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Commentary & Opinion

Tax breaks and carbon taxes

Everybody wants to talk about taxes. Two centuries ago, when Americans ratified the Constitution, taxes were a major issue – would people who were struggling have to pay more? Today the rich and powerful are the loudest voices against taxes and even stopped the IRS from auditing their taxes, but when our country was founded, they were the people who expected the benefits of a capable government well worth the taxes they’d need to pay. Those folks can take care of themselves; I’m more worried about the rest of us.

When some people talk about raising taxes on greenhouse gasses, primarily gas and oil, your response may be “no new taxes.” But that treats gas taxes as the same as your taxes. They aren’t. It’s easy to compensate for an increase of one tax by lowering another. Taxing and spending are separate decisions. And it’s easy to balance things out so that you’re not paying any more and actually end up with choices to pay less. We could, after all, lower your income and withholding taxes so that your overall tax bill is reduced or unaffected – just restructured. Then if you make choices that reduce your consumption of gas and oil, you actually pay less.

The problem has been inter-party disagreement. Democrats want to raise taxes on greenhouse gasses, sometimes called carbon taxes, and they want to use the higher gas taxes to give tax relief to the vast majority of us – so we can pay less. But Republicans want to use the higher gas taxes to give another tax break to the rich and powerful – so you and I end up paying more. Actually, they give their friends tax breaks regardless of whether there is money in the treasury, ripping any connection between budgets and tax breaks even wider.

Unfortunately that’s what Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith labelled dictators’ primary strategy in their Dictator’s Handbook. Dictators depend on the rich and powerful for their tenure in office so they give them more and more to keep them happy. Dictators and wannabees find the money by cutting services from the mass of ordinary people. That sadly describes Republican behavior – they’ve been cutting services for decades and turning the savings over to their rich and powerful friends via enormous tax cuts. Bush and Trump tried to mollify the rest of us with peanut-sized refund checks while selling the store to their super-rich buddies.

When I wrote my last book, I thought that Americans cared about popular control of government and I argued that the deliberate aggravation of the disparities among Americans would lead to the end of democratic government. I thought seeing that connection would lead people to moderate their extraction of money and property from the mass of Americans. Trump and his supporters convinced me that I was naïve. What’s going on is the reverse – instead of controlling disparities among us in order to protect democracy, they’ve been trying to take our control over government away from us so they could continue increasing the disparities among us with more breaks for their friends, and they’ve been covering their own theft and fraud by accusing others of their own misdeeds. Making honest elections seem like fraud takes democracy apart and rips accountability to the great mass of us away. It’s wannabee Dictator Donald and his minions who should be locked up before they do more damage.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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