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No representation without taxation

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Kai Ryssdal: Those famed secret Swiss bank accounts are going to be getting a little less secret. The Swiss finance minister said today he’s going to loosen up secrecy laws to keep Switzerland off a European black list of tax havens.

Back here at home it’s not tax havens so much that politicians are worried about, it’s tax increases. President Obama’s going to have to deal with criticism from both sides of the aisle in Congress as he works out his budget plan for next year. Commentator Amity Shlaes says the discussion can’t forget the lower ends of the tax charts.

Amity Shlaes: Taxation without representation. That’s what our nation’s founders rebelled against. Subjects in the colonies were sending money home to the crown without getting say in their own government. The course of U.S. history can be seen as progress by those who are taxed to get representation. Think of women with the 19th Amendment.

Along the way we began to pay out money to groups that paid no income tax at all. There’s Medicare, of course, for senior citizens, even if they never worked; welfare for the poor and struggling, at least through the 90s. And, more recently, there’s the earned income tax credit, a break for low income workers. The credit was designed to make people want to work and to offset their heavy pension payments for Social Security. The result of expanding it, however, is that many people who work don’t pay income tax. Instead, they get money back.

Do we want to help weaker citizens, especially in downturns? Totally. In fact, both parties have plans that relieve yet more taxpayers of their burden. Republicans like payroll tax holidays. And the Obama administration is zeroing out the income tax obligations of yet more citizens.

But a tipping point does come when too many are paying out and too few are paying in. Maybe that tipping point is now. Today, households in the bottom half of earners pay only 4 percent of the income taxes. One tiny group, the top 1 percent, pays close to 40 percent.

This can slow the economic recovery we’re waiting for. Top earners won’t want to keep producing if their burden gets much heavier. But the more important problem is a problem of civics. All presidents talk about the need for community. We strengthen that sense of community when everyone has to pay some taxes. Like jury duty, paying taxes reminds you that you are part of something; it reminds you of what you owe, not just what’s owed to you.

The mood of the skeptics today is just the reverse of the mood at the Boston Tea Party. Then, we said no taxation without representation. Today, try flipping that line: No representation without taxation.

Kai Ryssdal: Amity Shlaes is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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