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.
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 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?”
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.
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.”
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.”