Tom DeCoursey’s recent essay on the Fair Tax [“We do not have an informed electorate,” Viewpoints, Nov. 25] led to the following, remarkably civil back-and-forth:

Mr. DeCoursey,

I read with great interest your piece in this week’s Wednesday Journal regarding the vote that defeated (for now) the progressive tax amendment. While there is much in your piece with which I agree, I have one fundamental disagreement. I write to respectfully voice that disagreement in the hope that I can persuade you to rethink at least one part of your argument.

But first let me start with where I agree with you. 

I agree with you that the arguments you have identified against the progressive tax are ultimately not persuasive, though I take some of them more seriously than you do. 

I also agree that many citizens are not sufficiently informed about the economic and policy arguments for and against a progressive tax to vote intelligently on such a tax. I think that is true of most if not all tax-related referenda and that is why, among other reasons, like the founders, I strongly favor small “r” republican democracy over direct democracy. Having said that, if the case for a progressive tax were as lopsided as you suggest, then it should not have required much knowledge or sophistication for a majority of voters to find the “fair tax” preferable to the “unfair tax.” The fact that they didn’t suggests that maybe the right answer isn’t so clear, and that there is more going on here than a lack of information.

So that gets to my disagreement. Allow me to preface my disagreement with my credentials as a voter. I received a bachelor’s degree with honors in American History from the University of Chicago. I am also a lawyer. I went to law school at UCLA, where I graduated near the top of my class and obtained a prestigious clerkship with a judge on the federal court of appeals in Los Angeles. I have practiced law in Chicago for nearly 30 years. I read the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune nearly every day, and I read and listen to podcasts on politics and public policy from a variety of sources, liberal and conservative. I read op-eds and other materials arguing for and against the “fair tax.” So I consider myself a pretty informed voter.

And yet I voted “No” even though I believe we should have a progressive tax in Illinois, and have supported one for a long time. I voted “No” even though I am a Democrat who voted for Pritzker for governor. I voted “No,” not because I am uniformed, but because I am very informed. 

I struggled over my vote, but at the end of the day I concluded that if the referendum passed, an opportunity would be lost to get a deal on other necessary reforms — most notably pension reform and property tax and school funding reforms, but also other cost-reducing measures like reducing the number of administrative units in Illinois government. I also recognized that until such a grand bargain can be achieved, the state can increase tax revenue fairly by increasing the flat tax and providing more tax credits to lower- and middle-income earners, and by taxing services and financial transactions that are currently undertaxed.

I am not the only informed voter to strike the same balance. For example, the Civic Federation of Chicago opposed the Fair Tax amendment for much the same reason I do. I know other knowledgeable voters who voted for the Fair Tax but who struggled as much as I did before they came down on the other side.

I expect you are aware that there were voters who voted “No” for the same reasons I did, and yet you did not address those concerns in your article, which makes you vulnerable to the same criticisms you lob at opponents of the tax.

Finally, let me humbly suggest that you are unlikely to persuade people to your position if you start by insulting their fitness as citizens or their intelligence.

I hope you will join me in advocating with our elected officials to start a new fight for a progressive tax built on an economically sturdier and politically more palatable platform than the one I voted against.

Ed Malone

Mr. Malone,

Thank you for your informed response. I am happy to learn how an intelligent person could arrive at your position. I agree with you on two main points, namely (1) that structural reforms to the state budget are needed, and (2) my writing style tends to alienate those with whom I disagree. The latter trait is unlikely to change despite occasional efforts, ever since I was nearly run out of the small Kansas town where I grew up after producing an underground newspaper in high school in the late ’60s.

Where I disagree is not whether structural reforms are needed, but rather I fail to see how “an opportunity would be lost.” Your side won, but where is this opportunity to be found now? Who is pushing for the needed reforms you list? How will the loss of a strong step forward facilitate any other step in the directions you mention? Perhaps I am somewhat cynical about politics — if you can win on even one tiny point, I think you have to accept it. Incremental progress is better than no progress at all. I do not believe that to repair a corrupt system you must first make things worse to foment a revolutionary reaction among the populace. It sounds as though you do not want any progress unless the entire problem can be solved at a single bound.

Maybe you are right. Another example would be whether the Affordable Care Act was worth passing vs. holding out for a single-payer system like those in every other country in the advanced world. I am assuming you agree that a single-payer system would be better, fairer, and far less costly than what we have now. Obama had to compromise to get the ACA passed. It is certainly much better than the previous non-system in which predatory insurance companies maximized their profits and dumped sick people from their coverage whenever possible. But can we get to a single payer system all at once or incrementally or at all? The problem seems to be strategy. Do you accept an incomplete partial solution as being better than nothing, or do you demand the whole fix all at once?

My suspicion is now that Pritzker has been burned on this issue he will be reluctant to try any major change. The state will fall deeper into debt and toward fiscal collapse. If you now see a path toward fiscal responsibility, then I could feel less depressed about our prospects. Finally, your decision was well-reasoned and carefully thought out, and given further expansion of the ideas, I might possibly have been won over. That said, I do not believe that 95 percent of those who voted against the Fair Tax did so for such logical reasons at all. I think they fell for the lies: “This will raise your taxes” and “Do not give power to Illinois legislators because we do not trust them, and they will raise your taxes.” I have already heard from one who “explained” that even with a flat tax, rich people pay a larger amount of taxes.

Tom DeCoursey

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