As many of you know, GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain has proposed a reform to our tax system: the '9-9-9' plan. Go take a look at it. The plan calls for a 9% income tax, 9% national sales tax and 9% corporate income tax. Cain says it would create tax equality and stabilize federal finances.
Think of this as a descendent of Steve Forbes' 'flat tax' proposal of a few years ago, with all of the same drawbacks -- it will starve the federal government of funds, it will heavily shift the tax burden in a regressive direction, it is based on a simplistic notion of 'fairness,' and it is based on a misdiagnosis of what ails the American opportunity structure.
I'm not going to pick apart Cain's idea here. Much. I'm sure he figured that if 9-9-9 can sell large 1 topping pizzas, it must signal some kind of grand universal Pythagorian harmony. The plutocrats who dominate his party will like it, because it drastically cuts their taxes. The Club for Growth types will favor it, because it proposes to drown the federal government in 9 inches of bathtub water. And the religious right will be ecstatic, since it turns Satan's numbers upside-down. It is conveniently in sync with the only tool in the conservative tool box -- shrinking government.
It is said that if your only tool is a hammer, pretty soon every problem will begin to resemble a nail. But of course, not every problem is a nail. In this particular case, the 'hammer' Cain is swinging so wildly bears substantial responsibility for the current mess, and will cripple our ability to provide some measure of security and opportunity for most of our citizens now and in the future. American conservatism seems to have become a kind of political auto-immune disease, systematically stripping us of the power and resources to address common needs and threats. Cain et all seem to be swinging their hammer in a fit of nihilistic pique, caring little for what gets smashed. Its an odd place for conservatives to be, isn't it?
One can, of course, understand the appeal of simple answers to seemingly complex questions. Our politics is filled with a full metal jacket of these magic bullets -- from 'drill baby drill,' to high stakes testing of public school kids (and now, implicitly, of their teachers). The principle of 'Occam's Razor' is too often interpreted to mean that simpler explanations and solutions are generally better than complex ones. But there is a difference between 'simple,' and 'simplistic,' and what Occam's Razor really provides us is a heuristic for assigning the burden of proof.
A 'simple' solution is only preferable if its explanatory power and empirical validity is equal to or greater than a solution of greater complexity. 'Creationism' is a less complex explanation for the existence of human beings than evolution is, after all. Believers in Creation don't have to follow or understand complex causal chains, or grapple with the inevitability of randomness, or contemplate a universe that lacks a telos (a purpose) or prime mover (or has one that isn't discoverable by us). Or worry about how Noah found room on the Ark for all those dinosaurs, and did so without sinking.
At a certain point, don't we have a moral responsibility to be intelligent?
Anyway, my purpose here isn't to explore logical fallacies, or dissect the phenomenological flaws of the conservative mind. Nor is it to directly critique Cain's proposal, which I believe is too simplistic to be worthy of consideration.
Rather, I wish to make a downpayment on a more empirically sound version of Cain's 9-9-9. This is very much a first run at this. I'll come back with more links to research, and tweak a few things. But what follows is coherent enough to provoke conversation.
Let's try Three-60.
I've listed three ideas below. In each case, we generate $60 billion in additional federal revenue per year, and then aim that money at vital public investments of similar cost that will make all of us wealthier in the end, in every sense. As an added bonus, the regressive tax shifting of the past 3 decades will be somewhat reversed, and each of the 3 ideas would stimulate the economy and create jobs, immediately.
None of these ideas is rooted in wishful thinking; in each case, there is ample research to demonstrate the multiplier effects. I will fill in more details on this research as this post grows and expands.
I'm sure we can come up with a catchy slogan -- 'complete the circle,' etc etc.
1. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy go, and we get new 21st century public schools (and 0.5 million jobs):
REVENUES: Raise $60 billion a year, by eliminating the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes above $250,000, returning the top rate to 39.6%, as it was under Clinton. This would raise approximately $60 billion a year, while affecting less than 2% of households. Politically this is the easiest of the 3 tax reforms I propose here, because it simply requires Congress to do nothing. I think they can do that, don't you?
INVESTMENTS: Use the $60 billion above to address the backlog of repairs and deferred maintenance at the nation's 100,000 public schools...and create 0.5 million construction jobs in the process. The 21st Century School Fund, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have recently proposed the Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) program, which is what I'm advocating here. Hammered by the recession, local governments are unable to do this themselves; indeed, many of them have been laying off teachers and deferring maintenance, both of which are expensive to all of us in the long run. Even if states and localities do attempt to pay for such things, they will mostly do so by increasing property and sales taxes, which land much more heavily on ordinary American families and small businesses than the federal ones I'm tweaking here. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a variation on the FAST program back in September, for only $30 billion. Let's double it, and consistently devote the revenues raised each year by my proposal above to a kind of educational infrastructure bank. This shouldn't be a one-shot stimulus, but rather an ongoing effort to maintain and improve our entire public school infrastructure -- and expand it, as I argue in #2 below. This will create jobs, improve public education, and relieve states and localities of financial burdens. What's not to like?
2. Reform the estate tax, and we get a world class system of universal and public early education.
REVENUES: The United States now has the greatest concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich in nearly a century. As billionaire Warren Buffett reminds us, “Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit.”
The estate tax is a tax on the transfer of assets at death -- a tax on inherited wealth, in other words. We could eliminate it for those with estates under $2 million ($4 million for a couple), and use graduated rates for estates above that size (let's say 45% on the taxable portion below $10 million, with an additional 10% tax on the amount above that). This would raise between $40 billion and $60 billion a year. It would affect no more than 1 of every 200 estates, and would have a variety of positive effects beyond the revenue it would raise (and beyond the useful things we might purchase with that money -- see below).
INVESTMENTS: According to Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, approximately $60 billion a year would pay for universal preschool for all 3-and-4-year-olds, with relatively small class sizes. Spending on early childhood development and education is perhaps one of the best examples of positive public investment. Indeed, I would argue, it is the single most important social policy of the 21st century -- a moral and economic imperative on a par with addressing global warming. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, has written extensively about the economic benefits of high-quality early education. David Kirp usefully synthesized some of this research in his readable 2009 work, The Sandbox Investment.
Extensive economic and cognitive research has demonstrated that investments in early childhood development (particularly before the age of five) have very high (and long-lived) returns at very low levels of risk. An individual’s success in the labor market and quality of life is strongly influenced by their first years in childhood. The long-term benefits of early investment in child development, particularly in disadvantaged youth, include lower spending on remedial and special education, lower spending on health interventions, increased school completion and higher academic achievement, higher incomes (and therefore tax payments), lower spending on means-tested income assistance, and lower criminal justice costs. The returns (the 'multiplier effects') are estimated to be between $13 and $17 per dollar spent on early education.
Aside from the obvious long-term benefits above, I can think of 2 other more immediate advantages of this.
First, it is stimulative. Because many states presently lack a public early education infrastructure, expenditures over the first few years would be heavily weighted toward construction and the hiring of teachers...thus boosting employment. Also, by providing free child care, universal public early education would relieve an enormous economic burden for young working families, thus increasing demand in the economy.
Second, the American opportunity structure is fundamentally broken, and this proposal would move us toward a repair. American children can go to public school from kindergarten through high school, at no cost to their parents. While there are many ways in which public schooling has historically reproduced social and economic inequalities, rather than erasing them (race is the most obvious example), for much of the century after the end of the Civil War it served the dual purposes of social mobility and economic growth reasonably well, at least for white Americans.
Over the past 30 years, however, it has become increasingly necessary for American parents to extend the education of their children both backwards and forwards in time -- for 2 or 3 years before kindergarten, and 4 (or more) years after high school. While k-12 is free, the burden of paying for these additional years falls almost entirely on individual families. Since early childhood education and college education are so incredibly important for (in the first case) cognitive and social development, and for human capital and earning capacity (in the second case), AND because their costs have increased far faster than incomes have, we have essentially privatized the link between education and opportunity in the US. And because we have privatized it, we have mainlined inequality straight into the heart of our opportunity structure. We can already see its effects, and there is nothing in place at present to check it. I cannot stress this point enough, and one must take a long historical view to see it. The fault lines of racial inequality have always permeated our educational system, even as we moved away from the formal apartheid set-up under which we lived for so long. They are still there, embedded within our social geography (housing and school segregation), and we have done very little to reverse it since the Milliken decision in the mid-70s. These racial inequalities have now been joined (and reinforced) by class inequalities.
My father and I originally proposed something like this back in our 2005 book, in part because the politics of it are just so elegant. As Warren Buffett and Elizabeth Warren have both argued recently, the wealthy have attained their elevated status in part because of the social wealth and public investments of their fellow citizens. A recognition of that inter-dependence fits nicely with the idea of 'paying it forward.' The wealthy not only pass on the overwhelming majority of their privilege to their children -- they pass it on to all American children, and thus to the society which enabled them to live so well. Hard to argue with, no?
3. A new tax bracket for income over $2 million, and make college free for about 80% of full-time students.
REVENUES: Raise $60 billion a year, by creating a new top tax bracket (let's say, 50%), which would be levied on income over $2 million. This would also raise approximately $60 billion a year.
INVESTMENT: Around 80% of full-time college students in the U.S. attend either four-year public universities, or two-year schools. Approximately 2.5 million students are enrolled full-time at two-year colleges, paying around $18 billion in tuition, fees, room and board (minus financial aid). 4.7 million are enrolled at public four-year colleges, paying in the neighborhood of $47 billion each year.
Thus, creating a new tax bracket for income above $2 million would enable four out of every five full-time college students to go to school for free, at present costs.
I'm a little less excited about this one, because there are some complications. Three leap to mind.
For one, the cost of higher education has risen faster than inflation for decades now. There is a danger that this proposal would effectively subsidize universities unnecessarily, and even create incentives for further price increases. Or, to put it more mildly, it accepts the present cost structure, instead of seeking to change it. Of course, massive federal participation would presumably create leverage for serious change, particularly if (as I propose here) the funding is aimed at students attending public universities, not private ones. And if the money goes to students and their families -- not the universities themselves -- then perhaps they can put the power of choice and competition to work.
Second, the federal subsidies I'm proposing here would presumably go to every student, including those who come from families that can afford to pay for school themselves. One imagines that the subsidies could be scaled in some way to address this, or taxed back, perhaps.
Third, by advocating this idea, I don't want any readers to think that I believe that sending every American to college is the answer to the inequality and economic stagnation of the past 3 or 4 decades. I don't. Our economy doesn't generate enough living wage jobs; our public and private social safety net has become increasingly frayed, leaving a growing percentage of Americans vulnerable to economic insecurity; class inequalities are not only increasing, but are being reinforced and exacerbated by our educational and health care systems, as well as our tax system. Sending more kids to college won't solve this. Or, to put it differently, the problem with the American economy isn't its workers.
These caveats aside, I do think the benefits of doing this would be huge. Let's list just a few:
* Perhaps this is the most obvious benefit, but it would clearly increase the knowledge and critical thinking skills of millions of young adults, with all the likely social, political and economic gains this will bring
* In a labor market which increasingly uses higher education as the gatekeeper -- the obstacle that must be leapt in order to gain access to economic security and the primary social goods we need to be truly free -- this proposal will help to reverse the stunning class inequalities of American higher education.
* Most college students graduate today with between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of debt, not including credit card debt. This has a series of cascading effects, shaping decisions about career choice, family formation, entrance into the housing market, the purchase of health care, etc. Relatedly, many parents spend down their home equity and their retirement funds to send their children to college and keep them there. If college is fully funded, this releases demand into the economy. In 1979, Pell Grants covered 75% of the cost of a four-year public university education; today, they cover less than a third. This proposal reverses the trend.
* Free college would enable students willing and able to do so to pursue graduate and professional education, because they won't have to immediately get to work to pay off debt. It will also enable many graduates to go into professions that are less profitable, but of great social value -- like teaching, for example.
Let me know what you think!
- Mark Santow
- I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.