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 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT