Republicans, pretty much, want to do it by cutting the budget.
Democrats say it's been cut to the bone over the last couple of years and that revenue needs to be raised.
In a recent blog post I quoted a letter to the editor which called on teachers to take a pay cut to preserve their colleagues' jobs. I pointed out that it seemed unfair for only teachers to take a pay cut. Everyone benefits from kids getting a good education. Everyone should take a pay cut. And that there was a way already set to do this, and it was done in most other states. It's called an income tax.
I, of course, knew that this term is like blasphemy to conservatives, particularly to wealthy ones.
Oliver, who comments here once in a while, suggested, in a comment to that post, that we have a sales tax instead. After a discussion about all the people who would not pay an income tax, including those who make less than $14,000, Oliver concluded that:
"Not what I would call fair or everyone paying their fair share."I took some time to think about and respond to his comment. When I tried to post my comment, there was a problem and it wouldn't post there. I had thought about making it all a new post, but figured the discussion should stay with the original post and comment. Then I tried again and it said my comment was too many words. So I'm making this a new post. You can see the old one and Oliver's comment in full here.
1. For the sake of this discussion, I'll just accept the numbers that Oliver offered. I agree in general principle that as many people should pay the tax as possible. I would point out that as of 2016, there were 198,617 residents 18 or under, many of whom would live in families that paid an income tax.
2. It's long been understood that a sales tax is a regressive tax, meaning the poor pay a larger percent of their income in sales tax, and that it 'hurts' them far more than it 'hurts' wealthier people. Even if wealthier people pay more in sales taxes. I won't go through that argument here. That link also discusses the reasons for a progressive tax, like most income taxes, in which higher income people pay a higher percentage of their income. (Assuming there aren't enough loopholes to make the higher rates moot.)
So I would just like to focus here on the idea of "everyone paying their fair share." More particularly, on the underlying assumption of that.
The Problem Of The Work Ethic In The 21st Century World
The work ethics that most Americans can quote goes something like this: hard work and diligence are morally good. There are some corollary assumptions:
- that if you work hard, you will do well
- wealth is the result of hard work
- poverty is the result of laziness
reminds us that work wasn't always seen as having intrinsic value, particularly manual labor. The Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans saw work as something to escape, to have slaves do. It wasn't until the Reformation that work became holy. Luther equated one's vocation with one's calling from God. But, with Calvin, according to History of Work Ethic, work didn't make you good, it was a sign that you were predestined to be good.
"Central to Calvinist belief was the Elect, those persons chosen by God to inherit eternal life. All other people were damned and nothing could change that since God was unchanging. While it was impossible to know for certain whether a person was one of the Elect, one could have a sense of it based on his own personal encounters with God. Outwardly the only evidence was in the person’s daily life and deeds, and success in one’s worldly endeavors was a sign of possible inclusion as one of the Elect. A person who was indifferent and displayed idleness was most certainly one of the damned, but a person who was active, austere, and hard-working gave evidence to himself and to others that he was one of God’s chosen ones (Tilgher, 1930, p. 53-61).
Calvin taught that all men must work, even the rich, because to work was the wil of God."
In any case, today, most of us, at least subconsciously if not explicitly, tend to look down on the poor and give respect to the wealthy. But despite this general rule, there have always been exceptions:
- Those who inherit wealth only work if they want to or their families require them to. If they do work it’s often in jobs provided through family connections
- Slaves worked, but didn’t get paid for their work - their masters took the benefit, and those lost wages are still reflected in our society’s wealth inequality.
- Women didn’t work outside the house unless economics forced them to. Married women whose husbands had enough income to support the family worked at home. Depending on how much the husband earned, the woman might work hard in the house or might have help to do most of the work.
- People who were physically or mentally ill or disabled may or may not have worked depending if they could find something that matched their abilities
- Children may or may not have worked - it depended on the family income and where they lived. Farm kids often worked from a young age. Child labor outside the house/farm expanded greatly in the industrial age for poor families. And conditions were often horrendous.
A Change In the Nature Of Work
The myth is that the work ethic was useful once in a time when everyone had to work for the family and the society to survive. That may have been true of families, but most societies in history had workers and those who lived off the work of the rest.
The work ethic was probably a convenient tool when human economies became industrialized and workers were needed in the factories. But our economy has changed.
Trump has blamed immigrants for taking away American jobs though we know for the most part immigrants take jobs that Americans either don’t want to do, or skilled positions for which employers can’t find enough qualified Americans.
The Real Job Thief Has Been Automation.
From the time that science was applied to management in the US (around the early 1900s) workers were seen as a problem. Early Management Science tried to make factories more efficient by making people more machine like. People no longer created a whole product from the beginning to the end.
Instead the process was broken down in to separate pieces, and factory workers did the same 10 - 90 second action over and over again all day. The joy of work, of having a craft and doing it well, was replaced by tedious, boring work. First this was with factory work, but then it spread into other fields. Some of the last fields are education and medicine. The technology of distance education, for example, reduces teaching into components. Teachers prepare, with the help of teaching technicians, videos, reading assignments, etc. before the class begins. Everything is put on line and the teacher may have no role except to comment in discussion groups. And a new teacher could step in and appropriate the work of the teacher who designed the class. Doctors are no longer working in private practice. They are now mostly employees of hospitals.
What Will We Do With Our Leisure?
What they forgot was that we have a capitalistic society where profits go to the owners of the companies. So, as work got automated, some employees did get more leisure - they lost their jobs. The remaining employees often ended up working more than far more than 40 hours a week.
Companies then used automation to out-source a lot of the remaining work to customers - think about self-service gas and grocery checkout, ATM machines, skipping travel agents and booking your own tickets on line. Now we even have to check ourselves in and get our own baggage claims.
Instead of 30 hour work weeks, we have far more unemployed, and a much greater income gap between the heads of corporations and their employees.
Are You Ever Going To Wrap This Up, Steve?
The point of this long explanation is that people are unemployed because our society doesn't need everyone to work to produce the goods and services that we want. In fact, we do it more efficiently with more machines and fewer workers.
But our value system is still based on a society that needed every able bodied person to work. I’m guessing that you, like most people, are still thinking in terms of those old values. But owners of companies have an incentive to automate and get rid of jobs - it’s cheaper and machines don’t have personal lives that interfere with their work.
So that’s why I’m not persuaded by your argument that with an income tax, some people don’t contribute their fair share. That language implies a moral shortcoming on the part of those who will get something for nothing that echoes the Protestant work ethic.
Most, if not all of those people who don’t earn enough to pay an income tax, also didn’t get a fair share when it came to things like good parents, skills that are rewarded in our school system and job market, good mental and physical health, and other factors that impact who will succeed and who won’t in our society. Brawn which was marketable in the past, is much less in demand.
The systems we have for allocating pay are also very skewed. How hard you work is not necessarily related to how well you do or whether what you do makes society better or worse. Should the people who get rich selling alcohol have some extra responsibility for the people who die at the hands of an alcoholic? Should a teacher get tax credits for inspiring a student to succeed despite a difficult upbringing? [UPDATE a little later: When I wrote this, I didn't know that a bill has been introduced in California to exempt teachers from state income tax.0
An important measure of human beings for me is how they play the hand they were dealt at birth. Those who are given a lot, owe a lot more than those who were dealt a lousy hand. In my ideal world, people's moral worth would be measured by the ratio between the benefits one receives and what one gives to society. Ideally, everyone would be at least 1:1.
The people who camp in the woods along the bike trails would mostly like a decent home and income and only camp in the woods when they chose to. But their skills and life experiences have gotten them to a point where they really can’t get out of their ruts without some serious interventions. Our health care non-system caused many people to self-medicate, with alcohol being the legal drug, but lots of illegal drugs have also been available. American individualism still attributes poverty to the laziness of the individual. Other countries recognize that the social, political, economic systems play a big role in who succeeds, financially, in life and who doesn't.
I don’t have a problem paying higher taxes to offset what they can’t pay. I wouldn’t want to trade places with them. And I also know that as the percentage of poor gets bigger, the more brutal society gets, even for the wealthy.
I would love a society where people are nurtured as kids and helped to discover and develop their skills and talents so we have far fewer people who can’t make it on their own. But we also have to figure out how to distribute wealth when there just aren’t real jobs for a large segment of society.
This Debate Isn't New
And I'd note, these conflicting ways of looking at the world aren't new. Hilary Mantel, in Bring Up The Bodies, describes how Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell's attempt to hire the poor to build much needed infrastructure was treated by Parliament:
"In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field. England needs roads, forts, harbours, bridges. Men need work. It's a shame to see them begging their bread, when honest labour could keep the realm secure. Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?I'd note that Thomas Cromwell lived from 1485 - 1540 and Martin Luther lived from 1483 -1546.
But Parliament cannot seee how it is the state's job to create work. Are not these matters in god's hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order? To everything there is a season: a time to starve and a time to thieve. If rain falls for six months solid and rots the grain in the fields, there must be providence in it; for God knows his trade. It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy. And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality; well, are there not hangmen enough?" (emphasis mine.)
John Calvin lived from 1509 - 1584.