The Futile Beauty of Bipartisan Economic Policy Recommendations

5 economists walk into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve economists here.” And the 5 economists say


And the bartender says, your plan makes so much sense!!!!! Thank you, economists, for explaining everything so reasonably! Your hoppy, hoppy brews are on the house!

I loved this recent Planet Money podcast about national policy changes that economists across the political spectrum agree on.

It’s a fascinating plan: Stop taxing income and payroll for individuals and corporations. Make up the money by ending government subsidies tax deductions for mortgages and employer health care plans, taxing pollution and carbon use, and ending our prosecution & incarceration of non-violent drug users. Also, taxing health care benefits will keep costs down by keeping use down.

Here is a brief outline of the logic behind this platform.

The idea is deceptively simple: taxation serves two purposes: raising revenue and punishing unwanted behavior. So stop taxing stuff we like—income, hiring—and start taxing stuff we don’t like—carbon emissions, other kinds of pollution. Stop spending money subsidizing wealthy people’s home purchases and health care spending. And stop wasting money punishing addiction using a system that was built to protect society from violent offenders.

Sure! I’ll vote for that!

But it’s not just ridiculously impossible to imagine an electorate that would happily check the box for taking away our mortgage deductions and raising out-of-pocket health care costs. [Though I don’t believe it’s possible to strengthen our economy and society without raising taxes across the board and lowering health care costs fairly and pragmatically (that’s another post, but it would just be a summary of all of Atul Gawande’s writing, so, you know, consider it already written, but in short: radically increase access to preventative care and radically transform delivery of services for sick people, if we can’t just go single payer like every other rich country in the world.)]

It’s also, well, can we imagine policy that is actually fair? Even if we could agree on what constitutes “fairness” in, say, taxation policy, could we imagine our whole society endorsing it?

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