One of the most remarkable things about the recent rise in
popularity of the flat tax is the way leading newspapers and
magazines that previously supported the idea have suddenly turned
against it. In particular, the New York Times and Washington Post
had previously editorialized in favor of the flat tax, but now both
oppose the idea.
For example, in an April 15, 1982 editorial, the Post said, "The
ideal income tax would be a flat percentage of all income above an
arbitrary threshold of, say, $10,000 per year." It concluded that
the flat tax "is the obvious remedy" to the problems of the tax
On June 3, 1982 the Post reiterated its support. "Replacing the
[tax] system with a low-rate tax on income -- with few, if any,
exclusions allowed -- is an idea that, by promising efficiency,
equity and simplicity, appeals to all parts of the political
spectrum," it said.
Fourteen years later, however, the Post is now opposed to what it
had earlier supported. On January 19, the Post called the flat tax
"a flawed idea, less a serious tax proposal than a slogan in the
name of which the advocates claim to be able to accomplish several
things at once." It concluded that the flat tax "wouldn't be an
Back in 1982 the New York Times supported the flat tax. In a June
6, 1982 editorial, the Times favored "a flat-rate tax levied on a
greatly broadened income base." It even praised Senator Jesse
Helms's proposed 12 percent flat-rate tax.
As recently as 1992 the Times reiterated its support for the flat
tax. In a March 27, 1992 editorial the Times explicitly endorsed the
Hall-Rabushka plan upon which the Armey and Forbes plans are based.
It called the flat tax "a superb idea."
But like the Post, the Times now opposes a flat tax. In a January
18, 1996 editorial the Times found "a glaring fault" in the flat
tax. Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, the Times is now shocked,
shocked to discover that the flat tax will benefit the wealthy! It
concluded by denouncing the Forbes plan.
Individual reporters have also flip-flopped on the flat tax. For
example, Business Week's Chris Farrell thought the flat tax
was great in a January 9, 1995 column. "If Washington legislators
truly want to make a difference, they should...embrace a flat tax,"
he wrote. The Armey plan "makes sense -- far more than any other
reform being considered. Limiting exemptions and deductions would
lower the tax rate by broadening the tax base. And the change would
encourage a more efficient allocation of resources."
But like the Post and the Times, Farrell has suddenly decided
that the flat tax is too risky. In a February 19, 1996 column,
Farrell said flat-tax advocates are wrong. "Their florid rhetoric
vastly overstates the economic gains and deeply understates the
risks," he wrote. "The gains could be easily dwarfed by wrenching
business and household upheavals as America shifts to a new tax
code. Indeed, the transition to a flat tax is fraught with danger --
so much so that the long- term payoff may never come." According to
Farrell, the stock market, home prices, and consumer spending all
would collapse under a flat tax.
Such predictions can only be described as total nonsense. As
Professor Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University points out, the
magnitude of tax changes under a flat tax would be no greater than
what we experienced in 1981 and 1986. And the impact on financial
markets would be no greater than those experienced many times in the
postwar era, when interest rates either rose or fell sharply.
Moreover, there is no question that a flat tax will cause the stock
market to rise, not fall.
Unfortunately, the ranks of those who have switched gears on the
flat tax include conservatives. As a columnist, Pat Buchanan
strongly supported Armey's flat-tax proposal. However, as a
presidential candidate, Buchanan opposes it. In a January 27, 1996
article in the New York Times, Buchanan called the flat tax
"simplistic" and attacked it for cutting the taxes of the rich. No
wonder the Times published it.
Of course, everyone has the right -- indeed, the obligation -- to
reconsider their positions when con- fronted with new information.
But when major newspapers and prominent writers switch their
positions 180 degrees on a major issue, especially within a short
period of time, readers are entitled to an explanation. Otherwise,
they can only assume that prevailing fashion dictates editorial
views, rather than facts and analysis, and that such views aren't
worthy of serious consideration.
Bruce Bartlett is a senior fellow with the
National Center for Policy Analysis.