Opinion

Is anybody actually asking for tax cuts?

How the GOP exhausted its new songbook and went back to playing its old hits

Barely a week away from the anniversary of Donald Trump's election victory, it's worth considering what the Republican Party told voters to expect if it won.

The Republicans were going to repeal every last word — the commas and periods too, presumably — of the hated Affordable Care Act and replace it with something much better, much cheaper, and much simpler. It didn't happen.

They were going to fund, plan, and execute (not necessarily in that order) one of the largest infrastructure-cum-national defense building projects in the history of the world: the fabled 2,000-mile-long wall along the Mexican border. Astonishingly, that also failed.

They were committed to "freeing financial markets" and to "an annual audit of the Federal Reserve's activities," perhaps on the off chance that Janet Yellen is bringing home government toilet paper in her messenger bag. Those things didn't pan out either.

The only thing they have left to fail at now is "tax reform."

The GOP is like a once-talented rock band who decided to move past the simple but popular 4/4 anthems upon which their success was built into less-explored territory — the psychedelic folk of medical care provision, the space jazz of pragmatic trade policy, the disco of building things other than missiles and airplanes — each time with no success. Now tired, fat, graying, many decades removed from their prime, they take the stage once more to perform their old hits.

This is a concert nobody wants to go to. There is no significant constituency of Americans asking for their taxes to be cut — and certainly no sizable bloc of persons over the age of 50 who would agree to paying less in exchange for losing access to entitlement programs. Sure, there are any number of individual rich people who would very much like to pay less or nothing at all. There are any number of non-rich people who feel the same way. I am one of them. How much would I like the feds or the state government to take out of each of my paychecks? Nothing. In fact, if they have any extra change lying around — say six or seven grand twice a month — that they would like to hand me, I would be glad to have it.

Republicans will be the first to point out that this has nothing to do with greed. In fact, they insist that their motivation is the opposite. They aren't interested in cutting taxes because they want to help rich people buy more helicopters and tacky vacation homes but because they want to help the working and middle classes. The best way of doing this, they say, is to give the money to rich people first and then let them hand it on to their social and economic inferiors. The wealthy are just the pizza delivery guy here.

It's hard to say whether they are being cynical or not, but either way this is nonsense. The proposition that hacking away at tax rates will increase wages is an empirical one that can be tested. Indeed, it has been tested, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and the results were negative. Real wages remained flat.

If the GOP really wants wages to go up for everyone, not in a handful of boutique industries or among workers of a certain skillset, but throughout the American workforce as a whole, then they need to commit themselves to something far more radical than an arbitrary reduction in individual and corporate tax rates. Our entire economy needs to be reshaped, by a dexterous and powerful hand, into something more recognizably human.

We need to get families out of what Elizabeth Warren has called the "two-income trap," in which they are at the mercy of car payments and commuting costs and daycare fees; we need to eliminate, by loan forgiveness and strict federal price controls on tuition and student housing, the crippling levels of college debt that have turned at least two generations into indentured servants holding worthless pieces of paper. We must increase rather than eliminate regulations on financial institutions — indeed, we must undertake a thoroughgoing definancialization of the economy. We need the infrastructure spending and heavy manufacturing jobs promised by Trump, but we also need young people to learn carpentry and other traditional crafts. People need more money, but they also need a lot less ugliness in their lives.

Mitch and Paul and the boys need to dust off the Moog synthesizer, invest in a dizzying array of weird guitar effects pedals, and, who knows, maybe expand their minds by dropping some acid. It's time to make another weird album, one that doesn't suck.

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