Pro-Tax and Proud: Time for Progressives to Stop Apologizing

July 18, 2016

For too long, progressive policymakers have abandoned their foundational belief in broad taxes, universal programs, and collective prosperity for fear of appearing pro-government. Without opposition, conservative ambition for tax-slashing and anti-government rhetoric has swollen to biblical proportions. (Literally, in the case of some late candidacies.)

The most recent example is Paul Ryan’s tax plan, which proposes a level of conservatism that would make Reagan blush: Ryan cuts capital gains taxes in half, reduces business rates by 30–40 percent, abolishes the estate tax, and describes the IRS as a megalomaniacal drunkard.

The political landscape is begging for a voice of reason to extoll progressive values and defend our home turf. But outside of Bernie Sanders, the mainstream left hasn’t produced a credibly progressive tax plan in quite some time. That is not an endorsement of Bernie or a criticism of any particular candidate, but an indictment of the progressive status quo. That includes the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, whose tax plan proposes the worthwhile step of creating additional upper-income tax brackets, but is still devoid of any broader defense of the embattled tax system.

Many economists and policymakers will point out that federal taxes—and in particular marginal income rates—are often a distraction from a more nuanced understanding of economic policy. In our own Untamed report, we argue that for the past 30 years the United States has paid far too little attention to monopoly power and financial sector regulation, among other things. But taxes are a battle we need to fight because they serve as a proxy for how we see society: collective or individualistic.

Cut taxes and you can increase a family’s income for a year; invest tax revenue in education, infrastructure, or social protections and you can improve that family’s potential earnings for a generation. It’s rosy, but that’s the progressive vision, and it’s certainly far more substantiated than “give millionaires a tax cut and it will eventually make its way to the middle class.”

And while a middle class tax hike may not be necessary or appropriate at this juncture, it is important that the left not abandon its belief that the middle class should pay taxes and should feel good about it.

Yet since the financial crisis at least, the left’s socially justifiable but narrow focus on the 1 percent (of which Sanders was also guilty) has replaced the broader message of shared investment for shared prosperity that shaped FDR’s New Deal. Yes, the rich should pay more—and I’ve written a great deal about the misguided conservative belief in trickle-down and the right’s defense of loopholes for the wealthiest firms and individuals—but that is policy, not a platform, and certainly not an ideology. And while the rich have gotten richer, their tax burden has also increased, so claims that they pay no taxes or pay lower taxes than middle-class earners are often overblown.)

In explaining how she would fund paid family leave, Hillary Clinton drew a hard line on middle-class tax hikes. And there may well be more than enough money in the upper reaches of the income distribution to pay for this policy. But add in necessary infrastructure investments, a struggling education system, and growing entitlements, and the math gets more difficult.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by bumping each tax bracket up just one percentage point, the federal government could raise an additional $694 billion over ten years. Doing so at just the top marginal rate would raise less scarcely one-seventh as much. Quickly it becomes more and more difficult to justify taking small hikes on the families that would benefit from these policies off the table.

Putting funding aside, the progressive vision holds that there is virtue in universal contributions and universal benefits. As FDR said of his Social Security program, “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits.”

Social Security is built on a progressive, simple, and characteristically American foundation, which should be the foundation of our economic policy in general: Everyone pitches in and everyone benefits.

But today, the progressive movement refuses to advocate this foundational ideology to its own constituents out of fear of the conservative response, despite the fact that polls by Gallup and Pew suggest ample room for optimism: Withstanding seven years of abysmal federal politics, a majority of Americans still feel their tax bills are fair. Imagine what public sentiment might indicate with a functional government.

In the absence of progressive pushback, anti-tax messaging from the right has grown bolder. Today, even moderate Republicans are forced to endorse policies that rail against the very foundation of progressive taxation and modern government. Misguided and deceptive though it is, the Republican tax plan and platform are bursting with bold leadership that envisions America remade in the mold of a homophobic, xenophobic, Bible-toting founding father who never existed.

The juxtaposition of conservative fierceness in the face of progressive complacency approximates a football game in which one team refuses to play offense and surrenders all but 20 yards of the field to a ferocious opposition, then repeats that strategy for 30 years. How surprised can we be that we seem to be losing?

In a memorable 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia, President Obama stated, “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own, someone helped you… If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” His reasoning being: Without roads, without public education, without national defense, without incentives for research and development, without the protection of law and regulation, the system just doesn’t work.

Pretty simple, right? Wrong. The statement sparked a flurry of op-eds (Google counts 31 million results for “you didn’t build that Obama” and just 5.4 million “47 percent of the people Romney“—a reference to a far more indiscrete incident in which the 2012 Republican nominee accused half of the American people of being worthless welfare-suckers). Even progressive media outlets seemed to think Obama’s line was bad politics, if not an outright disaster.

This largely self-inflicted reaction was a shame for progressives, who need to get comfortable doing what Obama did in Roanoke and what Republicans do on a daily basis: Say what they’re actually thinking.

If progressives can get out front and lead, we should have a leg up, because ours is a vision intended to serve all members of society, not just a wealthy few. If, on the other hand, we can’t collectively muster the courage to stop apologizing for our beliefs, we will be hard-pressed to convince voters that ours is a vision worth enacting.