Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why tax reform talk a dead end

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 12:39 AM EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
John Avlon says any real effort at tax reform that will reduce the national debt is often lost in partisan jockeying
John Avlon says any real effort at tax reform that will reduce the national debt is often lost in partisan jockeying
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Nixon said taxes never popular but can be fair, when top rate was 70%
  • He says today tax rates about half that and still potent issue for Dems, GOP seeking advantage
  • He says taxes should reflect shared sacrifice to restore U.S.; not for wealth redistribution
  • Avlon: Tax code byzantine, reform tries run into partisan brick wall, taxpayers suffer

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns.

(CNN) -- It turns out that Richard Nixon was a hippie.

Here's Tricky Dick's wisdom on taxation, always worth dusting off this time of year:

"We shall never make taxation popular, but we can make taxation fair."

See -- he's talking about "fairness" -- and we all now know that's code for social justice straight out of Saul Alinsky. And it was especially socialistic for him to invoke the concept back in a time when the top tax rate was 70%.

Meanwhile, back in reality circa 2012, we are having a typically overheated election-year debate about taxes -- and both teams in Washington have a point.

Republicans this side of Ronald Reagan finally found a way to out-promise Democrats. After decades spent griping that the New Deal's electoral power came from liberal's limitless ability to promise public goodies, conservatives have realized that they can tap into American's anti-tax impulse by promising to lower taxes all the time, regardless of whether our nation is at war or running a long-term deficit. Liberals have always had a hard time appreciating that the American Revolution was founded in part on a tax revolt.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

But historic perspective is the enemy of partisan ideologues, and on the flip-side, conservatives who idealize the past conveniently ignore that tax rates at the heart of the American Century were almost double what they are today. That was an outrage; by comparison, today's debates are about rounding errors.

Essentially, we are debating whether the top tax rate should go back to where it was during the Bill Clinton presidency -- 39.6%, up from the Bush tax cut level of 35%. And this would apply only to households making more than $250,000 a year.

I happen to think using that threshold is a mistake. A family making 250k with two earners doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the super-rich at the top tax rate. At the same time, someone such as Mitt Romney, who makes $56,000 a day off passive income from investments, shouldn't be taxed at just 14%.

Obama has a real weakness in this year's debate, however. Read through his play-to-the-base budget, and you'll see the term "fairness" advanced over and over again. Fairness is a noble goal and contributes to societal stability in the long-run. But the real argument for raising taxes is directly related to balancing budgets and reducing long-term deficits and debt. And that argument is rooted in rhetoric about the "shared sacrifice" needed to restore national greatness. After all, the world's largest debtor nation cannot remain the world's sole superpower for long.

Obama's fairness rhetoric bypasses that rational argument in favor of something fluffier -- namely, closing the growing gap between rich and poor via the tax code. This might excite the liberal Democratic base, but it also serves to confirm negative stereotypes about wealth redistribution and the left that alienates independents and swing voters.

On balance, I think policy arguments about moving the top rate to people making more than a million dollars a year makes good sense.

Republicans will balk out of deference to philosophy and big campaign contributors, but even 52% of self-identified tea partiers support that benchmark. It is an additional irony that many conservatives are fine with raising taxes on those 47% of Americans who don't make enough money to pay federal income taxes, as long as top rates are lowered enough to make the overall shift revenue neutral. This isn't tax policy as much as it has become a shell-game masquerading as ideology.

Tax day is unpleasant, and it has become a colossal waste of time and money. The current tax code is roughly 10 times longer than the Bible, and Forbes estimates that 6.1 billion hours are wasted in trying to comply with its byzantine structures.

Both Obama and congressional Republicans have campaigned on tax reform and tax simplification in the past. The Bowles-Simpson Plan and the sadly abandoned Obama-Boehner Grand Bargain imagined lowering rates and raising revenue by closing loopholes. The real tragedy is that such an agreement should be within reach -- but the 80% agreement keeps getting eclipsed by the 20% disagreement, that signature, stubborn hyperpartisan insistence on all or nothing. So we get nothing.

That brings us back to Nixon's aphorism: "We shall never make taxation popular but we can make taxation fair." It's about the last piece of useful wisdom on the subject that we've heard out of Washington.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT