Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Taxes

What a difference a couple thousand miles of ocean can make.

Taxes have always been a delicate subject in the United States. If you're a rich person in the United States your taxes have been falling for a while, from a postwar high of 92% on the $250,001 bracket in 1952, the rates started falling precipitously under Reagan and Bush and now stand at 33%; not quite as low as the 1920s, but give them time. Now President Obama is preparing to announce a new "Buffett tax" tomorrow, and though only limited details have so far made their way to the wild, expectations are that it's going to be levied on those making more than a million dollars a year in order to help close the United States' staggering budget gap. Cuts and cuts and more cuts can only go so far without new revenue.

Predictably the Republicans, the party of all those "temporarily embarrassed millionaires," are already drawing their lines of battle against it. The first shot across the bow was the accusation that it's "class warfare" - because, really, asking those with extraordinary means to pay into the society that enabled them to realize those means is functionally identical to the proletariat laying siege to the gated communities of the bourgeoisie - followed up by claims from House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan that "it punishes job creation and those people who create jobs."

I can see it now, those wealthy job creators sitting in their offices, going over the numbers and coming to the sobering conclusion that they can't afford to install granite countertops in their vacation home in the Hamptons. Obviously there's only one rational response - create jobs in countries that don't "punish" job creation... just like they've been doing for decades. Obama's going to have a brutal fight on his hands to get a tax like this to his desk without it being so watered down you could wipe the ink off the bill with a sponge; but it seems that Republicans are committed to ensuring that the weight of taxes settle disproportionately on those who have the least resources.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - junior partner in the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government - has been giving whatever assurances he can that the 50p tax rate - that is, a 50% tax rate on those bringing in more than £150,000, the wealthiest 300,000 out of the UK's twenty-nine million taxpayers. When it was introduced in 2010, it was expected to raise £2.4 billion in the first year; and with the Eurozone in peril, every quid matters. Though critics originally, and still, are concerned that the tax isn't effective - though we won't know one way or another until the spring, when the Treasury will release its results - Clegg has said that it wouldn't be "morally or economically right" to end the tax unless it's replaced by a different one that further reduces the weight of taxation on Britain's poorest.

So far as I know, nothing official has been heard thus far for what the Government will do if the 50p tax turns out to be a damp squib. Nevertheless, there's been speculation that it would be replaced by a 1% tax on homes valued in excess of £2 million, less tax relief on pensions, and so on. So, you know, alternatives.

This stands in stark contrast to the proposed solutions from the peanut gallery in Washington. Sometime I have to wonder if George Bush's "read my lips: no new taxes" was not a political statement but some kind of ritual ensorcellment that binds Republicans to that commitment unless the spell is broken.

In this case, the difference between the United Kingdom and the United States appears to be one of rationalism versus emotionalism. The senior partners in the present UK government are conservatives, but they're still willing to tax those who can afford it while working toward bettering the lot of society itself. In the United States, anyone who wants to raise taxes on the wealthy has to hack through a jungle of "fuck you, got mine," and society is left to fend for itself.

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