There’s a Republican running for president who promises unequivocally to “protect Social Security and Medicare … to kill anything that poses a threat to the promises we have made to America’s seniors.”
But he’s also calling for a “tax reform” that would bleed seniors as they’ve never been bled before.
What do you call such a politician?
Huckster, for one.
Fraud, for another.
Mike Huckabee, to be specific.
“Robbing people of the benefits they have contributed is not a solution – it’s an escape,” says his website.
Yet Huckabee is also the arch apostle for the so-called “Fair Tax,” which would replace income and payroll taxes with a national sales tax at likely 50 percent.
Half again, in tax, added to what you pay for food, clothing, utilities and other necessities.
Half again in tax, even on what you pay for doctors, medicine and insurance.
That 50 percent isn’t a wild guess. It’s the sober estimate of Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal group, and the bipartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, on what it would take to replace current revenue from income and payroll taxes.
The tax rate could be much less, of course, if a President Huckabee shut down the Pentagon, abolished food stamps, sold off the national parks and forests, and stopped putting money into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.
This radical scheme is Huckabee’s bid to win over the economically subversive wing of the Republican Party, epitomized by Grover Norquist, whose stated mission is to make the federal government small enough “to drown it in a bathtub.” Norquist and his fellow travelers have opposed Huckabee on account of some decent things he did as governor of Arkansas.
Norquist himself won’t mistake Huckabee for a potential winner. But there are ordinary folk, in the Tea Party and elsewhere, who are susceptible to anti-IRS propaganda. Huckabee needs them.
He figures to have a lock already on the party’s other extreme wing, the religious conservatives whose growing influence terrified even Barry Goldwater.
It’s deceptively easy to dismiss Huckabee as a fringe candidate who might win early primaries in atypical states like South Carolina, but who wouldn’t be able to finish the race.
One trouble with that view is in the damage he could do along the way to the not-so-whacko candidates in the Republican presidential rumble.
Another is that he might give a camouflage of respectability to a “tax reform” scheme that’s beyond wrong: It’s fundamentally evil.
It would switch the entire base of federal taxation from what people earn to what they spend, and from they earn to what they have saved — in many cases, on money they saved after paying taxes on it.
Consider an elderly couple subsisting on Social Security, augmented by withdrawals from their small savings account. They spend all of it on necessities, most of which the states already tax.
The federal government taxes none of it now.
If your only income is Social Security, it is entirely exempt from the federal income tax. For those with other income, no more than 85 percent of Social Security is taxed.
But while Huckabee’s scheme leaves that as it is, it would heap an enormous new federal tax on what that couple spends on necessities from their Social Security income and savings.
For others whose income is great, the “Fair Tax” promises a windfall. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the top 1 percent would see their taxes fall by an average of $225,000 a year. Meanwhile, eight of every 10 Americans would be paying $3,200 more.
There is a case that a sophisticated form of national sales taxation could make American exports more competitive and in that way contribute to the economy. The value-added tax common in Europe refunds the levy on goods taken or shipped out of their countries.
The late Sam Gibbons, the Florida congressman who briefly chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, had this in mind when he proposed a value-added tax.
But recognizing its regressive effect on most people, he would have offset it with a straight levy – with no exemptions – on higher incomes.
However, that’s far from the case Huckabee is making. His is a cynical concoction of simple solutions – abolish the Internal Revenue Service, replace it with a national sales tax that the states would collect for Uncle Sam, and call it a day.
This is what Huckabee claims:
“The Fair Tax is the only plan that lowers everyone’s tax rates, untaxes the poor, broadens the tax base and helps protect Social Security and Medicare.”
The last person who sounded like that was Bernie Madoff saying, “Just trust me.”
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Western North Carolina.