Matt Miller - The Archives
If you're grateful, pay more taxes
The Washington Post, November 25, 2010

In 1990 William F. Buckley Jr. published a wonderful little book called "Gratitude," in which he made the case for a broad program of national service.

His argument, laid out in the chapter "The Patrimony and Civic Obligation," is compelling. Those of us lucky enough to live in the United States are the beneficiaries of a cultural inheritance that is impossible to fully reckon and that gives us enormous advantages—from the laws and institutions built over generations that allow free people to prosper, to the music we enjoy. To Buckley, it is vital that citizens acknowledge this debt to civilization. One of the ills of modern life, he says, is that we take too many things for granted. He laments "the failure to acknowledge a running debt to one's homeland (biological or adopted)."

Buckley believed a properly institutionalized expression of gratitude should include incentives for national service for young Americans (an idea worth reviving). But another way he said citizens routinely acknowledge this debt is through taxes "reasonably exacted."

There's nothing more likely to induce indigestion than a serving of taxes with your turkey, but in Mr. Buckley's honor, let's risk it. His notions resonate at Thanksgiving and shed light on today's perverse tax debate.

At this holiday I think of two friends who are senior military officers. One, an Army general, helps lead our forces in Afghanistan. The other, a Navy captain, served as an adviser there until recently. According to published military pay scales, the general, more senior, earns about $180,000 in base pay; the captain about $120,000. They and their families have borne great burdens over the decades. They are two of the finest people I know; just being around them makes you proud to be an American.

Whatever you think about our mission in Afghanistan—and, like many, I'm dubious about what "success" there would mean—I am grateful for and awed by their service and that of thousands who serve with them.

At this season I can't help but contrast my military friends and their sense of civic virtue with certain well-heeled types now waging a different fight: a battle to keep marginal tax rates on top U.S. earners at 35 percent, instead of letting them rise back to Clinton-era rates of 39.6 percent. They mount their campaign at a time when we have already put the full bill for Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as for President Bush's Medicare drug benefit) on the next generation's credit card and as we cut taxes during a period of war for the first time in our history.

The war debts we're handing off will rise another $150 billion this year alone. The GOP plan is to borrow another $700 billion more over the next 10 years, mostly from less-well-off Americans' children, to give a good number of already wealthy Americans more continued relief each year than many military officers earn in an entire career.

Talk about plunder from above. And this is considered "conservative" economics?

When I talk to military friends about these debates on the home front, they tend to be puzzled by civilian morality (not to mention Wall Street pay scales). The idea that our troops are laying their lives on the line to protect (among other things) the right to lower taxes during wartime shocks them.

It's not just holier-than-thou liberals but American military men and women who look at this behavior and ask, "Have these people no shame?" At Thanksgiving it's worth adding Buckley's query: Do well-to-do champions of extending the Bush tax cuts have no gratitude?

Put aside the false claim that Clinton-era marginal rates on a relative handful of people will hurt the economy (if you believe this, you're immune to evidence). And let's stipulate that even after needed trims in Social Security and Medicare, both parties will need to acknowledge soon that taxes will have to rise on the middle class to pay for the baby boomers' retirement. So this is not an assertion that can we can put our fiscal house in order simply by taxing the top; we can't.

But enough is enough. If our economic elites can't do their part, and instead insist on lower taxes at a time of war and surging debt, then the people with wealth and power in our society have completely lost their bearings.

Let's leave the holiday benediction to Adam Smith: "The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful . . . [is] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."