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October 21, 2008

Taxing the System

By Richard Girard

There is a difference between the Law and Justice; between what is equal and what is fair. America's tax system is neither just or fair. Let's do something about it.


Taxing the System

By Richard Girard 

"Where I am not understood, it shall be concluded that something very useful and profound is couched underneath."-Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist. The Tale of a Tub, Preface (1704). 

"To save permanent rights, temporary sacrifices [are] necessary." - Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Eustis, 1809.             

It is always interesting to note the varying reactions to my articles when they are published on the Web.  The reactions have run the gamut from finding brand new friends, to people who seem determined to engage me in a battle of wits.  With the later, I have inevitably discovered that most are only half-armed, insistent on maintaining their silly talking points they have learned by rote, ignoring all arguments that start from assumptions different from their own, intentionally misunderstanding any point I make, and name-calling including terms like "socialist"- and "Marxist."-            

As I have said on more than one occasion, I am a Marxist--a Groucho Marxist.  I have found Groucho's observations on the human condition to be both far more illuminating and far more humane than his non-uncle Karl, who had no sense of humor.  Otherwise, I am a devout disciple of Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Lincoln, FDR, Gandhi, and King.              

I believe in capitalism, but in a regulated capitalistic system.  Unregulated, free market capitalism reminds me of leaving your favorite pet dog in the chicken coop to protect the chickens, while you go away for a three day weekend.  No matter how well, trained, no matter how well behaved your dog is, it is almost a given that Fido will have egg on his face and pinfeathers in his whiskers when you get back, even if no chickens are missing.  Free market capitalism has never, in the long term, worked to the advantage of the majority of citizens in any nation.  It has invariably led to the rich getting richer, and everyone else (including the government) getting poorer.  Finally, an economic collapse--like the one we are currently experiencing--ends the experiment.            

To return to my point about the half-armed folk who wish to challenge me to a battle of wits, one person's reaction to my recent article published on OpEdNews.com ("Illuminating Dichotomies,"- September 19, 2008) is a recent case in point.              

John Steinsvold sent me a message to my mailbox at OpEdNews.com, suggesting that I read an article of his, "Home of the Brave?"- that had been published on americandaily.com (http://americandaily.com/article/12389) in March of 2006.  I initially thought this was an attack; a piece suggesting that we create a moneyless society, to contrast "Dichotomies"- message on selfishness.  His article seemed to take the form of a satirical attack on Groucho's non-uncle Karl, and Marx's dictum of "each according to his ability, each according to his needs."-              

Further investigation leads me to conclude that his article is a fully satiric "utopian"- vision, in the finest tradition of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.              

In his satiric little monograph however, he makes one of the classic, common errors when you are dealing with the English language; he conflates the words "fair"- and "equal."-  This is a common mistake, often made by people who want to use one of the words to stigmatize the other.  I do not know if this was Mr. Steinsvold's intent.  However, his little monograph simply tells me that he did not understand what he thought he read in my article.            

While fair and equal are often thought of as identical terms, the reality is that they are quite different in their original use.  The word "fair"- originally meant "Of pleasing appearance, especially because of a pure or fresh quality."-  The word has added the following three definitions, appropriate to our discussion, over the years: "Having or exhibiting a disposition that is free of favoritism or bias, impartial, just to all parties, equitable; Being in accordance with relative merit or significance; Consistent with rules, logic, or ethics."-            

Equal has a different original meaning: "Having the same quantity, measure, or value as another."-  It has added several additional definitions over the years, including: "Having the same privileges, status, or rights; Impartial; just; equitable."-              

A quick example will hopefully spell out the difference between being equal and being fair.  I will use a simplified version of the proposed "flat tax"- to make my point.            

The current "poverty line"- for a family of four is, according to the Federal Government, approximately $30,000.00 per year.  If you have a Federal flat tax of fifteen percent, that effects everyone equally, that family of four (without the benefit of deductions, earned income credit, etc.) will be $4,500.00 beneath the poverty line, rather than right at it.  That family will have to do without some part of their accustomed standard of living, in order to make ends meet.  Healthcare, clothing, quality food, education, transportation; any of these could be reduced to substandard levels in order to pay a flat tax that effects everyone "equally."-            

A fair or "progressive"- tax would, on the other hand, take into account such things as poverty lines.  That same family under a truly progressive tax system--and the United States does not currently have such a system--would pay zero Federal income tax.  The richest Americans should, on the other hand, pay the highest tax rate, at least fifty percent of their income over $10,000,000.00 per year.  This in no way would effect their ability to satisfy their basic needs as human beings; only the degree of luxury which they could indulge themselves in.  It is only fair that those with the most to lose should pay the most to the system of government whose laws and courts make the creation of their wealth possible.                       

Almost two hundred and fifty years ago Voltaire wrote in the Dictionnaire Philosophique (and I will paraphrase), "In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of the citizens to give to the other."-  I would add that the sole choice available is whether government will take money from the poorer citizens to give to the rich, or from the richer citizens to give to the poorer.            

In the last thirty years, we have seen the transfer of large portions of America's wealth from the poor, working, and middle classes to the top ten percent in terms of money.  When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, the nation's wealthiest one half of one percent held twenty percent of this nation's wealth, and the national debt was nine-hundred-and-fourteen billion dollars ($914,000,000,000.00).  Almost twenty-eight years later, that wealthiest one half of one percent holds forty percent of America's wealth, and the national debt exceeds ten trillion dollars ($10,000,000,000,000.00).  The top ten percent of Americans holds more wealth than the bottom ninety percent of Americans.            

Yet, the wealthiest Americans want the American people, as a whole, to bail out Wall Street at no cost to them?            

Give me a break.            

I am reminded of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840, "What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class;"- (Democracy in America, volume 2, Appendix 5, "Democracy"-).            

The last thirty years has seen an attempt by the richest Americans to establish a permanent class of wealth.            

People like John McCain's "Joe the Plumber"- have bought into the widely disseminated but mistaken beliefs of people like Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Phil Gramm and Grover Norquist.  They imagine that they can obtain paradise on Earth by cutting taxes, deregulating business, and reducing the size of the government (through lack of funds and privatization) until they can, in Grover Norquist's words, "drown it in a bathtub."-            

They are as wrong in their extremist views as the Communists ever were in theirs.            

We can now see the effects of their almost thirty years of trying to make these ideas reality: a Federal Government which can no longer properly respond to disasters like Hurricane Katrina; the nation's infrastructure falling down around our ears; an education system so starved for money that teachers have to buy basic supplies for their classrooms, a food distribution system where widespread outbreaks of diseases like e. coli and salmonella are common occurrences; a financial system that is tottering on the edge of an abyss deeper than the Great Depression.  All of this while the four hundred richest Americans have increased their share of our nation's wealth by more than six hundred-and-eighty billion dollars ($680,000,000,000.00) over the last eight years.  At the expense, I might add, of the very programs and services enumerated above that Americans used to take for granted.            

The right wing ideal of lower taxes, deregulation, and smaller government--taken to its logical conclusion--leads to a nation of privatized services and infrastructure (including police, fire, roads, water and sewer among others), without legal recourse or protection for the vast majority of our citizens unless they have money or a patron who has money.            

You know, like The Godfather.                  

Yes, the right wing-libertarian-objectivist ideal does not lead to more freedom for all, but to the only existing example (in a first world country) of a libertarian system, organized crime. 

Patronage has a long precedent in Western societies going back to the Greeks and Romans.  Hitch your wagon to whatever family or group looks like it will do you the most good, and ride it while you can.  Of course, sooner or later different patrons will fight among themselves for dominance.  God help you if you chose the wrong patron.            

The guiding principle upon which I have based my personal philosophy of human group dynamics (political, social, economic, etc.) was expressed by James Madison in The Federalist Papers No. 47 (and I paraphrase to make it include more than politics): that if men were angels, any organizational structure imposed on them would work.  However, human beings are not angels, and because of this fact, checks and balances, rules and regulations, expectations and motivations, must be included within the framework that governs a given human group dynamic.             

Our nation is no longer primarily agricultural, with a population of some three million souls.  It is a post-Industrial behemoth with a population of over three hundred million residents.  To expect this nation to be able to function with the minimal government and tax structure of two hundred years ago is insane.            

No one likes paying taxes.  Let us place the primary burden back where it belongs, back where it was when the American middle class grew by leaps and bounds, and the rich were not taxed out of existence, no matter how much they complained.  In all fairness, let us make the rich pay their fair share again. 

Submitters Bio:

Richard Girard is an increasingly radical representative of the disabled and disenfranchised members of America's downtrodden, who suffers from bipolar disorder (type II or type III, the professionals do not agree). He has put together a team to prosecute Bush, Cheney, et al., but has given up waiting for his credentials, and fully expects either the United Nations or Spain to beat him to it. An autodidact, he has read more than 3000 books over the last 35 years, on subjects including history, mathematics, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, women's studies, physics, martial arts, science fiction, and art. He is still editing Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trying to make it comprehensible to someone who is not a Rhodes Scholar. It surprisingly calms the worst effects of his bipolar disorder, acting both as a sleep aid, and helping to keep him out of the funny farm.