The title for this post came from the expression “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” This line was delivered by then Senator Edward Kennedy to describe his brother, Robert, while delivering the eulogy at Bobby’s funeral. The origination of this comment is attributed to George Barnard Shaw from his play Back To Methuselah.
I closed my first blog entry with a plea for Americans to do something about our intolerable tax situation. I suggested we should say “when.” However necessary, we should indicate that we have had enough. Perhaps we should “just say no.” No to more tax complexity; no to more tax confusion; no to more tax inequity. To borrow from the first President Bush, we should collectively shout “read our lips – no more tax lunacy.”
I do not care so much why we have what we have, or how we got where we now find ourselves. I care that we do what is required to get out from under this madness. I envision a rational, equitable tax code and ask why not? Why can’t we have a tax code that makes sense, at least to a majority of Americans? Why, with virtually unanimous agreement that our tax code has gone beyond the ridiculous, why can we not achieve meaningful, sensible reform? That is my dream. Conversely, the alternative – maintaining the status quo – is a nightmare.
But to effect this change, Americans of every stripe must get involved. Write letters! Call your Congressional representative! What the hell, call every one of them! But do something!
In my previous post I asked two questions: “Why doesn't someone do something?” and “Why don’t WE do something?”
That first question has an answer that is sad but true. Unhappily, we have a dearth of political leadership in Washington. Even more disheartening, we have acquiesced while those we elected have substituted sound bites and political diatribe for real leadership. We have any number of elected leaders (please accept my apology for the generalized application of that honorable word to those who have firmly taken up residence in our nation’s capitol) willing to stand up and rail against those on the other side of the aisle, whoever they are. That number drops precipitously when counting those willing to advocate for meaningful tax reform and to participate in reasoned debate on the subject.
I have heard a parable told something like this. A group of mice are beleaguered by a hungry cat. Every time they try to leave their nest, he pounces on one of them. The mice convene a meeting at which they try to identify a solution to their problem. Finally, one mouse suggests they hang a bell around the cat’s neck, thus warning them of the danger of his approach.
They all thought this was a great idea. One mouse then raised the question, “Who will bell the cat?” None stepped forward.
This phrase has become a common battle cry for those wanting action but unwilling to act themselves. That is the dilemma we face regarding meaningful tax reform. Despite the rhetoric, despite general consensus across the political spectrum that we face grave consequences with our existing tax structure, not one of our elected leaders has stepped or will step forward to “bell the cat.”
Most modern tax policy theorists agree on at least one thing – the problem in achieving tax reform is political not economical. A variety of options have been presented to make our tax code better. More efficient. Fairer. I understand that debates over these proposals are often heated and agreement on one specific plan is difficult to reach. But the fact that these proposals exist and that some have actually been submitted on the floor of Congress support the conclusion that the problem is not that we are devoid of ideas. The problem is a deficiency of leadership.
If this is all true, then the only real solution available is for American citizens to take over the reins. We have to sit in the driver’s seat. We must step up to the plate. Lest readers reply, “we can’t. Our tax system can’t really be changed” remember what Margaret Meade said,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Other readers may counter with the argument, “au contraire, we lack the ambition and courage required to venture forth.” To these I respond that taking action will be hard work and carries some personal risk. But nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. And victory carries a price. However, I am not sure that a want of ambition or moral courage is the correct answer to that second question, “Why don’t WE do something?” The key barrier can best be revealed by a different reply.
Like the earlier question, this query also has a sad but true answer. Let’s face facts. We don’t act because we are fearful of losing a particular tax benefit that we believe inures to us. We do not want to lose our place at the feeding trough of Congressional largesse. Hard to face the truth, isn't it?
A popular quote, often attributed to Russell B Long states:
“Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that guy behind the tree.”
It was said that he used that phrase in 1973 while serving as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee when asked why it seemed to be so difficult to enact real tax reform. But many similar unattributed expressions have been reported as having appeared in the 1930’s. Regardless of the original source, the phrase is an apt description of the problem attendant to tax reform.
Numerous accounts suggest that a newspaper used a similar expression to criticize a wealthy American denizen of that era, William Randolph Hearst. The paper wrote that his views on tax reform might be summarized by the popular refrain:
“Congress, Congress, don’t tax me; tax that fellow behind the tree.”
A Georgia newspaper is said to have humorously expanded that remark.
“‘Congress, Congress, don’t tax me; tax that man behind the tree’ is an old saying, but Congress has cleared up the situation by not only taxing the man, but also the tree.”
That comedic annex might be appropriately applied to present day circumstances. As it suggests, today we tax the man and the tree. Furthermore, the tax collector even now has his eye on the bird taking up nest and the dog with his back leg lifted.
All jesting aside, how does this axiom apply to the question at hand? Regardless of its original source, what this adage really implies is when individuals join the debate on tax reform, everyone supports change as long as suggested reforms do not negatively affect their favorite tax preference. Listen closely. Do you hear the refrain? Don’t tax thee, don’t tax me. In short, WE are the obstacle. The painful truth is that Congress is responding to our demands.
I will make my best effort to clearly illustrate the on-going insanity and inequity of our tax code in subsequent blog posts. I hope that, as a result, I can overcome our narrow centric view of taxes and spur action on the part of the American public.
Although he was speaking about a different issue, Sen. Robert F Kennedy said it best in a speech delivered to the Senate in 1966.
“A revolution is coming – a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough. – But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”
We must initiate a peaceful, compassionate, sensible tax revolt. If we do not, the unequal and onerous burden instituted under the IRC will cause its own unintended revolution.
We must compel Congress to finally take action. In this respect, I do not refer to typical Congressional action as evidenced by HR 6169, introduced as a “Bill to provide for expedited consideration of a bill providing for comprehensive tax reform.” Only Congress would consider a bill to mandate expedited consideration of a bill. I mean real change.
In the preamble to The Moment of Truth – Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the bi-partisan Simpson – Bowles Commission wrote,
“Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have found the courage to do right by our children’s future. Deep down, every American knows we face a moment of truth once again. We cannot play games or put off hard choices any longer…families across the country have huddled around kitchen tables, making tough choices…They expect and deserve their leaders to do the same… Together, we have reached these unavoidable conclusions: The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out…it is long past time for America’s leaders to put up or shut up. We believe that far from penalizing their leaders for making the tough choices, Americans will punish politicians for backing down…”
It is that last sentence we must take to heart. We must be serious, deliberate and unwavering. We must compel those we have elected to finally, firmly and fairly fix our tax code. We must convince them failure places their political lives, political fortunes and political honor at risk.
Step 1 – Americans must act.
Step 2 – Congress must react.
Step 3 – Americans must punish failure.
Let’s start a new refrain.
Congress, Congress, tax me, tax thee, tax he and tax she. Tax us fairly one and all. Tax us such that we stay free.
Back in a few for more on the never ending saga of U.S. Income Tax.