Thomas Friedman's McCarthyite Tax Attack on Sarah Palin

Tax increases are not the only way to fund our wars.

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In today's New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman takes Sarah Palin to the woodshed for her rebuttal in last Thursday's veep debate to one of Joe Biden's sillier comments. "You said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic," Palin told Biden. "In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that's not patriotic."

After thinking about it for a week, here is Friedman's considered reaction:

What an awful statement. Palin defended the government's $700 billion rescue plan. She defended the surge in Iraq, where her own son is now serving. She defended sending more troops to Afghanistan. And yet, at the same time, she declared that Americans who pay their fair share of taxes to support all those government-led endeavors should not be considered patriotic.

What a pernicious twisting of Palin's statement. The Alaska governor never said that paying one's "fair" share of taxes is unpatriotic—that was Friedman's subjective word. Given her opposition to the Obama-Biden plan to raise taxes on all U.S. businesses and wealthier Americans, no doubt Palin holds different ideas on what is "fair."

What Palin did do, however, was call out a politician who, like some relic of the church indulgences scheme, would put a price on patriotism. And just like Biden, Friedman, too, reaches the facile conclusion that the only expression of patriotism is for (other) Americans to pay more taxes.

The reason for Friedman's McCarthyism is that he believes the only way to pay for national security priorities is through higher taxes. As he writes, "If it isn't from tax revenues, there are only two ways to pay for those big projects—printing more money or borrowing more money."

Here's a third suggestion: Perhaps lawmakers and bureaucrats could show some patriotism by cutting back on spending? Yes, every program has its champions and beneficiaries. But faced with the current economic conditions, surely some priorities—or sacrifices, to use a moral term Friedman might appreciate—can be set? And if that's too inequitable, then why not push for an across-the-board spending cut for every agency and program?

That's a plan that even Friedman's parents would no doubt approve. As he writes:

I grew up in a very middle-class family in a very middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, and my parents taught me that paying taxes, while certainly no fun, was how we paid for the police and the Army, our public universities and local schools, scientific research and Medicare for the elderly.

Of course, back when Friedman was growing up, the services he lists were pretty much the extent of the federal government. Funding schools, some R&D, public safety, and limited Medicare are all fine ideas. But how about everything else the federal government pays for? Would Friedman—or his parents—seriously argue that every nook and cranny of official Washington justifies its full existence?

But if real cuts to government spending are asking too much, then perhaps it's time for Washington to seriously address devastating program inefficiencies. Step 1 could be to finally reform Social Security. And if, in the spirit of patriotism, lawmakers could be persuaded to let willing Americans invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in public companies at their own risk, that would do a lot to help Wall Street's recovery.