It was almost physically painful to read the absurd anti-tax screed by Meredith Warren, attacking the proposed Fair Share Amendment that would increase the state income tax rate on high income earners, that appeared on yesterday’s Globe’s op-ed page. This piece makes sense only if you uncritically accept its two basic premises (which are both assumed but not defended):
- Taxation is a form of theft; and
- Different tax rates on different levels of income are inherently unfair.
Our friends over in the Libertarian Party might agree with the first point (though I wonder whether one of its newest members, former MA Governor Bill Weld, actually thinks that way) . But there’s a reason the Libertarian Party gets only a tiny number of votes every time they run: that view is espoused by a minuscule minority of Americans, and it is often associated with views that are even less mainstream. Basically, most people understand that a functioning government is necessary, and that taxes are needed to make it function. Even Warren herself doesn’t seem to agree that taxation is theft, since she says that “[t]here’s no question we need more money for education and transportation in Massachusetts.” Where does Warren think that money will come from?
The second point makes perhaps even less sense. The federal government, and most states with income taxes, have espoused some form of progressive taxation for decades. States with a single income tax rate, like Massachusetts, are a distinct minority. And this is probably because common sense tells you that people who earn a lot of money can better afford to pay a higher marginal tax rate than those who don’t. It seems to me that a responsible state tax policy should do two basic things: generate the revenue that is required to meet the state’s needs; and apportion the tax burden in a fair way. If you have only one tax rate (like we do), simple arithmetic tells you that low-income people are paying more money than they would if you could ask higher-income folks to pay a little more. A policy like ours therefore places a higher burden on the people who are least likely to be able to afford it. Progressive tax rates help ameliorate this problem, which is probably why the federal government and most states have adopted them.
Warren doesn’t engage with any of this. Instead, she offers this analysis as her sole justification for rejecting progressive tax rates:
The argument that “they can afford it” might be true, but it certainly doesn’t make it fair and equal. Would we support a burglar who breaks into the home of someone with more stuff than said burglar has at home because the burglar is merely taking his “fair share?” How is breaking into the bank account of our more well-to-do residents any different? It’s robbery — legislated.
Sigh. It pains me to have to point this out, but burglary is not legal, which explains how progressive taxation is “any different” from burglary, and why we should not “support” burglars who only rob rich people. And the “robbery – legislated” argument makes sense only if you accept the two premises set out above – which you shouldn’t, because neither of them withstands much scrutiny.
Warren, of course, cannot resist trotting out this old saw:
That it takes a constitutional amendment to enact such a tax is evidence of why the proposal is discriminatory. The state constitution doesn’t allow setting different income tax rates for different classes of taxpayers. In other words, legislators are attempting to write a form of discrimination into the constitution.
But this, too, is wrong. I’ve explained before why the state Constitution probably never was intended to require a single income tax rate across all income levels, and that the fact that it’s now interpreted that way is much more an accident of history and a single misguided Supreme Judicial Court decision than it is evidence of what the authors of Article 44 thought they were doing. Furthermore, to argue that “legislators are attempting to write a form of discrimination into the constitution” simply begs the question of whether this proposal is unfair or not. Yes, of course, the purpose of the proposed amendment is to “discriminate” (in the neutral, non-pejorative sense of that word) between income earners who make less than a certain amount vs. those who make more. But if there is a good and fair reason for doing that, then that form of “discrimination” is not problematic. Most states and the federal government apparently have concluded that this particular form of “discrimination” is not unfair discrimination – and it’s unfair discrimination that we want to avoid.
Finally, as noted above, Warren concedes that “[t]here’s no question we need more money for education and transportation in Massachusetts.” And I ask again: where is that money going to come from? Would she support raising the income tax rate on everyone? I find it nearly impossible to believe that she would. What’s her alternative? She never tells us.
Maybe there is a good argument against adopting the Fair Share Amendment. But this sure wasn’t it.