I write this on April 15, 2019, Tax Day.
What a great trick it was back in 1943 when the Internal Revenue System began withholding taxes from our paychecks. If we had to pay our entire tax bill on April 15, there’d be trouble. Most of us wouldn’t be able to write the check, because we tend to spend everything we get in our paycheck, and of course a little bit more. If we had to write the check on a single day, the tax default rate would skyrocket. Congress passed the Current Tax Payment Act in 1943, in the heart of World War II, so that the federal government would get what it needs from us and we would feel it less because what’s not in the bi-monthly paycheck is less missed than the whopper of a check you’d have to write on April 15th. Clever, but not very Jeffersonian.
There used to be a billboards in Montana that read, Pay Taxes on Election Day. You can see the wacky western wisdom of that. If you voted on April 15 every two years, you’d be more likely to throw those high-spending rascals out and elect instead people who would do more to protect your paycheck.
Jefferson would be in favor of that sagebrush reform, I think. He wanted us to resent taxes at the same time we understood that they are necessary to enable government to do the things government must do. He wanted a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution so that we’d have to write the check every year for our share of the entire federal budget. When government wanted to do something beyond the usual norm—say fight a war against Canada or Iraq—we’d each be called upon to write a fat supplemental check to the IRS, not only to prevent a national debt, but also to make us think hard before we loaded troops into transport ships. The modern American way of war is really no different from payday withholding. We can fight a four trillion-dollar war in Iraq and the average American’s tax bill does not go up. We just add the cost to the National Debt and start lobbing cruise missiles. The fiscal conservatives rail against deficit spending, but it is not really about that from a Jeffersonian point of view. It is about fighting wars and keeping the people quiet at the same time. If our tax bill went up every time we invaded some country, even if our monthly withholding spiked upward, the American people would ask some very hard questions about what is a just and necessary war, and they would be very skeptical of any military adventurism anywhere in the world at any time. And that’s precisely how Jefferson wanted it to be. He wanted the people to be in charge of their own destiny, not the gerontocracy in the Senate. But if, as a nation state, you buy yourself an all-volunteer army and fight wars without raising taxes, most people are going to shrug. That is precisely NOT how Jefferson wanted America to operate.
I don’t resent my tax bill. I just resent how it is spent, and my two senators and one Congressmen frankly don’t care a damn what I think. They are friends to corporate welfare. If at the same time they can claim they are taking care of the little guy, so much the better. But their key votes are to make sure the wealthiest and most privileged, the ones mining the public lands and building the national security drones are given a blank check both in terms of cash and freedom of action.
I personally would be willing to spend more on taxes if that meant everyone had cradle to grave health care, Medicare for all, if we quintupled the appropriations for the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, if we made sure that everyone who wants a college education could get one, if we gave our National Parks and Monuments everything they need to protect what’s left of the sublime in the American landscape, if we made a concerted national effort to lift the lives of Native Americans and help them knit their reservations back together, if we created a truly humane but firm border security system, etc. But I would not want to raise taxes unless every federal program were strictly means tested, including Social Security. I know very well that if we raised taxes we’d just spend more on militarism and space wars, and our government, controlled by either party, would mostly redistribute upward toward the rich and the privileged. In other words, the problem is not the size of our tax burden—though that is surely worth examining—but the quality of our hearts and our understanding of the concept of distributive justice, first raised by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics in 350 BCE. I don’t see how any fully-formed rational person can oppose the concept of a guaranteed living wage for everyone who is willing to work hard in America. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are going to force tens of millions of people out of work in the next half-century and I can guarantee that each one of them is going to insist upon eating and wearing clothes.
I certainly do not write my tax check to enable government cabinet officials to buy cones of silence, gazillion dollar drapes and desks, to fly first class while they claim to be working on behalf of the people back in steerage, or to send their staffers out to buy their furniture and rent their apartments. I do not wish to send cabinet members’ wives and husbands on European holidays thinly disguised as work trips. I don’t want to pay the bill for my Secretary of Interior to hobnob with mining and timber executives in Aspen, and I don’t want my President charging me $3 million every time he goes to his resort at Mar-a-Lago, meanwhile personally pocketing a $200,000 initiation fee from every rich person who seeks to curry influence at the resort.
It’s Tax Day. I’m supposed to be grumpy.