Most of us would be thrilled to get a tax cut.
But there are 20 trillion reasons why we ought to be worried about what President Donald Trump and the Congress want to do.
That’s the national debt, a sum that is ticking up every year by another $600 billion to $700 billion, at last count.
It’s a staggering sum that is hard to visualize. But at about $165,000 for every single taxpayer — stockboy, hamburger-flipper, plutocrat and physician, whoever — it is unacceptably high.
The notion of significant reforms of the tax code is a good idea, embraced by the president with his usual exuberance and also a characteristic lack of detail. The fine print will be filled in by Congress.
Tax legislation is one of most complex things that Congress can do. But it is also a task that only the national legislature can do, and not just because of the Constitution’s rules in Article 1.
It's also because tax law is about a huge number of pluses and minuses. If you levy a tax at a given rate, it might have good or bad implications for a specific industry and the people who work in those businesses.
The trade-offs can give Congress a bad name, as in the past when committee halls were named Gucci Gulch, because of the expensive shoes of well-heeled lobbyists for the even better-heeled corporate interests.
Even so, as a practical political matter, this is a discussion that has to be had on Capitol Hill. That's the best place for competing and conflicting interests to be sorted out. The Trump goal of simplification of the tax law is great, but it requires tough choices.
What we can guarantee now is that it may not be a particularly pretty process. But we also worry that, as Congress becomes a dueling ground for competing interests, the members of House and Senate will lose sight of the big picture. That is, the $20 trillion picture of a giant and increasing national debt.
In hard fights, it’s tempting to take the easy way out, and pass a tax cut without reforms of the underlying law to balance the books. This will further balloon the annual deficits and thus build more debt.
While there can be short-term benefits for the economy, there are few responsible economists who believe that tax cuts “pay for themselves” in guaranteed growth.
What they do guarantee, without a commitment to underlying tax reform, is rising deficits for our children and grandchildren.
This nation was built on debt, from colonial times and Col. George Washington’s land speculations to Trump’s hotels and skyscrapers. But the national debt is far beyond what the nation can reasonably maintain for an indefinite period.
A tax cut without tax reform is punishment for coming generations, however much we may benefit this year or next.