Thursday, August 19, 2004

Hyman's Away; "The Counterpoint" Will Play

Mark Hyman is on vacation this week, but he promises (threatens?) to be back to “cover” the Republican National Convention. In the meantime, this gives us a chance to revisit a couple of issues in a bit more depth while we await a new supply of whoppers from Sinclair.

One of the recurring subjects of “The Point” is taxes, and in particular the wonders that the Bush tax cuts have supposedly brought the middle class. Oddly enough, just as Hyman left for vacation, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office published
a report on the overall effects of the Bush/Cheney tax cuts. As it turns out, the cuts have done an excellent job of shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class (for an overall digest of the study, see this article from the Washington Post).

This of course not only flies in the face of what Hyman has been saying for months, but also what the president himself said as a candidate in 2000, when he said, “by far, the vast majority of the tax cuts in my plan go to those at the bottom.”

But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing after all. Sure, it demonstrates a certain casualness with the truth on the part of both Bush and Hyman, but is the bottom line really that bad? Isn’t the result of all this tax cutting a flatter, more equitable tax system, and isn’t this just more democratic anyway? Isn’t there something vaguely Marxist about progressive taxation?

No, there’s not. The idea of a progressive tax code is literally as old as democracy itself. One of the first reforms that Solon (a.k.a. “The Lawgiver”) made in ancient Athens in the 6th century B.C. was to create a tax system where those who had the most paid the most to support the state. In fact, progressive taxation goes hand in hand with healthy democracies. For a short treatment of this, see NY Times tax reporter David Cay Johnston’s
article from April 18th comparing the Bush/Cheney tax cuts to the tax systems traditionally favored by healthy democracies.. You can also read the abstract of the paper Johnston refers to in his article by Washington and Lee University professor Maureen Cavanagh here.

Here’s a case in point not specifically dealt with in Johnston’s piece, but which certainly falls in line with his analysis: in Golden Age Athens, when democracy was truly invented, there was a particular tax levied on the wealthiest citizens. The amount of the tax equaled the sum needed to outfit a trireme, an Athenian warship. Why? Because Athens’ defense and her economic power was based on her navy. The Athenians realized that the people who benefited most from living in a democracy are those who are well-off. A slave’s life was likely the same no matter where he or she lived. A free but poor farmer would also not necessarily notice a huge difference in quality of life from one political system to another. The higher on the socioeconomic scale you go, the more dependent on democracy a group is for their continued way of life. This culminates in the wealthiest landowners and merchants, who simply wouldn’t exist in anything other than a free society.

Given this, reasoned the ever-reasonable Greeks, it makes sense for those who have profited most from democracy and have the most to lose from its destruction to pay more for its upkeep and defense. Hence, a tax on the wealthiest citizens to supply Athens with the ships and sailors upon which her political and economic might depended.

Some wealthy Athenians took pride in contributing to her defense and nearly reveled in the cache that outfitting a trireme brought. Others, understandably, were less than completely enthusiastic and tried any number of legal maneuverings and challenges to get out of this tax (some things don’t change). But the central idea remained: those who profit most from living in a free society owe the most for its maintenance. Unless one argues that Solon and Pericles were somehow channeling the spirits of Marx and Engels backward through time, the canard that progressive taxation is somehow antithetical to democracy is rubbish. It’s part of what democracy is (at least a healthy one).

By the by, the Athenians were also too smart to cut taxes while at war. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens levied an extra 1% land tax to help defray the costs of the struggle against the decidedly undemocratic Spartans. It was a relatively modest tax that only affected the wealthy, but went a long way in avoiding monstrous debts that would cripple the city into the future. We leave it to the reader to draw your own analogies.

And that’s The Counterpoint

An Athenian Trireme


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