Americans hate paying taxes. They also want Congress and the White House to balance the budget.
They can't have it both ways.
On one side of the escalating budget debate is the premise, offered up by a generation of politicians and tax policy wonks since Ronald Reagan, that government spending is dangerously "out of control" and needs to be restrained. Even if the cure means starving the Treasury Department of cash.
One the other side is a promise, dating back to the Great Depression and expanded through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, to divert a greater share of the nation's hard-earned resources to care for the oldest and most economically vulnerable Americans.
That decades-long conflict seems to be approaching something of a Moment of Truth.
"If we want to maintain ourselves as a very low-tax country, then we have to break some of those promises," said Michael Linden, a tax policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
"That's the big dilemma that facing the country right now. That's the basic contour on the debate."
The debate intensified over the weekend, as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made the Sunday talk show circuit to lay out the case for the Obama administration's latest budget proposal. The plan calls for nearly $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade, along with some $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and other health programs.
The plan also calls for raising tax rates and limiting deductions on households making more than $250,000, a proposal Geithner told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that he thinks congressional Republicans will accept.
"I think we're going to get there," Geithner told NBC.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, isn't so sure.
His first response to the White House proposal: "You can't be serious," he told "Fox News Sunday."
Still, with the deadline for a deal to head off the so-called "fiscal cliff"now less than a month away, the debate has shifted from whether taxes should go up to just who should pay more. Both sides seem to acknowledge what some economists have been saying for some time.
The problem with the budget is that Americans don't pay enough taxes.
The case isn't hard to make. The U.S. federal tax burden, relative to gross domestic product, is lower than it's been in half a century. Americans pay lower taxes in relation to the size of their economy than all but a handful of developed countries, including Chile and Mexico.
The relatively low tax burden on Americans is, in part, an illusion that results from heavy reliance on hundreds of billions of dollars of so-called "tax expenditures." To make government spending appear lower than it really is, the U.S. tax code is larded with givebacks, deductions and exemptions.
For example, the government lets you off the hook for paying taxes on the cash your employer pays to cover your health insurance coverage - income by another name. The cost of those uncollected taxes would show up as spending if the Treasury paid you a direct subsidy for health care. (That tax break, by the way, is the biggest single giveaway the government provides.)
Or take the earned income tax credit, which issues payments to low-income households. This giveback costs the Treasury just as much as if it collected the money from all taxpayers and then turned around and used it to write checks for those with the lowest wages.
"It doesn't really make much difference whether the government taxes people - and spends the money in order to redirect it - or whether it gives a tax incentive that encourages people to spend their own money in the same way," said Bruce Bartlett, who served as a Reagan administration policy adviser and as a Treasury official under President George H. W. Bush. "Economically, it's exactly the same thing."
The biggest sticking point in the current debate centers on whether tax rates should rise. Thanks to the thicket of loopholes available at all income levels, those "marginal" rates have little to do with how much of your hard-earned money you must fork over to the government.
As a percentage of their total income, though, Americans are paying less than they have in more than a half century. Since 1960, the government's total take has been remarkably steady at about 18.3 percent of gross domestic product, give or take a percentage point.
In the second half of the 1990s, that changed. Thanks to a booming economy , the Treasury began collecting money faster than the government could spend it – without raising tax rates. The dot-com stock market boom, for example, produced a surge in capital gains taxes, even after the government cut the tax rate on those gains in 1997.