Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Joe Biden Calls it "Patriotic" to Pay More in Taxes

Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden (DE) recently made remarks saying that it would be patriotic for wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes.

At a rally in Sarasota, FL, on September 3, 2008, Biden responded to a member of the audience who asked about the tax proposals of Biden's running mate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL):

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I am a big supporter of you and Barack Obama, but I have friends who are successful and quite wealthy -- this is Sarasota, there are a lot of them here -- who are concerned about your tax policies, that people earning over $250,000 will have a tax increase, uh, and, what can I say to them, what can you say to them? Thank you.
BIDEN: It's time to be patriotic, that's what you say to them.
* Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Biden brings town hall to Sarasota
* YouTube: Joe Biden: Paying Higher Taxes Is Patriotic
In an interview September 18, 2008, on ABC's "Good Morning America" with Kate Snow, Biden said:

BIDEN: We want to take money and put it back in the pocket of middle-class people.
SNOW: Anybody making over $250,000 ...
BIDEN: ... is gonna pay more.
SNOW: ... is gonna pay more.
BIDEN: You got it. It's time to be patriotic, Kate. Time to jump in. Time to be part of the deal. Time to help get America out of the rut.
* Real Clear Politics: Biden's "Patriotic" Taxes Comment (September 18, 2008)
* Associated Press: Biden says McCain's economic answers go nowhere
* Associated Press: Biden calls paying higher taxes a patriotic act
* NewsBusters: ABC's Snow to Biden: Why Aren't You 'Further Ahead In the Polls'? (September 18, 2008)
The Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (AZ), responded later that day to Biden's comments on "Good Morning America":

MCCAIN: Today Senator Obama's running mate said that raising taxes is patriotic. Raising taxes in a tough economy isn't patriotic. It's not a badge of honor. It's just plain dumb. ... The billions in tax increases that Senator Obama is proposing would kill even more jobs during tough economic times. I’m not going to let that happen.
* Associated Press: Biden says McCain's economic answers go nowhere
As did McCain's running-mate, Gov. Sarah Palin (AK):

PALIN: Our opponents may have some strange ideas about raising taxes. To them raising taxes and Joe Biden said it again today raising taxes is about patriotism ... To the rest of America that's not patriotism. Raising taxes is about killing jobs and hurting small businesses and making things worse. This isn't about anyone's patriotism. It’s about Barack Obama's poor judgment.
* Fox News: The GOP Ticket Goes after the Democratic Ticket
This exchange -- between Biden on the one side and McCain and Palin on the other -- is a classic example of the political debate on tax policy. Both sides are bringing up relevant moral considerations, but -- true to the behavior typical of politicians -- are giving one-sided accounts of the issue, and depicting their opponents as not having any legitimate moral points of their own to make. That is, they point out the moral considerations that support their position, but they ignore the ones that support their opponent's position.

For instance, Biden says that it is patriotic to pay taxes. Certainly, there are legitimate services that the government provides, and people should be happy -- or at least content -- to give the money needed to provide those services, so long as it is within reason.

But there is plenty of room for debate regarding what constitutes a legitimate service, and what constitutes a reasonable amount of taxation. Biden, however, acts as if anyone who opposes the tax rates proposed by Obama are unreasonable to the point that they can only be described as unpatriotic. That is, he isn't willing to consider that someone might reasonably object to the tax rates proposed by Obama, so he instantly explains their opposition as relating to a lack of patriotism. He demonizes them, in other words.

McCain and Palin, on the other hand, make the point that higher taxes might result in less economic growth and more unemployment. This is a legitimate concern.

But McCain and Palin don't treat their position as arguable, either, or think that it needs to be weighed against other considerations. McCain describes the Obama-Biden tax policy as "just plain dumb". In other words, he derides his opponents as stupid.

Tax policy is a complicated issue, though neither side chooses to describe it that way. Lots of moral considerations and empirical uncertainties come into play:

  • Need: What needs do people have? What needs should the government satisfy, and what needs should people be expected to satisfy by themselves?
  • Merit: What amount of money is it fair to take from people? How much of a person's earnings is a result of their own work and productivity, and how much is a result of the government and the services it provides?
  • Empirical matters: Will a higher tax rate increase revenues, or decrease them by depressing economic activity? What tax policies will give people an incentive to work more and be more productive, or to work less and seek more government support?

Biden is being blind to concerns that higher taxes might depress the economy, making life tougher for everyone, particularly those who already have low incomes and can hardly afford to lose their jobs. He is also ignoring the notion that -- as a matter of merit -- people should be allowed to hold on to the income they have earned through their own productivity. He doesn't question the patriotism of those who take more in government services than they truly need, nor does he praise people for earning so much that they are able to pay enough taxes in order to provide for those who ARE truly needy.

McCain and Palin, meanwhile, are being blind to concerns that taxes are required to pay for government services that address legitimate needs and are necessary for most people to earn any money at all.

The debate about tax policy -- like most political issues -- is regularly mangled in this way. Rather than bringing up all the moral considerations involved and then taking a stand on how you think they balance out, politicians typically just behave as if all the moral considerations point in their favor.

And they do this by not bringing up any of the ones that don't point in their favor.

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