The Buzz

The Tax Delusion

David Brooks, the New York Times’s so-called conservative columnist, isn’t much of a conservative. Consider his February 23 column on the tangle of tax breaks and preferences that complicate the U.S. tax code and distort economic decision-making. Brooks sees these as “hidden but huge”—adding up to $600 billion in lost revenue. Thus, says Brooks, “the U.S. has one of the biggest welfare states in the world.”

So far, so good. Then Brooks includes among “good” tax preferences the earned income tax credit (EITC), designed to help low-income people. But this is a program out of control. Just between 2004 to 2008, its cost expanded from $36 billion to $41 billion. An estimated $13 billion to $16 billion is paid out annually based on fraudulent claims. It’s the main reason more than half of U.S. tax filers don’t pay income tax—a scandal to those who believe all citizens should contribute something to the common weal.

Brooks touts President Obama’s “modest but sensible” corporate-tax-simplification plan. Whoa. This plan is riddled with tax preferences for such interests as the president’s supporters in Green energy. In cutting corporate taxes, it excludes the nearly 30 million businesses that are not corporations and thus pay taxes as personal income. It would raise capital-gains taxes by 60 percent and triple dividend taxes.

Brooks slams a competing Mitt Romney plan as “politics as usual” and “unimaginative.” He faults Romney for wanting to do what Reagan did—reduce tax rates to spur economic growth. But today’s rates, he says, “aren’t as onerous as they were in 1980, so lowering them won’t produce as many benefits.”

Whoa again. Reagan reduced the top individual tax rate on earned income to 28 percent from 50 percent. But now it’s back up to 35 percent, which creates plenty of room for tax-cut-induced economic growth—particularly if combined with the kind of assault on tax preferences Brooks wants to see. If Brooks were indeed the conservative he’s touted to be, he would have combined those two things into a powerful argument. Then his column wouldn’t have been such a mixed bag.