification for robbery.

I happen to think robbery is much more antisocial and destructive than selfishness. It doesn’t surprise me that religious conservatives might think otherwise; religion has so often been the justification for state-sponsored assaults on the liberty and property of others.


Brian Weatherson 09.06.03 at 5:51 pm

I wonder how many of the quotes in the post Henry linked to are correct. The Churchill quote is rather anachronistic, as well as being unsupported by any documentary evidence. (See here for more details.)

Funnily enough, that Churchill quote seems to be a favourite of the webby right, but the best guess as to its causal origin is Clemenceau. Sacre Bleu!


back40 09.06.03 at 6:24 pm

Part of Henry’s confusion about tax cuts at the federal level may be the failure to understand the relationship between federal, state and local taxes. When federal taxes are reduced then state and local taxes can and in many cases must rise.

Some good can come of this as localities set their own tax levels and use the revenues in locally appropriate ways. It can also help local citizens support resulting programs since they have more local content and control, more nearly reflect their democratic preferences. When both control and responsibility are more local then people get busy and do good works.

It seems a great good thing for citizens to become more engaged with self governance, to accept responsibility and control of their affairs. The coldness and disengagement that results from rule by remote powers degrades localities by severing the connections between neighbors. When people look to one another rather than peering over the horizon at a distant controlling entity they see more detail and are affected in visceral ways that dissolve indifference to suffering. Each person is confronted by the fact that it is not someone else’s job to deal with local issues, that we are each responsible for our local situations.


Henry 09.06.03 at 6:41 pm

Confusion??? I understand the relationship between federal, state and local taxes quite well – part of my job after all. Indeed, I didn’t mention “tax cuts at the federal level” once in my post. If you want to argue that I’m confused, I would at least like to know why and how I’m confused (might help me unconfuse myself). It’s not at all clear from your post.


back40 09.06.03 at 7:38 pm

” I would at least like to know why and how I’m confused (might help me unconfuse myself). It’s not at all clear from your post.”

It the same apparent confusion you had about public choice economics when you simplified PCE to “all markets all of the time” though in reality it is about appropriate uses of markets and regulation in a whole system. Similarly, simplifying efforts at tax reform to “all tax-cuts, all of the time” fails to consider the dynamics that result from attempts to define appropriate tax levels at appropriate governance levels and the positive effects this can have on society. The citizens of each city, county and state have to carefully consider what services they wish to purchase and pay for them. It enhances accountability, reduces waste and fraud, and rewards tax payers by making the connection between their contributions and the resulting programs clear. They get to feel good or bad about themselves since the feedback loops are shorter and more visible. It personalizes social acts and draws on their core ethical and moral views, challenging them to be the kind of people that they would like to belive that they are.

I see your apparent confusions as repeated instances of what Lisa Ruddick calls analytic slippage, “making the good thing look bad by calling it by the name of its near enemy. It seems more generous to assume that you are confused than that you do this intentionally.


Walt Pohl 09.06.03 at 8:51 pm

Back40: What in God’s name are you talking about? You seriously question that Grover Norquist advocates all tax cuts all of the time?


Henry 09.06.03 at 8:54 pm

Back40 – the people who I’m disagreeing with here aren’t arguing (as you seem to be) for a devolution of taxes from the federal to the state and local level. They’re arguing for cuts in taxation – period. Check out Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform”:

bq. ATR opposes _all_ tax increases as a matter of principle. We believe in a system in which taxes are simpler, fairer, flatter, more visible, and lower than they are today. The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized. (emphasis added)

ATR organizes to lower taxes at the state as well as federal level, including a particularly vicious and dishonest “campaign”: in Alabama. Check out the Norquist quote in this “NYT article”: too. ATR isn’t keen on local taxes either.

The facts speak for themselves – an extremely influential part of the conservative movement sees tax reductions as an unmitigated good. No interest in more complex arguments about the relationship between federal, state and local level – just in lowering all taxes. I’m happy to see some conservatives beginning to disagree with the Norquist position.


back40 09.06.03 at 10:11 pm

What ATR advocates is tax reform, especially a flat tax on both income and consumption. It also opposes waste, fraud and subsidy. Opposing tax increases is quite different from “all tax-cuts, all of the time”. As your quote shows you have misplaced the emphasis. You say “ATR opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle” when “ATR opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle” is a more accurate reflection of their stance. They claim that it isn’t increases that are needed so much as reforms which use tax revenues to better effect.

We have a huge problem with waste, fraud and subsidy at every level of government. The programs and people that need tax support are victimized by this just as much as those who pay the taxes. Efforts to simplify the tax code, shift the tax burden to consumption as well as income and provide individual exemptions high enough to protect low income earners seek to lower the total tax burden by reducing bureaucracy, waste, fraud and subsidy.

The key issue that can be sensibly debated is flat taxation versus progressive taxation.

Flat tax advocates maintain that taxes should be levied at an equal rate. Those who earn more will pay more and those who consume more will pay more. The tax rate must be high enough to pay for commitments. It promotes solidarity in that when you vote for a tax increase you must pay it yourself, all are equal. It also promotes scrutiny since people are less apt to turn a blind eye to waste when they have to pay for it.

Progressive tax advocates maintain that higher incomes should be taxed at higher rates but that consumption should be taxed at a low flat rate. The thinking is that a greater share of the tax burden should be paid by those who earn more and that except for special taxes on luxury goods they are not so taxed for consumption. This destroys solidarity by decoupling consumption from production of wealth. You can vote to tax others while remaining exempt yourself. It increases cynicism, evasion, and transactional friction in addition to inserting class conflict into governance decisions.

The cost of operating a progressive tax system greatly exceeds that of a flat tax system at every level, from tax law creation to individual compliance and every step in between. But it also resonates with the ideological views of class warriors who seek to homogenize society by taxing away what they see as excess income, by requiring those who benefit more from society to pay for those who benefit less.

Both sides have arguments and examples that they claim proves their case. Flat taxers love to point to Massachusetts, often called the People’s Republic of Massachusetts due to its ideological stance, as proof that a flat tax is well loved and successful. This view is disputed by some. Progressive taxers more often point to failure than success as part of advocacy for increased progressivity.

Abstracting out the tax reduction aspect of tax reform without also stating the structural cost reduction aspects misstates the intent and claims of reformers. This is politics as usual but not very useful discussion. Tax reformers see themselves as the good guys, the ones who have the best interests of society at heart and that their programs would result in higher standards of living for all. They may be wrong or the path to their better future may be too long and harsh to be feasible. This is all debatable but the debate often degenerates before the salient points are considered.


Henry 09.06.03 at 10:29 pm


I’m not going to get into a debate over the merits of flat taxes versus progressive ones – your summation of the debate seems quite one-sided to me, but I don’t think I have much hope of convincing you otherwise. I’ll just return to the point that you raised initially, and ask you to _read_ what ATR is saying. Certainly, they’re concerned about waste and corruption etc – but they’re quite frank about their underlying motive. They want to minimize taxes, because they want to minimize government power. There’s no ambivalence whatsoever. As Walt says, all tax cuts, all of the time is a perfectly fair summation of their program. I think you’re plain wrong on the facts.


Laura 09.06.03 at 10:36 pm

Having just gotten back from 2 weeks in Alabama, I can say that Governor Riley et al are doing a spectacularly bad job of selling this tax package. Despite the fact that many of the state’s religious leaders back it, none of the television ads being shown while I was there featured any religious leader. They did finally start running an ad featuring a former Auburn football coach, and Ruben Studdard was doing some free concerts in favor of it, but that’s clearly been too little too late. All the ads in favor of the plan also focused on its results in terms of more funding for education, never touching on the tax DECREASES for many of the state’s residents.

But then, much as I love Alabama and many of its citizens, as that American Prospect article points out, this is a state that only recently and not very overwhelmingly voted to legalize miscegenation.


SteveMG 09.06.03 at 11:07 pm

I, too live in Alabama (moved here about 3 years ago after living with the Yanks, er, up North).

As Laura said, they’ve done a poor job selling the tax, not emphasizing how many more people will be taken off the rolls. Very regressive tax down here that makes no sense economically as well as, well, morally.

Not to sound too snarky, though: Many liberals get very upset when religious leaders – well those on the right – get involved in politics or support/oppose legislation. ACLU raises holy hell when the Christian Coalition down here hands out voter guides.

Is it a fair charge to say that if these religious groups had opposed the tax, there would be criticism re church/state violation? It seems to me that many (some?) liberals have somewhat of a double standard when religious folks get involved in legislative and political matters.

Anyway, I’m voting for the tax Tuesday. Doesn’t look good at this time. Interesting that nearly all of the conservative groups support it; Mobile Register strongly supports it.



back40 09.07.03 at 12:15 am

Funny thing, IMO your descriptions are one sided Henry. You only admit to there being complexity in the issues and multiple objectives, such as waste reduction, when confronted.

When you say “They want to minimize taxes, because they want to minimize government power. There’s no ambivalence whatsoever” you conceal why they wish to do this, as if the horror of wishing to limit government power needed no explanation or justification. Their claims are that when taxes are no greater than required to accomplish agreed societal objectives that all members of society have improved lives. Where government institutions are an impediment to this objective then they wish to reform them. More powerful government doesn’t often mean better government.

ATR tax proposals have high thresholds that exempt low income people like those in Alabama from income taxation. It isn’t that they wish harm to poor people, they have different ideas on how to help them. By failing to state why they oppose tax increases and that they have alternative methods to solve budget problems you fail to contribute to the discussion.

I often suspect that better government is a secondary objective at best for political commentators. They get so wrapped up in their various ideologies that they lose sight of why these things matter. As the world fills up with people the days of thoughtless ideology seem numbered. Each day it becomes increasingly important that we do a more competent job of managing our affairs, that we pay closer attention to how real people and real societies thrive or wither as a consequence of management decisions. Doing the wrong things is wrong no matter how proud the wrongdoers are of their intentions, how right their reasons. We need to do a better job of choosing which methods to use and insist on those that do the right things for the right reasons while rejecting those that do the wrong things no matter what their reasons. Open debate about methods to help select those which promise better results is the responsibility of every citizen.


Walt Pohl 09.07.03 at 2:22 am

Back40: The arguments you give for flat taxation are the purest essence of ideology. Ideology is when belief outstrips evidence. Consider Marx, the exemplary ideologue. He claimed that communism was not only morally better, but history would prove it practically superior as well.

In the 19th century, when taxes were much flatter than they are today, the US economy averaged 1% growth. In the 20th century (which I have seen Norquist describe as “when the socialists took over”), the economy has averaged 3% growth. Who knows, maybe if we didn’t have the burden of progressive taxation all those years we would have flying cars by now. (But maybe if we didn’t have progressive taxation we’d all be singing the Internationale on the way to our work collective every day.) The evidence we have is that progressive taxation doesn’t seem to have hurt us much. It’s only ideology that would allow one to claim to know otherwise.

The thing about the stand of Norquist that I personally find nutty is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the government is going to use the money for. Part of the Alabama tax increase is to fix Alabama’s schools, which have long lagged behind other states. If that’s not a legitimate use of tax revenue, what is?


Matt McIrvin 09.07.03 at 1:22 pm

“Flat taxers love to point to Massachusetts, often called the People’s Republic of Massachusetts due to its ideological stance, as proof that a flat tax is well loved and successful. This view is disputed by some.”

Count me among the disupters. I can’t stand Massachusetts’ income tax system, and the relatively high overall rate isn’t the reason; I’m doing all right and I’d willingly pay more. It’s more the bureaucracy and the language it uses. Massachusetts Department of Revenue tax forms are confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly designed to trip up the people filling them out. I’ve always liked the IRS’s forms much more. Believe it or not.

The Massachusetts system isn’t exactly a flat tax; but it’s flatter than the national system. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to deal with. It brings some degree of progressivity in through the back door by such things as a higher rate for interest income than earned income, and a special deduction for home renters, which are more complicated to navigate than a simple system of brackets would be. It’s also bringing in inadequate revenue to fund the state… and the state recently came within a hair’s breadth of passing a ballot initiative to remove it entirely, despite the disaster that this obviously would have caused– that indicates how well-loved the system is.

Flat-tax advocates occasionally use the confusing nature of the tax code as a hook. But that’s really a bit of a shell game. The existence of tax brackets hardly complicates the tax code at all; for most people, it just changes the numbers in the table they look in to fill out one line on the 1040. It’s all the other stuff. I’m enough of a political cynic to think that, between good intentions, legitimate interests of fairness, and industry and interest-group lobbying, the other complications will keep creeping back in regardless of what people do to keep them out.


Doug 09.07.03 at 5:59 pm

Let’s lay a few facts on the line, as reported in the New Republic:

“The state constitution, rewritten in 1901 at the behest of timber and cotton interests, largely exempts Alabama’s extractive industries from property taxes. As a result, while timber companies own 71 percent of the state’s land, they pay less than 2 percent of its property taxes. So how does Alabama make up for this lack of revenue? Partly, it doesn’t: Its schools are the worst funded in the country, and last year the state tied for last in national writing tests. Partly, it taxes the poor. In most states, state income taxes kick in at around $18,000. In Alabama, they kick in at a breathtaking $4,600–or about one-fourth of the poverty line for a family of four. The state collects the majority of its revenue through highly regressive sales taxes; in some counties, the tax on groceries reaches 11 percent.”


So, back40, is this a good approach to taxation? Tax groceries at 11 percent? Impose one of the lowest thresholds for income tax in the whole of the union? Rank dead last in school funding? Tax the largest and wealthiest landowners the least?

This is what your arguments lead to out in the real world. Is it good? Is it right? Is it just?

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