Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Where your money goes

Two nice graphs from the New York Times 

Comment: Now, could we please stop talking about how we need more taxes to pay for roads and bridges or to help the poor? The main function of our government is to write checks to middle-class and wealthy voters. And that's the reason its finances are in the toilet.

This means Elizabeth Warren, for example, who said a factory owner needs to pay more taxes because "you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." Answer: you paid for that long ago. That's not where the money is going.

This means  Robert Frank, whose NYT "Economics view" argued  for  "higher taxes needed for improved infrastructure" and claimed "when the anti-tax wealthy make campaign contributions, they are buying only the deeper potholes and dirtier air that inevitably result when tax revenue is low." No, that's not where the money is going either.

(Frank's article is hilarious in another way. Higher taxes are fine, he says, because more money won't make you feel better when everyone around you is wealthier too. Too much low-hanging fruit there, just go read it and have a laugh. Or shake your head in amazement. No, he's not joking.)

The point, today, is not whether these checks are a good idea. The point is just this: let's argue honestly about the actual issue. Ms Warren, Mr. Frank, and company: argue wholeheartedly that you want higher taxes to keep the checks coming and write more of them. Opponents: argue the opposite. But leave the roads, bridges, the poor and the environment out of the debate over higher taxes.

Nor am I being heartless. I think we should be doing more to help the genuinely poor, especially the mentally ill that wander the streets of Chicago. I like roads and bridges as much as the next guy (though I must note that building more highways is a very recent liberal priority!) But these priorties are just irrelevant to the current taxation and spending debate.

PS. Of course the Times article was trying to make the opposite point -- that all these middle-class recipients of government largesse were being silly for not supporting politicians who promised to give them more money. The idea that these hearty middle class people were actually smarter than Times writers, and saw that the system would soon break down, did not occur to the Times.