Specifically, the candidates will argue about how best to fix our high unemployment and massive budget deficit.
And one of the biggest points in that argument will be taxes.
Specifically, what should be done with them.
Obviously, no one likes paying higher taxes, and everyone likes paying lower taxes.
But we live in the real world, not fantasy-land. And in the real world, sometimes people have to do things they would prefer not to do--such as pay taxes.
But the disagreement on this issue, as well as the facts surrounding it, is intense.
Democrats, to the extent they care about the budget deficit, want to raise taxes, which they say are too low--especially on rich people.
Republicans, meanwhile, generally say that taxes are too high and that the budget deficit should be addressed with spending cuts. To get the economy back on track, Republicans argue, you need to give Americans an incentive to work hard--by letting them keep more of what they earn. Republicans also argue that raising taxes would clobber an already fragile economy.
So who's right?
Are taxes too high? Or are they too low?
Do high tax rates on "rich people" create a lazy population in which no one has an incentive to work hard?
And what about the Republican mantra that cutting taxes is always good for the economy, while raising taxes is always bad?
Thanks to the Tax Foundation and other sources, we've analyzed tax rates over the past century, along with government revenue and spending over the same period.
This analysis revealed a lot of surprising conclusions, including the following:
- Today's government spending levels are indeed too high, at least relative to the average level of tax revenue the government has generated over the past 60 years. Unless Americans are willing to radically increase the amount of taxes they pay relative to GDP, government spending must eventually be cut.
- Today's income tax rates are strikingly low relative to the rates of the past century, especially for rich people. For most of the century, including some boom times, top-bracket income tax rates were much higher than they are today.
- Contrary to what Republicans would have you believe, super-high tax rates on rich people do not appear to hurt the economy or make people lazy: During the 1950s and early 1960s, the top bracket income tax rate was over 90%--and the economy, middle-class, and stock market boomed.
- Super-low tax rates on rich people also appear to be correlated with unsustainable sugar highs in the economy--brief, enjoyable booms followed by protracted busts. They also appear to be correlated with very high inequality. (For example, see the 1920s and now).
- Periods of very low tax rates have been followed by periods with very high tax rates, and vice versa. So history suggests that tax rates will soon start going up.
Don't take our word for it, though.
Progressives want to raise taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year because they say it's wrong for the rich to be "given" more money. Sunday's New York Times carries a cartoon showing Uncle Sam handing money to a fat cat. They just don't get it.
As I've said before, a tax cut is not a handout. It simply means government steals less. What progressives want to do is take money from some—by force—and spend it on others. It sounds less noble when plainly stated.
That's the moral side of the matter. There's a practical side, too. Taxes discourage wealth creation. That hurts everyone, the lower end of the income scale most of all. An economy that, through freedom, encourages the production of wealth raises the living standards of lower-income people as well as everyone else.
A free society is not a zero-sum game in which every gain is offset by someone's loss. As long as government keeps its thumb off the scales, the "makers" who get rich do so by making others better off. (When the government allocates capital or creates barriers to competition, all bets are off.)
Of course, this is not the prevailing view among the intelligentsia. Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill tells me, "Those who have more should pay more."
But is there a point where they stop producing wealth or leave altogether?
"The rich have always cried wolf like that," Hill says.
But the wolf is here. Maryland created a special tax on rich people that was supposed to bring in $106 million. Instead, the state lost $257 million.
Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who is running again for his old job, says: "It reminds me of Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown was always surprised when Lucy pulled the football away. And they're always surprised in Washington and state capitals when the dollars never come in."
Some of Maryland's rich left the state. "They're out of here. These people aren't stupid," Ehrlich says.
New York billionaire Tom Golisano isn't stupid, either. With $3,000 and one employee, he started a business that processes paychecks for companies. He created 13,000 jobs.
Then New York state hiked the income tax on millionaires.
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," he says. "Not that I like to throw the number around, but my personal income tax last year would've been $13,800 a day. Would you like to write a check for $13,800 a day to a state government, as opposed to moving to another state where there's no state income tax or very low state income tax?
He established residence in Florida, which has no personal income tax.
Now Gov. David Paterson may have even seen the light.
"We projected that we would get $4 billion, and we actually got well short of it," he says.
Art Laffer, the economist who has a curve illustrating this point named after him, isn't surprised.
"It's just economics," he says. "People don't work to pay taxes. People work to get what they can after tax. They'll change where they earn their income. They'll change how they earn their income. They'll change how much they earn, when they receive the income. They'll change all of those things to minimize taxes."