THE BLOG

Maybe it's finally time to learn from Google and make the Federal budget free

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

Why tax people?

Really. We now know that no one likes paying taxes. The presumption was that Democrats liked taxes and that Republicans were opposed to them. But clearly that hypothesis was proven wrong. First, when the man who now sits atop the IRS, Tim Geithner, was nominated to be Treasury Secretary, it turned out that he preferred to not pay taxes.

But that failed to prove the point, as for many it was unclear whether Geithner was actually a Democrat. But Tom Daschle turned the trick. It finally was clear that Democrats, like Republicans, do not like to pay taxes.

Back in the day, taxes were not the issue. Spending was the issue. Back then, when everyone presumed that balancing budgets were among the sole tasks that our members of Congress were charged to perform--that and trashing the UN--Republicans liked to spend less and tax less. Democrats liked to spend more... and were somewhat agnostic on taxes. It was not that they liked taxes per se, but they were a necessary step to get to spend more.

Then Ronald Reagan changed everything, and all assumptions were cast to the wind. Since the Reagan Presidency, Republicans learned that spending really was not so bad, as long as taxes didn't have to pay for it. At first they voiced horror at the fiscal consequences of tax cuts, but, in time, they got over it.

And in time it really annoyed the hell out of Democrats. Ronald Reagan had led the Republican Party to the Promised Land. Cut taxes, spend money and let the chips fall where they may.

The premise was simple. It was unarguable. At any level of taxation, there is a lower level that will put more money back in the hands of taxpayers, and that will provide more resources for businesses to hire people and spur the economy onward.

It has become axiomatic. At every level of taxation, there is a lower level that if achieved will spur on the economy.

Therefore, following the logic to its natural conclusion, the optimal tax rate is zero.

Unless you need money. For stuff. Guns. Butter. You know. Stuff.

Or so we thought.

Today, we are approaching political Nirvana. In the final great leap of bipartisanship, the new administration is reaching for a new middle ground. Cut taxes in a nod to Republicans (and, it turns out, to everyone else, who also prefer to not pay taxes.) And increase spending. Because... Well. Because we can. Because we must.

And forget all those arguments about the expiring 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. That is not a tax increase. That is just reality once again coming back to bite us.

Pardon the digression, but those tax cuts marked the beginning of the end of any integrity in tax policy. The scoring rules at the time required that tax legislation be budget neutral over a ten-year horizon. Congress was unable to pay for the tax cuts with other increases or spending cuts, so they paid for them by having them expire in year eight or so. So they complied with the ten-year scoring rules. Kind of. Lots of cuts for eight years. Lots of revenue to pay for them in years nine and ten.

Back in 2001, as they contemplated years of tax cuts that would suddenly expire, people jokingly referred to 2010 as "the year we push momma from the train," because in 2011 the estate tax would rise dramatically back to its 2001 level. Well, here we are in year eight, and there is no need to worry about the estate tax. The estates were invested with Bernie Madoff.

Everyone gives lip service to debt being the problem that got us into our current mess. Not passing on to our children "a debt they cannot pay" was the great bi-partisan applause line of the President's speech the other night. They applaud fiscal responsibility. They just don't believe in it. Or know what it is.

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Look at the record over the past two decades. Our economic performance has been flat, other than the growth that we have literally purchased with debt. As a nation, we are like households whose real income has been flat for a decade, but who fund an increasing standard of living--new electronics, cruises, home improvements--through more and more borrowing. For years now, as a nation, our GDP growth has increasingly been purchased with imported capital.

Really.

Take a look at the new federal budget. $3.55 trillion of spending. A $1.75 trillion deficit. Maybe we have reached the tipping point. Finally, our revenues may become less than half our budget, and we can begin to migrate our tax rates to their optimal level.

Zero.

That does not mean we will have a 100% deficit. Far from it. We will still have cattle grazing fees.

And we will have the loan guarantee fees that the Federal Reserve charges for guaranteeing private debt. Those should be growing.

Oh. Sorry. Those aren't in the budget.

My bad.