Saturday, March 9, 2019

Why Can’t We Fix the American Tax Base?

What, you didn’t notice it’s broken? Yeah, it’s gone. We haven’t had a tax increase since 1993 and the reason for that is interesting, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that either.

We’ve got a guy in America, not a Senator or Representative but just a common ordinary guy, who’s never been elected to any office and singlehandedly threw a monkey-wrench into the powers given to Congress by the Constitution.[1]

Amazing, huh? Let me tell you more.

Grover Norquist is the dude in question and I’ll bet my socks you never heard of him. Yet he’s very nearly the sole reason we no longer have the tax laws governing corporations, private individuals and small business that fueled the country’s glory days of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties.

Not good enough for Grover. His goal was “to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Whether or not that’s a noble goal is a matter of conscience and Constitution, but I was alive and doing business in those heady times and it worked pretty damned well. Just about anyone could buy a lawnmower and build a business that awarded him (or her) a solid place in the middle class.

We actually made stuff in those days, from Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway program to toasters and TV sets. We had a graduated income tax that topped out at 92%, lots of millionaires and only a couple billionaires. Taxes were fair, because you only paid that upper bracket on earnings above $100,000 a year and a hundred grand in those days was the equal to over 700 grand today.

Strangely, a million or two was enough for most rich men in those days. Money wasn’t a competitive sport and you didn’t win by having it all.

Grover has persevered in his grand strategy since 1993, when every American citizen under the age of twenty-six was not yet even born? A long-lived piece of work, but the result today is far from Norquist’s original goal and begs why, in that case, it even persists?

Rather than the bathtub drowning he aimed for, government today is bigger than ever. Bigger, but less functional,  with fewer jobs, lower standards of living, chaotic health care, huge gains in homelessness, soaring drug addiction, shitty schools, record credit-card debt, unconscionable university costs and two full generations hanging on to lives on the cliff-edge

Other than that it’s been a roaring good time for the new class of billionaires. Worker to CEO wage percentages rose from 20 to 1 in the sixties to 2,000 to 1 today.

McDonald’s broke the back of family restaurants, Wal-Mart hollowed out the business centers of small-town America, Starbucks wrecked small, privately owned cafes and Amazon made redundant bookstores and department stores en masse. Facebook is all that’s left to us, another young man’s disaster.

Fancy that.

You can’t fix any of the above if the Congress has been robbed of its Constitutional right to tax the public income. Held-up at-gunpoint by a kid hardly old enough to vote.

So how did all this come to pass? How did private citizen Norquist wrench the duties of an elected Congress from its control

The answer lies in the times in which we lived in 1993—conscious political memory tops out at about sixteen years-old, so you youngsters of forty-five years or less will not be aware. 

But at the tender age of twenty-one, Grover offered the sage advice that "When I became 21, I decided that nobody learned anything about politics after the age of 21." Aged sixty-two at the moment, it becomes self-evident that he is correct. What twenty-one year old wouldn’t slather to drown American government?

But, much like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, we continue to pay the costs of youthiness.

Norquist (Wikipedia, edited) is best known for founding Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, which he claims was done at the request of then-President Ronald Reagan. Its primary purpose was to reduce government revenues as a percentage of the GDP and it "opposed all tax increases as a matter of principle." In 1993, he launched his Wednesday Meeting series at ATR headquarters, initially to help fight President Clinton's healthcare plan.

But it exploded from there and has been called "a must-attend event for Republican operatives fortunate enough to get an invitation", and "the Grand Central station of the conservative movement."

As a non-profit organization, Americans for Tax Reform need not disclose the identity of contributors. Critics, such as Sen. Alan Simpson, asked for disclosure but Norquist declined.

Prior to the November 2012 election, 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans signed ATR's Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in which they pledged to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” (end)

Wow, that rather smacks of a degree of extortion.

A pretty young kid to have learned that trade, but extortion it was. Those Republican souls brave enough to drop their pledge were targeted in primary races by highly funded (Hmm, Koch Brothers anyone?) Republican challengers and most lost their seats. The message heard loud and clear, the majority quickly fell in line and continue to this day.

(Wikipedia again) In November 2011, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid blamed Norquist's influence for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction's lack of progress, claiming that Congressional Republicans "are being led like puppets by Grover Norquist. They're giving speeches that we should compromise on our deficit, but never do they compromise on Grover Norquist. He is their leader."

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, has been particularly critical, describing Norquist's position as "no taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell." (end)

So, good people, that’s in large part why we are in such a dis-functional state as the worm ever so slowly turns in Washington. Politics continues down its destructive path, most of it the brain-child of a twenty-one year old child with more power than experience.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “if you want to know the true character of a man, give him power.”

Whether the sixty-nine year old Elizabeth Warren, the seventy year old Bernie Sanders or the twenty-nine year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be able to sway the two generations of what we now call young voters or not is yet to be seen. Those voters have no memory of Bill Clinton’s election or Grover Norquist’s rise. In their memory, Bill is simply failed Hillary’s husband.

Until now.

One can only hope they read up a bit and remember for two more years.

[1] Article I, Section 8, Clause 1: The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

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