Joe Thorndike: He’s The (Tax) Man

I asked Joe Thorndike whether rich people should pay higher taxes.

He said, “I tend to be evasive.” Then he answered, head on.

There is a reason I asked him that question. Joe Thorndike is not Joe Six Pack. He is not Joe the Plumber.

He’s a contributing editor at Tax Analysts — a non-profit provider of tax news and analysis for a global audience — where he also directs the Tax History Project.

That’s make Joe Thorndike one of the leading experts on tax history in the country. He is not the guy next door who talks about taxes only in sound bites, or the politicians in Washington who do the same.

Joe Thorndike

Joe also spent his entire school years in the Westport system, graduating from Staples in 1984. Renowned economics teacher Dave Harrison was a key instructor, but at Williams College, then University of Virginia for grad school, Joe kept fighting the urge to be a historian — like his father.

But the pull of history — specifically, tax history — was too strong. Now, he calls himself a “political historian who writes about taxes.” That’s quite a gig. He’s got a weekly column for Tax Analysts. He writes for CNN, other websites, law reviews and academic journals. He writes books (coming soon: The Fair Share: Taxing the Rich in the Age of FDR). When he’s not writing, he presents at academic conferences, or teaching.

Joe spends much of his time “debunking the idea that Americans are anti-tax.” Of course we don’t like paying taxes, he says. But the myth that we’re “rugged Americans” who will do anything to avoid them just is not true. “We pay our taxes very reliably,” Joe says. “Other countries will kill for our compliance rates.”

Joe does not think of himself as a tax guy. “I’m more about politics,” he says. “I’m concerned with things like, to what extent is tax-paying a part of citizenship? What should government be doing in a macro way about taxes?”

On a recent radio interview, Joe Thorndike discussed the question: “What would Calvin Coolidge do?”

So about that earlier question: “Should rich people pay more taxes?”

Joe was definitely not evasive. “It’s clear America needs more revenue,” he says. “Americans want lots of stuff, like Social Security and Medicare. Right now we’re not raising enough money to pay for it. And it’s not plausible that we will, without raising taxes or reducing benefits.” For that to happen, he says, “there must be compromises.”

But “must be” doesn’t mean “will be.”

Republicans, Joe says, are “more intransigent than Democrats, less willing to compromise. They need a wake-up call. Their line in the sand about tax policies are unsustainable. It’s not good for the country.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are “willing to compromise too much. And the executive and legislative leaders don’t always speak with the same voice.”

Joe calls himself “an unapologetic moderate.” He’s “reasonably liberal,” but also serves as a fellow at the George W. Bush Foundation.

Among the books Joe Thorndike has written is “The Very Rich: A History of Wealth.”

He does believe that “the rich are getting a good deal now. Capital gains on taxes are very low. The rich do need to pay more. But liberals have fantasies about what that can be. The 90% rates of the Eisenhower years are completely ridiculous, and ahistorical. And higher rates come with cots of some economic growth.”

“I believe in civil discourse,” Joe says. “We can’t have people yelling at each other all the time.”

So what are the chances of civil discourse and compromise happening here? “The electoral map has to change,” Joe says. “Republicans need to come back to reality, and Obama and the party have to be clear about what they want.”

Many voters, he notes, “don’t understand taxes. That’s understandable. Taxes are not fun.”

Politicians, meanwhile, talk about taxes “in a shallow way. It’s either ‘lower taxes’ or ‘we need more.’ That doesn’t move the ball forward.”

Taxes have played a role in our history since the Boston Tea Party.

So, if he could sit down with President Obama, Mitt Romney and congressional leaders, what would Joe say?

“We all talk about the end of the year, when the Bush tax cuts expire,” he begins. “But that’s nothing. The real problem is growing entitlements, and inadequate revenues to pay for them. That problem is not far off — and it has to be solved.

“American leaders need to take that problem seriously,” he says. “We need short-term stimulus, coupled with a long-term plan to deal with the debt problem.”

Unfortunately, he says, “politicians are not ready to get there yet.”

29 responses to “Joe Thorndike: He’s The (Tax) Man

  1. Liberals and facts (like water & oil)

    I love “liberal-logic”, the bottom 47% pay Nothing, the top 10% pay 70%, yet “the rich don’t pay their fair share”.
    No wonder you people think Obama is great!
    Maybe if I stand on my head I’ll see things the way you do!

    • John Nathan

      While standing on your head…this might clear up your confusion about the “47%”:

      • There is no confusion; the bottom 47% pay no Federal Income Tax.

        • They do pay “something” rather than “nothing” as the poster above suggested. Apparently there is confusion among some folks as to the “facts” about the “47%”.

          • Wrong; they do not pay federal income taxes. They may pay other taxes, but they do not pay federal income taxes. Now, who is confused?

            • John Nathan

              Not confused at all. The question is whether they pay any taxes. They do. Mr. Liberals and facts said, “They pay nothing”. What Fox and friends keep repeating is that they pay nothing as your friend above parrots. They don’t stipulate Federal taxes. And while we’re at it, he must not know many in the top %10 because it’s doubtful they’re paying 70% with the numerous deductions and capital gains tax etc. So if we’re talking facts…

              • I did stipulate federal income taxes. The top 1% pay 40% of all federal income taxes. In 2009, the top 10% paid over 70% of all federal income taxes. Those are the facts. Are you confused still/

                • John Nathan

                  As I said, I was responding the commenter above. It seems important to you to make your point even if it wasn’t in the same conversation.

    • Old and Grey

      Now there’s a nice civil way to start the day. Didja think you won any friends with that post? Oh, I consider myself a conservative and abhor the righties who snark at anyone with a different albeit shaky opinion

  2. John Karrel

    “I believe in civil discourse…”

  3. “Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as
    possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the
    treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.
    Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister
    in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone
    does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any
    public duty to pay more than the law demands.”

    Judge Learned Hand

  4. Westport Convert

    Oh Dan, you and your political blog posts. What an ugly way to start my day. Unless it’s local, I try to avoid politics. Too messy, too many slime-balls on both sides of the aisle.

  5. Many of us are prone to say the the hardest job in the world is currently held by President Obama. Yet, he gets little, to no, respect in certain quarters.

    Last Sunday the New York Times listed two hundred CEO’s, earning compenstion of almost $10 million to $380 Million Dollars. Simple arithmetic documents that the “top dog” at Apple is pulling down more than $1 million, Everyday Of The Year.

    The average cost to the stockholders for these schemes is almost $6 million per year – for just one person – at each of these 200 companies.

    Imagin the screaming if these numbers were applied to “the toughest job in the world”?

    It happens the be my view that no one can receive this much money and hold any sense of proportionality.

    I believe the salary of our President is a paltry $425 Thousand Per Year, for a job that is truly 24/7.

    • Liberals and Facts

      Yeah, playing over a 100 rounds of golf in 3 years, taking vacations after your vacations, jet setting on Air Force One for date night in NYC and going to $40,000. a plate fund raisers from Palo Verdes to the Upper East Side is hard work!
      I’d bet Steven Jobs didn’t have it so hard!!

      • Liberals and Facts

        Oh I almost forgot! He does do his NCAA March Madness brackets!
        That takes time as does his apperances on The View and Nickelodeon (I guess that’s why I never saw Jack Welch or Alan Mulally on those shows!

        I want to be fair and give him all the credit he deserves!

        • Move Forward

          Yeah I am sure it is all golf and orgies for Obama. You sound so out of reality is makes your entire argument sound ridiculous. There is no place for extremes in intelligent discourse.

          • Liberals and Facts

            Hey MF,
            Tell me one thing that isn’t true above. You know it is, so instead you call me ‘extreme’ and question my intelligence, how Saul Alinsky of you.

            And if you think the one has the most difficult job in the world, then why doesn’t he act like it instead of acting like he’s still part of the Choom Gang.

        • Bullsh*t, My Dad Says

    • No one is forced to pay a CEO his salary; Obama’s salary is money collected as taxes at the point of a gun. Can you see the difference?

      • I don’t usually jump in, but I’m just really confused. Is Obama’s salary different than George W. Bush’s, or Reagan’s? Please explain.

        • You should know better. Next time don’t jump in. None of them are president right now are they? If they were, the observation would apply still; public employees are ALL paid in money collected as taxes at the point of a gun. Obama is a public employee. No one is forced to pay a CEO’s salary. Partisanship does not alter the argument.

        • Liberals and Facts

          I’d take Gordon Geko and greed over the community organizer and his ‘it’s only fair’ and ‘spreading the wealth is good for everyone’ (except the one who’s earned it!) any day!
          Luckily most agree with me and we only have 5 more months of this anti-American experiment!

          P.S. I was at a Westport event over the weekend with many who just a year ago would have gladly supported obama, however, a number in the crowd unapologetically expressed their disgust with him and how even though they don’t like Romney, can’t wait to vote obama out! Even I couldn’t believe this was Westport!!
          In addition, I saw a soccer mom driving an SUV in front of Trader Joe’s with bumper stickers that said, “I was anti-obama, before it was cool’ and another that said, “And we thought Carter sucked!”.
          Yup!, in downtown Westport!
          Now that’s change I can believe in!!

          P.S.S. For Joe Nathan, you know damn well I was talking Federal taxes when I said, ‘nothing’. If it makes you feel any better Joe, let me rephrase it for you; The bottom 47% pay NO FEDERAL TAXES.

          So yes someone isn’t paying their fair share, but it ain’t the rich!

  6. More politic BS.
    Congratulations to Staples Class of ’12 !!

  7. This isn’t a judgment, just a question. Because of the lifestyles of the rich, don’t they already pay more taxes because they own bigger houses, have more cars and boats, buy more things, and earn more money on which they are taxed?

  8. and to think we have to pay Obama’s salary the rest of his life plus all the other goodies that go along with it OMG that’s where my taxes are going!!!

  9. Social Security is NOT an entitlement.