A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System by T. R. Reid

The journalist T. R. Reid argues that America’s national tax system is a disaster, but we could fix it if we started over and adopted the best ideas about taxation from other countries. According to Reid, better systems of taxation are based on the BBLR model, i.e. they tax as much as possible (a “Broad Base”) but at rates that are as low as possible (“Low Rates”). So, instead of allowing lots of deductions and exemptions and credits, as we do now, we should simply tax all income. But since more income would be subject to taxation, the government could lower tax rates for everyone. Because their rates would be lower, fewer people and businesses would hire lawyers and accountants in order to avoid taxes. Business decisions and personal decisions would no longer be made on the basis of what taxes would be owed. In addition, filing a tax return would be much simpler than it is today.

Reid cites New Zealand as the country with the best tax system in the world. They once had a complicated tax system like ours, but were able to revamp the whole thing, following the BBLR model. He also argues for the adoption of a VAT (Value Added Tax), a kind of sales tax that every advanced country but the United States currently applies (one benefit of a VAT is that it’s hard to evade).

Some of the ideas Reid proposes would be acceptable, in theory, to both liberals and conservatives. But he admits that overcoming opposition from special interests and taxpayers who benefit from the system’s complexity would be a big challenge. For example, he recommends eliminating the deductions for charitable donations, local taxes and mortgage interest. I assume he would eliminate medical deductions as well. No doubt some taxpayers would end up paying more, while some would pay less. But we would have a system of taxation that was simpler, fairer and more efficient.

Given the benefits, it seems like the United States should do something like this. Given the craziness of the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that we ever will.

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Ideology: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Freeden

This is volume 95 in the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. I suppose it was worth reading, although I expected more about particular ideologies as opposed to the general nature of ideology.

Freeden defines a political ideology as: “a set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values that

(1) exhibit a recurring pattern
(2) are held by significant groups
(3) compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy
(4) do so with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community.”

He identifies four main political ideologies (socialism, liberalism, conservatism and fascism) but argues convincingly that none of them can be precisely defined. What they share are general commitments to certain fundamental principles, which can also be understood as preferred ways of applying certain key terms. For example, a liberal and a fascist may both be in favor of “freedom” and “justice” but define those terms differently and apply them to different situations.

Freeden doesn’t think that having an ideology is a bad thing. He clearly favors some ideologies over others, but suggests that having a political ideology is like having fundamental principles or preferences, and that it’s almost inescapable to have an ideology if you take politics seriously. At least in the Western world, the four mentioned above, although they have evolved through the years, have been the most frequently adopted.

Throughout the book, Freeden emphasizes the importance of language in the study of ideology:

Ideologies compete over the control of political language as well as competing over plans for public policy; indeed, their competition over plans for public policy is primarily conducted through their competition over the control of political language.

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

This is the third of Al Franken’s books I’ve read. The first two were Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The titles reflect Senator Franken’s first career as a comedian and writer. The sarcastic title of his new book reflects his current career as the junior senator from Minnesota.

This book isn’t as funny as his earlier ones. That’s because, as he points out several times, a senator has to be more careful about what he says. This is more like a standard politician’s autobiography than I expected. He spends a lot of time telling his life story and how he got into politics, and how much he enjoys serving the people of Minnesota. There is a lot about his accomplishments as a senator. There are also serious discussions of important issues (his discussion of the Affordable Care Act is especially good).

I learned about the day-to-day life of a U.S. senator and how frustrating it can be to get things done now that one of our major political parties has become dangerously dysfunctional. I also had to relive some horrible recent history, for example, how one of the worst people in America became president. Fortunately, he still has his sense of humor and allows himself to use it fairly often.

It should be noted that Sen. Franken has shown himself to be quite a good senator. He’s especially done an excellent job during committee hearings on the president’s terrible nominees to cabinet positions. Now some people (for example, in this article from a couple days ago) are talking about Franken as a presidential candidate in 2020. I doubt if he’ll run, but we could do much, much worse. We already have (twice in this century).

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

The “Second American Revolution” in the title refers to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Before that, during most of the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a loose arrangement that Ellis compares to the European Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen colonies operated as separate nations. They cooperated in order to defeat the British, but few of the colonists expected to become one nation after the British left.

Ellis focuses on the four men he thinks did the most to convince their fellow colonists that the United States needed a real central government. They were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington. Ellis writes well and tells a fast-moving, almost suspenseful story, which is divided about equally between describing the histories and psychologies of his four Founding Fathers (and a few others) and the issues that confronted them.

From his conclusion:

Perhaps the best way to describe their achievement … is to argued that they maximized the historical possibilities of their transitory moment. They were comfortable and unembarrassed in their role as a political elite, in part because their leadership role depended on their revolutionary credentials… They were unapologetic in their skepticism about unfettered democracy, because that skepticism was rooted in their recent experiences ass soldiers and statesmen…

They straddled an aristocratic world that was dying and a democratic world that was just emerging… The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later…

Their genius was to answer the political challenges of their own moment decisively, meaning that the confederation must be replaced by the nation, but also to provide a political platform wide enough to allow for considerable latitude within which future generations could make their own decisions. 

Ellis concludes with the words of Thomas Jefferson, written decades later, not because Jefferson played much of a role in creating the Constitution (he was Ambassador to France at the time) but because he wrote so well:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered … institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

PS: Anyone who reads this book will understand that the Founders would have expected the Electoral College to reject a demagogue like the current President; and that they intended the 2nd Amendment to make sure we would be protected by a well-regulated militia, not a standing army, and not to guarantee everyone the right to own the weapon(s) of their choice.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964.

This is a book of Hofstadter’s collected essays. His famous essay gives the book its title; there are three other essays on the same topic. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” was written in response to McCarthyism. “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” were written in response to Senator Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to win the Republican nomination for President.

These essays may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are highly relevant today, given America’s disastrous election two months ago. Our next President ran a classic pseudo-conservative campaign, claiming to be a “conservative” but appealing to the same right-wing extremism that characterized the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. (The President-elect owes his greater success in 2016 to the fact that “normal” Republicans are much more extreme than they used to be.)

Hofstadter explores the history of right-wing extremism through the 20th century, but concentrates on developments since World War 2. He explains that as more people did well in economic terms, a reactionary minority grew angrier and angrier about changes in society. Conservatism became a form of radicalism, with seething hatred toward moderate politicians and deep resentment of the progress made by women and African-Americans. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to the current low point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.