Fleischer’s Utopia

Ari Fleischer is no poet, and it may be unfair to subject his literary figures to very close scrutiny; but I do expect a certain level of rhetorical competence from the man who once was entrusted with making dread pronouncements and weasel-like prevarications from the White House bully pulpit.

That’s why I was a little dismayed as I tried to follow Fleischer’s argument in today’s Wall Street Journal. The central figure of his op-ed asks us to imagine the federal tax code as “an inverted pyramid scheme,” in which the tax code appears in the shape of an upside-down pyramid.

The only the way the pyramid can stand is by spinning fast enough or by having a wide enough tip so it won’t fall down. The federal version of this spinning top is the tax code: the government collects its money almost entirely from people at the narrow tip and then gives it to the people at the wider side.

Leave aside, for the moment, the strange inversion of social class that this metaphor requires: the top ten percent of earners are actually on the bottom of the spinning top and everybody else occupies the ever widening area of the inverted pyramid. Fleischer’s intention is clear enough: he wants to make the point that the 10 percent earning over 92,400 dollars pay over 72 percent of the taxes. They are the tip at the bottom of the top — the tip on which it all spins.

To rectify this situation, and in the name of a “more conservative, fiscal discipline,” Fleischer calls for an “Economic Growth Code,” under which everyone — he even repeats the word for emphasis, everyone — would pay their fair share.

Odd that in this critique of wealth redistribution we should hear a faint echo of Marx (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”); but maybe not so odd: after all, this is Fleischer’s Utopia, where the Republicans have abolished Medicare, Social Security and estate taxes and are running a progressive income tax scheme with “no deductions or credits at all.”

In this topsy-turvy world, “the bottom 50%” — those are people at the broad top of the inverted pyramid — will pay for the government services they now mooch; top earners will sacrifice loopholes and deductions on which they now rely to reduce their tax burden. The tax base will broaden widely. Politicians will no longer exploit the tax code to divide us along class lines.

You may be excused if you don’t yet feel the love. It’s all about keeping the pyramid spinning: “Growth is the key to keeping the pyramid spinning, and to keep spinning the pyramid’s tip needs to be broadened.”

I am no physicist, but the figure here gives me pause. And I can’t get past the rhetorical failure to consider whether there is wisdom in Fleischer’s policy. After all, the broader you make the spinning top’s narrow tip, the more the pyramid will come to resemble a cube, and the slower it will spin. And you will necessarily have to apply more force to keep it spinning.

This isn’t a quibble — or if it is, it may be an important one. Remember, at the start of his piece Fleischer says we have two options: one, to keep the pyramid spinning fast enough; and, two, to broaden the base. What happened to the first option? What happened, in other words, to the argument for increased velocity, or just the image of economic velocity? Why opt for deceleration or cubic inertia if there is, in fact, another option? And what would that option look like? And why doesn’t Fleischer want to entertain that option here?

I don’t want to live or work in a cube; and there is, overall, something gray and grim, something intellectually parsimonious and unexciting, in Fleischer’s notion of growth. Though he says Republicans should “make their mark” by concentrating on economic growth, he never really specifies how they ought to do that, beyond following his prescriptions for tax reform.

No doubt, the tax code needs reform. But rejiggering or revamping the tax code does not add up to a strategy for growth; only a wonk — and a Republican wonk at that — would think it does.

Innovation, new industries and technologies, new business models and new ideas about the role of business in society — none of these have a place in Fleischer’s Utopia, at least as he presents it here. Entrepreneurs, too, go largely unrecognized and uncelebrated, even though their efforts and energies make the top go round and round, sometimes very fast — sometimes even too fast.

No Promethean fire, just a cold calculation of how much each of us owes. Why? Maybe because Ari Fleischer really does think that changing the tax code is the most urgent thing we can do right now to spur growth, or at least the best thing the Republicans can do to regain political advantage. Or maybe because he’s still just the public face of a shady ventriloquist act on which the curtain should have gone down long ago.

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