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Amy Traub

Tax Trepidations

“Why not send my tax check directly to Wall Street execs?” asks Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies. “Normally,” Anderson insists, she and her husband don’t object to paying taxes because “we believe that strategic government investment is the way out of this crisis, and we're happy to contribute our fair share. But this year I cringed as I dropped that check in the mail, thinking about how I might as well have just handed it directly to a Wall Street executive.”

Anderson’s fears may not be far off base. Economist Jeffrey Sachs succinctly describes the latest iteration of the nation’s mammoth financial bailout as a plan to “potentially and unnecessarily transfer hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth from taxpayers to banks.” Other prominent economists have reached the same conclusion.

If economists and progressive think tankers were the only ones cringing, I’d be worried about the policy. But in the current national climate, I’m concerned about the politics as well. After all, Anderson may recognize that “strategic government investment is the way out of this crisis.” But such clear thinking is not universal. The risk is that the irresponsible financial bailout will jeopardize support for the Obama Administration’s more progressive economic agenda. We’re seeing it today as a series of highly-orchestrated anti-tax tea parties are held across the country, the fruits of an effort by conservative ideologues to conflate the irresponsible bank bailout with the stimulus bill and other public investment the economy desperately needs.

Media spectacles notwithstanding, there’s little evidence that they’re gaining broad traction. The latest Gallup poll finds “Americans’ views of their federal income taxes about as positive as any point in the last 60 years.” No widespread anti-tax revolt is brewing. Still, I’d rather Grover Norquist were not smiling quite so broadly.

I’m on record as optimistic that the President will be able to channel justified populist rage to pursue policies that genuinely strengthen and expand the nation’s middle class. Today, I’m feeling a bit less confident. When I pay my taxes, I’d rather be thinking about public libraries, air traffic controllers, municipal parks, Social Security, high-quality schools and public colleges, food inspections, safe streets, kids with health coverage, efficient transit, cutting-edge scientific research and unemployment benefits that are there if I need them. But those costly bank bailouts (and, yes, the mounting burden of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) are on my mind as well.

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Posted at 7:42 AM, Apr 15, 2009 in Banking | Politics | Progressive Agenda | Tax Policy
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