TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Bush-Cheney Tax Returns and Athenian Democracy

Sunday, April 18, 2004

David Cay Johnston has a nice piece today in the NY Times on how the 2003 Bush and Cheney tax returns "demonstrate how far American tax policy has veered from two classic philosophical insights about how to finance government: 'horizontal equity' and 'vertical equity.'" In her article, Democracy, Equality, and Taxes, Maureen Cavanaugh (Washington & Lee) observed that "Athenian democracy, with its complete commitment to political equality, allocated its tax burden to the wealthy and exempted ordinary citizens from tax, an exemption largely responsible for incorporation of ordinary (i.e., non-wealthy) citizens in democratic government." In the NY Times piece, Cavanaugh notes that the Bush-Cheney tax returns reflect a shift away from the ability-to-pay ideal. Johnston concludes that "One thing's for sure: Judging from the Cheney and Bush returns, we've come a long way indeed from the classic tax policies of ancient Greece."

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In contemplating the Cheney's taxes as a percenatge of AGI, what adjustment is made for their charitable contributions? (Rhetorical question - I expect the answer is "none".

Ms. Cheney is contributing her book royalties, reported as income, to charity. This (arguably) has the effect of overstating both their income and their charitable contributions. Since the charitable contributions produce tax relief (I am shutting my eyes to the AMT), the result will be a lower-than-otherwise ratio of taxes to AGI.

My suspicion is that the "right" approach would be to impute some normal level of charitable contributions, and adjust their AGI and tax liability accordingly. Good luck.

I am shocked (Shocked!) that D C Johnston did not mention this.

Posted by: Tom Maguire | Apr 20, 2004 8:51:27 AM

Nice comments by D C Johnson, Typical of a New York Times writer. Flawed analogys to shed a a bad light on the Bush administration. However in this instance, it only sheds light on his ignorance. Athens was democratic society in which men only ruled, women were chattel and in which economic activity was generated in large part by slavery. Yes the wealthy did pay most of the taxes but their wealth was generated by slave labor. Is this the ideal that Mr Johnson would wish for America, or perhaps he was asleep during history class.

Posted by: B Plummer | Apr 20, 2004 10:18:53 AM

History will also show that personal income tax is a recent invention by Congress (FDR and Co.). Our Founding Fathers did not think of personal income tax as a means of political justice as Prof. Cavanaugh claims. More to the point, the Athens experiment with democracy was not long lasting and cannot be taken as the primary example of insuring social justice. Progressive taxation is not ethically or politically carved in stone as being most beneficial to democracy. Economics has come a long way from the brutal system of Athen's slave economy.

Posted by: Dane C Sorensen | Sep 19, 2004 5:49:42 AM