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What Taxes Would Look Like if Normal People Called the Shots

Changes already popular with Americans could make us healthier, wiser, and less indebted.

| Thu Apr. 11, 2013 5:23 PM EDT

So let's fundamentally rethink the way we conduct national security and match our armed forces to actual threats. Downsize the present American global mission and our eternal "war on terror," bring the military's arsenal into line with reality, and you can save around $1 trillion over the next decade from the Pentagon budget without blinking.

Next on the list: polls show that two-thirds of Americans want the wealthy and corporations to pay more in taxes, and a blockbuster majority of 90% wants a simpler tax code. It won't surprise you to learn that the present tax code is a playground for the rich and their talented accountants. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 280 organizations (including my employer National Priorities Project), identified 10-year budgetary savings of $2.8 trillion simply by limiting or eliminating a plethora of high-income and corporate tax loopholes.

So far, by following the people's wisdom, we've managed to invest significant sums in rebuilding education, the country's infrastructure, and energy security, while achieving long-term deficit reduction. Still, one of the biggest challenges remains.

This week, Barack Obama became the first Democratic president ever to propose lower Social Security benefits. On this, polling tells us, Americans couldn't be clearer. From progressives on the left to the Tea Party on the right, nearly 90% of Americans want Medicare and Social Security benefits kept intact.

No matter what you've heard—including claims that the program is, over the long haul, doomed—safeguarding Social Security is easy. The system is on solid footing until 2033. Then, only simple changes are needed, like altering the payroll tax (Social Security's dedicated funding), so it applies to all wage income instead of just your first $113,700. Most Americans don't realize that Social Security taxes disappear on higher income. Simply by correcting that regressive policy and making a few other obvious tweaks, Social Security will be ship-shape in its present form into the distant future.

Now for the big ugly: Medicare. Healthcare costs are the real long-term budget-buster facing this country and on this issue Americans want it all—benefits preserved and spending contained. In fact, there's a way to do both.

Estimates suggest that a third of health spending in this country is wasted in a system of uncoordinated, fee-for-service care. Some primary-care organizations have, however, bucked the trend by favoring a new "bundled payments" model of healthcare in which doctors are paid for their overall treatment of a patient rather than one test and procedure at a time. Organizations that made such changes reduced costs by 15% to 20% without compromising quality.

Medicare is pilot-testing such changes with promising results. Massachusetts lawmakers have already passed landmark cost-containment legislation that will usher in this new form of payment across the state's substantial health sector. We should be racing to implement these changes nationally. Since there isn't a good estimate of how much could be saved in Medicare if such major changes were implemented, let's be particularly conservative and estimate only a 5% savings. That would still shave around $400 billion from federal spending over a decade.

With these lower health costs, as well as smart reductions in military spending and limits on tax loopholes, we've tallied more than $4 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. Use a fraction of that to fund a job creation/infrastructure repairs program and we've still achieved around $3.5 trillion in potential deficit reduction. Since that's substantially more than experts recommend, we've actually freed up extra cash that could be used for any number of other priorities.

And all we did was pursue changes consistent with a people's budget that clearly emerges from opinion polls—though you can depend on Washington to ignore such possible reforms. The outsized influence of money in politics plus gerrymandered congressional districts are among the structural problems that reward our elected officials for serving narrow special interests instead of the will of the people. And though we the people have clear priorities, we don't do a good job of holding our elected officials accountable for pursuing a roadmap for the greater good. Still, that roadmap is there, if we ever want to use it.

Mattea Kramer is research director at National Priorities Project, a TomDispatch regular, and a frequent commentator for media outlets across the country. She's the lead author of the book A People's Guide to the Federal Budget. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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