The new Evil Empire
There was a brief but absorbing dialogue today on a tax law professor bulletin board to which I subscribe. The good part started when one of my fellow tax profs spoke out against the anti-tax movement, but his thoughts were of broader import. He mused:
There are polls conducted over long periods of time in which people are asked (1) Is the government on your side? (2) Is it captured by special interests? (3) Is it doing a good job?The responses were just as interesting, including this one:
In 1962, the answers to all three (both posed negatively and positively) were 80% in favor of the government. Only outliers, the silly 20%, were anti-government.
If you ask the same set of questions now, 80% answer the questions against the government and only 20%, old-fashioned folks, are pro-government.
Our social fabric is falling apart, and an ornery stick-in-your-face attitude rules the land. There are countries where the government will do nothing except for a bribe, which tortures its citizens and suppresses its gross national product, that get higher ratings than the US government does. We have replaced our assumption that the extended republic will best protect the rights and interests of the people (Madison) with the assumption that all politicians are corrupt and evil. We have transferred our anger at the evil empire from the USSR to the US. We will cut off its allowance, starve its employees, and strangle it at the root. If you want to know why you get better service from McDonald's than the IRS, it may be because the McDonald's people are getting paid more, both in psychic reward and money. We have seen the enemy and he is US.
(You can see I come from another planet, namely 1962. Those were the golden years.)
None of this is a surprise. My American Civilization professor predicted it back in 1971 (perhaps not as gilded an age but it shone nonetheless). He was the renowned Dr. Anthony N.B. Garvin, and his premise was simply that the nation's culture was becoming overwhelmed by a self-focused absorption.To which another replied:
He died before he had a chance to comment on the materialistic 80s, the opportunistic 90s, and the whatever-we'll-call-it 00s. What little sense of "good for civilization and society" that remains just doesn't have the strength to shift the culture. It will take something far more of a culture shock than what's been transpiring during the past few years. Yes, there are kind, caring, law-abiding, generous people, but most are, as [X] explains, turned off by government that is under the control of a few wealthy and powerful cliques, of all political stripes, and that has lost sight of the Cincinnatus philosophy of the founders. Positions in government, especially the elected ones (and predominantly in the federal and state legislatures), are viewed less and less as opportunity to do civic duty and instead as power objects in and of themselves.
So the tax system is falling apart. It needs to be changed. But protest in the form of rebellion (passive or active) isn't helpful when the protesters offer no alternatives. In my "dialogues" with them I ask them to explain how government and society would work if there were no taxes, or no income tax, and there is no response. None. So I don't view the movement as a reform movement, in or out of the system, but as the "withdrawal from responsibility" that found its modern cultural origins in the protective isolationism of the 50s. So in my "dialogues" I invite protesters to withdraw to some island, create a government, and to invite me to visit when it's up and running smoothly. No response, of course.
Nothing that I see in the Congress, in politics, in the media, in popular culture, in the attitudes of my students, and in the mentalities I saw on my 9000+ mile cross-country driving adventure this summer gives me reason or hope to think anything will change for the better in the near future. I fear that in 2030, if we live that long, we may end up calling the 00s the golden years (and 1962 and 1971 as platinum).
The relentless anti-tax rhetoric that the public has been subjected to since the infamous Roth hearings and the presidential election that followed greatly exacerbates the problem, as do economic policies that see tax cuts as the solution to every problem. In an environment that vilifies taxation, becoming a tax protester (or purchasing a tax shelter) is simply a do-it-yourself way of achieving the end which the even the president says is good: pay less taxes.Which brought on:
The anti-tax spirit is alive and well at the highest policy levels. For a frightening look at how policy is made and where it is going, I commend to you the interview with Grover Norquist which is featured in the Summer issue of the Tax Section NewsQuarterly, currently in the mail.... Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and is thought by many to be one of the most influential men in Washington.
One funny thing about many people in the anti-tax crowd was brought out in the article in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine about Stephen Moore (who tut-tuts about new spending, but rather indulgently). They appear not to understand basic long-term budget constraints, under which a dollar of added government outlays today, if it doesn't reduce expected future outlays (which more likely it would increase), implies added taxes with a present value of a dollar.Someone then made a crack about Arnold and Warren Buffett, but it turns out that Buffett himself spoke out eloquently against the dividend tax cut.
Some smart people in this post, folks. It's amazing that I get paid to read what they say.