Even if President Obama wins all the tax increases on the rich that he is asking for, the long-term fiscal picture will still look grim. Perhaps we can stabilize the situation for a few years just by taxing the rich, but as greater numbers of baby boomers retire and start collecting Social Security and Medicare, more will need to be done.
Which brings us back to the middle class. When President Obama talks about taxing the rich, he means the top 2 percent of Americans. John A. Boehner, the House speaker, talks about an even thinner slice. But the current and future fiscal imbalances are too large to exempt 98 percent or more of the public from being part of the solution.
Ultimately, unless we scale back entitlement programs far more than anyone in Washington is now seriously considering, we will have no choice but to increase taxes on a vast majority of Americans. This could involve higher tax rates or an elimination of popular deductions. Or it could mean an entirely new tax, such as a value-added tax or a carbon tax.
To be sure, the path ahead is not easy. No politician who wants to be re-elected is eager to entertain the possibility of higher taxes on the middle class. But fiscal negotiations might become a bit easier if everyone started by agreeing that the policies we choose must be constrained by the laws of arithmetic.
I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Faculty Research Fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in the Public economics group. You can follow me on twitter @omzidar.
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