A Tax Proposal Destined to Fall Flat

If Al Gore would’ve said anything to get elected, then maybe George W. Bush’s key to victory is not to say anything at all.

Four years ago, Bush campaigned with a populist message—just as selectively applied then as it is now—to govern in a way that respected the rights of the people to make their own choices. He smirked and did that eyebrow thing and said famously (not to mention falsely), “My opponent trusts the government; I trust the people.”

Thus it may come as a bit of a surprise (or not at all) that when Bush rolled out the new central plank in his platform at the Republican National Convention this month—a revamping of the entire federal tax code—he didn’t bother to fill anyone in on the details. It’s too messy. Too inefficient. There are too many corporate loopholes. All true. Trouble is: what does he intend to do about it? Trust us, he said. Re-elect us, and we’ll take care of it.

Whatever happened to trusting the people?

Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. President. After four years of acting like lap dogs for corporate America, ramming through tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, pushing for an end to capital gains taxes, and burning through a record surplus, I think we know what to expect when we trust the Bush government to take care of things.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s examine the few scraps of information that Bush has been kind enough to share about his plans. In his acceptance speech, Bush reflected on his desire to bring about “a simpler, fairer, pro-growth” tax system. And he promises to do it a “bipartisan” manner—appointing a panel of experts and economists who will advise his Treasury Secretary about bold new options for revamping the code in a revenue-neutral way (remember, after all, there is that pesky deficit).

So far so good, right? Who doesn’t like bipartisanship? And why shouldn’t we trust a bunch of economists to rewrite the code?

Well, for one thing, taxes aren’t only about drags on the economy. It’s also about making judgment calls about who should foot the bill, about what is money earned versus money happened upon, about where the burden of funding the federal government ought to lie. (Those of us who took Ec 10 probably remember that lecture on the difference between positive and normative statements.)

But regardless of these broader matters, there is also that little inconvenient fact that this administration already has a pretty good idea of how it would like to change the system. Streamlining the code was once a pet project of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill—that is, of course, before he was canned. The Bush-Cheney campaign—or more likely that wily Karl Rove—just doesn’t feel like talking about it.

But as University President Lawrence H. Summers demonstrated this past year with reference to Allston planning, you don’t ask a committee for ideas without first framing their choices with a few “planning assumptions.” And it’s fairly clear to those who’ve followed this story line in the media what planning assumptions this tax policy committee will be charged with. This talk about bipartisanship and economists obscures the fact that the Bush team knows exactly the direction it’s heading. For several weeks now there have been quiet (and not so quiet) rumblings from the Bush-Cheney politburo about that perennial conservative darling—the “flat tax.” And this talk about corporate loopholes? Not unless Corporate America’s getting something in return—and no doubt they would be.

But the Bush-Cheney campaign wouldn’t actually stoop so high as to take a position! That would leave them open to criticism—for instance, like the (accurate) claim that a flat tax is basically yet another ginormous tax cut for the wealthy. No, it’s far better to talk generally about cleaning up a headache-inducing system—about ending corporate loopholes—than to endorse any specific plan. This has Karl Rove’s fingerprints all over it. As long as Bush paints this plank in broad-brush strokes, he’s got a sure winner on his hands.

The truth is Bush’s vague domestic policy agenda is the biggest fraud on the American public since Richard Nixon campaigned on a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. This latest vacuous ploy makes previous Bush policy announcements pale in comparison. While we’ve come to expect our president to disingenuously pander leftward while lurching ever farther right—think outdoorsy photo-ops for the ill-named Healthy Forest Initiative, which opened up 20 million acres of National Forests to logging and made them more susceptible to fires—this time the Republicans aren’t even bothering to put a proposal on the table. That way, whenever anyone criticizes it, they can reply, “Don’t be so critical; nothing’s been decided yet.”

Of course, will anyone fall for it? After all, this is the same president who allowed oil tycoons to create his energy policy. And now we are to believe—on faith alone—that when Bush sits down to rewrite the tax code, the only interests on his mind will be the average “folks” he’s met on the trail.

Mr. President, if you still trust the people, then let us in on your secret plan. Give us the facts; we’ll promise to make our choice wisely.

Benjamin J. Toff ’05, a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House, is editorial chair of The Crimson.