A couple weeks ago, when I first set out on my recent series of obsessively wonky posts on Washington’s budget crisis and the structural revenue deficit at its heart, I pretty much knew what to expect. Readership would trail off, incoming links would virtually disappear, and my comment threads would fill with automatic gainsaying, tired, anti-tax rhetoric, and pointless personal attacks on my manhood, my alleged socialism, and of course, my ethnicity.
i told u in your last post goldstein, get out of here and go to that garbage dump israel, and take that homo barney frank with u
No, my trolls rarely fail to disappoint. And neither have the local media, whose coverage of this crisis, as expected, has largely focused on the spending side of the equation and the political machinations behind it, while providing little if any discussion of its causes, outside of the frame of the current economic cycle.
It is easy to point to a four-year period and show that spending has increased from X to Y. It is much harder to cogently place this increase within the proper historical, economic and statistical context. And so, for the most part, our media has failed to even try, and understandably so, for properly done, the subject matter is inherently godawful dry and boring. Why should a daily newspaper devote precious column inches to explaining a premise that is at its best tedious, and at its worse, a maddeningly counter-intuitive and downright unpopular challenge to conventional wisdom?
Thus I was pleasantly surprised to read Seattle Times economic columnist Jon Talton this morning proclaim that now is the “Time for state to discuss taxes despite difficulties.”
It’s quixotic — or deranged. Such are most of the reactions, depending on political persuasion, to state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown’s idea of an income tax on high-wage earners to help fund education.
Huh. Sounds like Talton is calling out his own editorial board. But…
Even so, Brown’s proposal ought to open an important conversation about taxes and the state’s future competitiveness. It’s one that’s difficult to have without arousing partisan passions, cooked statistics and charges of socialism or a sales-tax-driven war on the poor. It’s one we should have nevertheless.
There… was that so hard?
As Talton points out, Washington’s individual and corporate tax “burden” remains relatively low while our per capita income remains high, and our heavy reliance on the sales tax leaves us with the most regressive tax structure in the nation. Talton also peeks beneath the robes of the rarely challenged orthodoxy that inexorably links tax rates to private sector competitiveness.
Some of the states with the highest tax rates and tax burdens (taxes paid divided by income) are also the richest and most economically powerful.
These include New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California. Some states with very low taxes also suffer from limited economies and a relative lack of well-paid jobs. This doesn’t mean that high taxes can’t ultimately hurt competitiveness, only that reflexive tax cutting is no panacea, either. Rather, tax policy seems to be one element in a state’s overall competitive DNA.
Our problem, as Talton explains, is that despite such facts, talk of higher taxes is generally political suicide.
Anti-tax activists have been effective in portraying government as always bloated and inefficient. This sidesteps answering what roles government must do well and which cost money to enhance competitiveness in a complex, global economy.
That’s all I’ve been asking for: a public conversation on the proper size and scope of government, and how best to adequately, sustainably and fairly pay for those services and infrastructure investments we collectively want and need. With rare exceptions like Talton’s column, we aren’t getting that conversation in our local media, and apart from Brown and a handful of other legislators, we aren’t getting that conversation from our elected officials either.
I’m not saying it’s an easy conversation, or one that won’t come with political costs. But in the long run, it’s a conversation we can’t afford to avoid.