It’s Time To Make Taxes Nontoxic

As budget negotiations begin, citizens and leaders need to remember why taxes exist

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The drama surrounding the so-called “fiscal cliff” is like a soap opera for wonks: policymaking by suicide pact that makes for terrible governance but suspenseful viewing. And it seems the role of citizens, besides suffering endless cliff puns by the pundits, is simply to tune into the contrived crisis as anxious spectators.

That’s how Grover Norquist wants it. The grand enforcer of right-wing anti-tax orthodoxy recently proposed that every moment of negotiations be aired live on C-SPAN — not just the floor debates and votes that are already televised. Railing against backroom conspiracies and secret pacts (and pointing out, correctly, that President Obama once promised such transparency), he’s calculating that most politicians are loath to be captured on camera raising taxes.

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He may be right — but for the wrong reasons. Norquist thinks taxes are inherently bad and that no elected official wants to be caught doing something bad. The reality, though, is that taxes aren’t inherently bad; they’re only inherently unpopular. And they’re unpopular in part because people like him have relentlessly demonized taxation, converting taxes from a necessary evil — “the price we pay for a civilized society,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it — into something both unnecessary and evil. They’ve detached taxpaying from citizenship, and made the t-word toxic.

Conducting complicated, high-stakes budget negotiations on live television is a terrible idea — it’ll lead to preening and posturing and push negotiators toward oversimplified fixed positions rather than nuance or compromise. But the deeper problem is that it incentivizes negotiators to propose only safe and popular ideas, allowing both politicians and the people to shirk their core responsibilities.

The job of elected representatives is to make the hard calls and strike the difficult deals that their constituents may neither like nor fully understand, and that can’t be easily constructed in a reality-TV performance. Representation is for taxation. That is, we the people choose representatives so that they can do the complex work of, well, taxing us and running a government that works.

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It’s time we remembered that. And it’s time we became more grown-up as constituents. It is the public’s longstanding and immature desire for more spending and lower taxes that helped get us into this fiscal mess. What’s needed now isn’t a spy cam trained on elected officials but rather a mirror that we the people look into, to face our own self-indulgence — which politicians are too happy to perpetuate — and to face facts about why we have taxes at all.

Several years ago a vocal minority organized itself as the Tea Party and sparked an angry new conversation about taxes. That minority was so inflexible and potent that it brought us first the debt ceiling fiasco and then the “fiscal cliff.” Now the silent majority of Americans needs to speak up and change the tenor of the conversation — to make it safe for taxes to be part of any plan to reduce the debt. This isn’t about big or small government. It’s about responsible government.

There are signs that norms are shifting this way. Election day was one: a president calling for the wealthy to pay more in taxes was reelected soundly despite high unemployment and slow recovery. In recent days, prominent congressional Republicans have indicated they no longer feel bound by their pledge of allegiance to Grover. And Warren Buffett, calling for a minimum tax for the rich, is now openly mocking Norquist’s taxaphobia.

In this light, Norquist’s call for C-SPAN’s cameras is a sign of weakness. He fears that our electeds will raise taxes behind closed doors; he fears even more that the electorate will interpret this as doing the right thing. If we push our politicians to lead with more foresight — to make compromise normal again — ideologues like Norquist will go out of business. Televised or not, that’d be worth watching.

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