My friend Matt Miller defends Obama against my wounding accusation that the president is a bold progressive liberal. I've got it all wrong, says Matt, who is also a fairly progressive liberal (though paid by public radio to pose as "the voice of the political centre"). In fact, he says, the president is a defender of the status quo.

Also, and here is where I think Matt crosses a line, he calls me mild-mannered. No disrespect, but Bolton men find that kind of talk hard to take from a big girl's blouse from LA.

The point of Matt's column, when he finally gets to it, is that tax deductions for mortgage interest and so on are subsidies that unfairly favor the rich. That is all you need to know about them. Curbing them must therefore be good, and Obama is a centrist, QED.

Let the mortgage deduction illustrate the point. Under Obama's proposal, top earners will be able to deduct mortgage interest only at the 28 percent rate, not at the 35 percent rate (or the 39.6 percent rate, once Bush's tax cuts expire). What does that mean exactly? Today, every $1,000 in mortgage interest (or charitable gifts) generates $350 in tax savings for top earners; under the new plan, the tax savings would be only $280.

To be sure, this represents a sudden and disorienting loss for top earners, who were accustomed under the previous regime to having their taxes cut even during a time of war. But here's the comforting part: That $280 per $1,000 mortgage subsidy is still a lot more than the $150 subsidy per $1,000 that millions of middle-income homeowners in the 15 percent bracket enjoy. And it's an infinitely bigger federal housing grant than the zero awarded by Uncle Sam to the masses of Americans who rent (or who will shortly, once they've been thrown out of their homes).

Yes, that's one way of looking at it. And it so happens I'm for broader tax reform that reduces or eliminates these deductions. In the column Matt complains about I said this:

Granted, other things being equal, reducing the value of tax deductions - not just for the highest earners, but for every taxpayer - makes sense. It broadens the tax base and requires lower marginal tax rates for any given amount of revenue raised. But look at Mr Obama's proposal in context. He is not broadening the base to lower marginal rates. He is raising marginal rates on the highly paid, and increasing their effective tax rate by rolling back deductions. The measure is an unexpected element of redistribution in a package that was highly redistributive to begin with.

Matt entirely ignores the context, quite a feat in its way. The collapsed savings of the prosperous middle class, the other tax increases on high earners, the failure to ask most Americans to pay anything at all for health reform or the array of other new spending commitments in the budget, the huge and ongoing fiscal gap (and the presumptive need for further tax increases in the longer term): in Matt's view, none of these things factors in. He is wrong. They are relevant.

Notice too how Matt walks right up to, then swerves around, the logical consequence of his argument.

Given the temper of the times, and the extent to which America's unsubsidized cops, teachers, nurses, and janitors outnumber its well-to-do homeowners and donors, the "socialist" route would have been to take top earners off the dole altogether.

Dole? Let that pass. My question is, are you for doing this, Matt--and if not, why not? Why, on your reasoning, would you not immediately abolish tax deductions for all taxpayers? People too poor to pay tax do not get these subsidies, so in simple justice it cannot be right to pay them to the non-poor: as you put it, treat John Thain and his cleaning lady the same when it comes to tax subsidies. Isn't this your argument in its entirety? Don't worry about equity and efficiency more broadly; pay no heed to marginal rates or effective rates of tax; never mind about the distribution of the tax burden. Just equalise/eliminate those tax subsidies, as though nothing else mattered.

I may have misunderstood you. I've read the paragraph about janitors four times and I'm still not sure where you stand. If abolishing deductions is indeed your recommendation--not in the longer term, not as part of a broader tax reform, but right here, right now--I think you're nuts but I withdraw the accusation of cowardice in the face of your own logic. If your view is, "Now is not the time, and it would have to be done as part of a bigger reform," then I agree with you--and your position, though you don't seem to realize it, mostly collapses into the one you attack. (The difference comes down to, "How large a tax increase on the non-poor is wise?"--a question you fail even to acknowledge, let alone answer, in your article.)

Incidentally, whatever happened to the Matt Miller of "Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love"? Tired of that old centrist shtick? Sensing a shift in the market?

I still want satisfaction on "mild-mannered".

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