Memo to the Gang of Twelve (aka the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction)

Some suggestions for those to whom all has been punted

For decades economists have chided the American people for spending too much and saving too little.  Now we are told we should spend money to make it circulate while we are trying to reduce credit card balances.  Meanwhile, on the national level, the recent debt-ceiling showdown forced to our attention that we must make unwelcome changes in the federal budget.

Now that the nation’s leaders have failed to agree on a solution, they have given you an almost impossible task.  You are to arrive at a solution that only a minority can fault.

Ending wars, even when they seemed at their outset to have been justified, is harder than starting them, but cutting the military budget to force withdrawal is a back-handed way to carry out foreign policy.

Every cut is unpalatable, whether by denying certain services to children and the elderly or by taxing the wealthy.  As Lenin said in a moment of discouragement, “What is to be done?”

Our population is aging and calling for more and more expensive health care treatments.  Is it necessary to deny some services to children and the elderly?  Very likely.  To balance such cuts, however, we must also be willing to consider the matter of taxation, euphemistically described as revenue enhancement, which is highly unwelcome to those who would be subject to it.

Here are three possibilities so far unexplored.

The payroll tax is a flat tax with a cap on wages and salaries that are subject to it.  In 2011, the rate employees pay into Social Security is 4.2 percent, up to a salary of $106,800.  (The rate has been temporarily reduced and is to return upward in 2012.)  Those who earn more than this, however, pay no more.  Consider the following tax table:

Income                  Payroll Tax

  $50,000               $2,100

  106,800                 4,485

1,000,000                4,485

If the cap were lifted, the $1 million earner would pay in $42,000 and a $10 million earner would pay in $420,000.  That would surely keep Social Security solvent for a few more years.

Another potential pot of gold is taxing email.  While we argue about collecting sales taxes on e-commerce transactions, no one to my knowledge has raised the notion that email could be taxed exactly like telephone bills.  A penny or a nickel on each message could generate revenue beyond my ability to count zeroes.  An added benefit to recipients: fewer ads for watches and Cialis.

A third area of potential revenue is the estate tax, on which the floor has risen in the last decade and the upper levels have been tweaked repeatedly.  The IRS has scarcely been able to keep up with the changes. The law cries out to be simplified.  While you are at it, you could make it more progressive.

Meet the Author
If you consider these three ideas, the twelve of you have a relatively blank slate to work from, since there has not been the impassioned debate and hardening of positions on them that other proposed tax increases have elicited.  Maybe at least one of these ideas is worth a try.

Eugenie Beal is chairwoman of the Boston Natural Areas Network, which she helped found in 1977, and a longtime member of the Friends of the Public Garden. She was the first chairwoman of the Boston Conservation Commission, in the 1970s, and the first director of the Boston Environment Department.