We all hate tax increases (or we don’t)

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Americans’ resistance to tax increases during an economic crisis remains as immutable as Gibraltar, or so we’re led to believe. But on closer examination, this conventional wisdom might not be so accurate.

Look what happened on Nov. 8 in Clark County, supposedly a community with an increasingly red political climate. By almost 8 percentage points, voters approved a sales-tax increase to preserve C-Tran services. That verdict flies in defiance of the anti-tax-increase mantra. Suddenly we see a few pebbles clattering down to Gibraltar’s base.

My suspicion — like Herman Cain, I don’t have any facts to back this up — is that this abiding resistance to tax increases might be more myth than mantra. Consider also what is happening with the supercommittee that faces a Wednesday deadline for crafting a national deficit-reduction plan. Cracks have been noticed recently in the wall erected by those who insist there must be no increases in revenue for the federal government.

Part of this withering opposition to tax increases could be traced to comments earlier this year by Grover Norquist, who has wrapped most Republican members of Congress in the straitjacket of his no-tax-increase pledge. But in a July interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Norquist said “not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase.”

Later, he tried to walk it back, noting that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would indeed be a tax increase, but he didn’t say if doing it would actually break his pledge.

Norquist told MSNBC, “There are certain things you could do technically and not violate the pledge but that the general public would clearly understand is a tax increase.” Well, that’s a lot like saying there are certain things you could do that don’t violate your marriage vows, but your spouse still thinks you’re a dirty, rotten, two-timin’ hornswoggler.

Slowly then, we’ve changed this debate from a hidebound pledge against raising taxes to a parsing of words. Meanwhile, a clock ticks loudly with an alarm set to blare on Wednesday. So much for no tax increases never ever no way zilch zero nada.

Just listen to the people

The members of the deficit-reduction supercommittee — instead of worrying about Norquist’s pledge — would be wise to listen to regular Americans. They can start by reading the Oct. 24 Time magazine. Therein, we learn that 73 percent of people “favor raising taxes on those with annual incomes of $1 million or more to help cut the federal deficit.” That’s according to respondents in a Time/Abt SRBI poll of 1,001 American adults who must’ve missed the memo about our nation’s steadfast opposition to all tax increases.

On a couple of other questions, those same folks seemed to reflect the growing belief that a balanced approach is the best strategy for the supercommittee. Almost two-thirds of those polled, 65 percent, said a combination of tax increases and spending cuts is the preferred way to reduce the federal deficit. Also, 49 percent said it’s more important to cut spending to stimulate the economy, while 44 percent said it’s more important to spend more. That’s a fairly even split.

These independent statistics are enough to send Norquist and other rock-ribbed revenue rejecters into spasms of renunciation.

Another source that the supercommittee should consult is Bruce Bartlett of capitalgainsandgames.com. This man is willing to drill deeper than most other researchers. Back in June, he published a list of 19 polls that were conducted in the first half of 2011, all of which according to Bartlett essentially said “the American people strongly support higher taxes to reduce the deficit and improve income inequality.” Among the reputable pollsters on that list are Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Bloomberg, Ipsos/Reuters, Gallup, Quinnipiac and others.

For many people, a poll’s reliability depends on how closely the results coincide with their own beliefs. Many would say the 19 polls showing public support for tax increases are all a bunch of baloney. Strange, but these same people also insist that polls showing public opposition to health care reform deserve our utmost respect.