So says professor Arthur Laffer, the inspiration for the most far-reaching proposals on Oklahoma income tax reform. The conundrum for Laffer's believers is this: How do you redistribute opinions about tax cuts, from the general to the specific?
In general, most of us want a lower income tax bill. But when the specifics are mentioned — which spending, tax credits or deductions would be required; what other taxes might go up — opinions can change from ardor to lukewarm support to outright opposition.
Gov. Mary Fallin's tax reform plan, based in part on Laffer's recommendations, serves as an illustration of the shifting of opinions on tax cuts. No significant change in the tax code is likely this year because the plan first drew spontaneous opinions from taxpayers who don't want to lose favored deductions. At the same time came measured opinions from special interest groups that don't want to lose favored tax credits.
Last week, as Laffer faced off in a debate with an Oklahoma university economist, an anti-tax cut group released results of a poll that solicited opinions on tax cuts. As with any poll, the answers obtained depend upon the questions asked.
Thus, the more the drawbacks of tax cuts are mentioned, the less the support is. Pollsters posed either/or choices such as whether respondents want a tax cut if it means cutting funding for public schools. Or public safety.
In the larger context of public policy, these can be false choices. For example, education can be delivered in a variety of ways that don't involve traditional public schools. Some of these ways may be cheaper and more effective. Ditto for public safety and most other government services.
But opinions aren't redistributed on the basis of the larger context or the long term but on the perceived effect in the here and now. The poll was designed to slow the movement toward any tax cut this year, much less a significant one.
In a sense, the either/or questions are a subset of the class envy arguments routinely employed by Democrats in Washington: Do you favor a tax cut for the rich if it means no tax cut (or higher taxes) for the middle class? This is another false choice, but it's been a winning argument for class warriors. So they will continue to use it.
Laffer's message is pure: Places with lower taxes attract people. Places with higher taxes repel them. Taxes don't redistribute wealth. They redistribute people.
The pure message isn't winning this debate. Opinions haven't shifted from opposition to eliminating credits and deductions and toward cutting taxes. One thing that rarely gets redistributed is the primacy of the status quo in public policy. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments against cutting taxes is to say how difficult it would be to raise them if the need arises.
Oklahoma has struggled to jettison the status quo in many areas, including Democratic dominance of state government. Yet the new Republican majority hasn't managed to reform the tax code because it hasn't managed to redistribute the opinions of ordinary people toward tax reform.