Questions Your Conservative Cousin Might Ask

Holiday gatherings bring together people of all political persuasions, so you’re likely to hear a variety of Fox News talking points. If you’re unprepared, you usually wind up with a choice between keeping silent and starting a screaming argument. So it’s a good idea to have some calm answers ready.

A complete list is impossible, I know, but these are two answers I have ready. Use the comments to add your own questions and answers.

If Warren Buffett thinks his taxes are too low, why can’t he just write a check to the Treasury?

Sometimes you need to answer a question with a question: What problem do you think that check would solve?

Background: Multi-billionaire Warren Buffett has often made the point that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. This seems wrong to him, and so his name has gotten attached to the so-called Buffett Rule.

So anyway, if the problem is just that Buffett feels guilty about his tiny (in a relative sense) tax bill, then presumably a voluntary contribution to the Treasury would make him feel better. But I haven’t seen any indication that Buffett feels guilty. He follows the rules. What’s to feel guilty about?

Buffett brings up his personal situation because he sees it as a symptom of a larger problem: In our tax system, the super-rich pay lower rates than many middle-class people. It’s a systemic injustice, not some personal injustice that Buffett does to his secretary or to the government.

So Buffett writing a check to the Treasury wouldn’t solve the problem. The Buffett Rule would.

Why do liberals want to punish job creators?

This question comes up whenever we talk about raising income tax rates on the wealthy back to what they were under President Clinton.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with punish. In general, taxes are not punishments. A state sales tax, for example, is not an attempt to punish people for buying things. Your local property tax is probably intended to fund public schools, not punish people for living somewhere. Ditto for the income tax.

Plus, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to look at the situation of rich people in the Clinton Era and describe it as punishment. Even at a Clintonesque tax rate, people will still want to be rich.

Next, consider want. Do liberals want to tax people? Not really. What we want is for our nation and our communities to have nice things — smooth roads, good schools, attractive parks, and so forth. We also want to put a safety net under people, so that lives aren’t ruined by the kinds of misfortunes that could happen to anyone. And we want every child, no matter whether they’re born to a wealthy family or a poor one, to have a legitimate chance to succeed.

If we could get all that out of a magic lamp, we would. But in non-magical reality, it takes money. That’s why we support taxes.

Next, why tax rich people at a higher rate than everybody else? Again, it’s not because we hate them or want to do them harm. Obviously, that’s where the real money is, and (if someone has to give up something) we’d rather see the rich go without a vacation home than see middle-class families decide not to send their kids to college or poor people scrimp on medicine or food.

But the deep reason is that it is fair for the rich to pay more. They are the people who are winning this game; the burden of keeping the game going should fall more to them.

Finally, job creators. In conservative rhetoric, every employer is a job creator, and it takes money to be an employer. “I never got a job from a poor person,” as the saying goes. So: more rich people with more money equals more jobs.

If only.

We could talk about the statistics, which show that as inequality increases, there is less job growth, but instead let’s run a thought experiment on a specific guy: John Schnatter, the founder and CEO of Papa John’s Pizza. Wikipedia claims that Papa John’s employs about 16,000 people. So, did Schnatter create those jobs?

Let me ask that a different way: What happens if Schnatter goes Galt? He folds his company, converts all his assets into gold, and disappears into some secret enclave in the Rockies. Does the economy really have 16,000 fewer jobs?

I don’t think so. I believe people who want pizzas just buy them somewhere else, and other pizza-makers expand to fulfill the demand. Probably they have to hire something like 16,000 more people. In short, I don’t think Schnatter creates any jobs. Demand for pizzas creates jobs. Schnatter is an easily replaced middleman.

The most successful entrepreneurs are those who destroy jobs. Putting aside the vulture-capitalism stories about Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, his big success story is Staples, a healthy business with around 50,000 employees. But before Staples, businesses got their office supplies from a variety of smaller shops and firms, most of which are gone now. Who employed more people — Staples or the companies it drove out of business? It would be tough to calculate the exact number, but I am confident the results would say that (when you net it all out) Staples destroyed jobs.

You know what really does create jobs? Infrastructure: highways, airports, reliable electricity. And nobody does infrastructure better than the government — if it can collect taxes.

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  • dp  On December 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    One other thing to ask is who benefits from a stable country with solid infrastructure? The “rich” or the rest of us. I would contend that the nature of the country allows some people to make huge sums of money. If a company had to hire its own police, fire, sewage plant, electrical plant, … it would cost a lot of money. Instead those things are provided for you by taxes largely paid by the middle class. If the country folds it is the wealthy who have something to worry about, the rest of us don’t have that much.

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