Thursday, April 14, 2011

Of Duck Soup, Taxes, and Spending

Some of you may recall the classic 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, in which Groucho played a fast-talking con artist named Rufus T. Firefly who becomes the dictator of the bankrupt nation of Freedonia, and ... well ... the plot is complicated and silly, but the movie is hysterically funny. I thought about this scene from Duck Soup in the context of the latest shenanigans coming from Congress. President Firefly is chairing a meeting of his cabinet ...

Minister of Labor: The Department of Labor wishes to report that the workers of Freedonia are demanding shorter hours.

Rufus T. Firefly: Very well, we'll give them shorter hours. We'll start by cutting their lunch hour to twenty minutes. And now, gentlemen, we've got to start looking for a new Treasurer.

Minister of Labor: But you appointed one last week!

Firefly: That's the one I'm looking for.

Secretary of War: Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Enough of this. How about taking up the tax?

Firefly: How about taking up the carpet?

Secretary of War: I still insist we must take up the tax!

Firefly: He's right. You've got to take up the tacks before you can take up the carpet.

That was 1933. It’s now 2011 – almost 80 years later – and it feels like we're living in Freedonia: we have a government in which Republicans only want to take up the spending carpet, while Democrats believe you have to take up the tacks, too.

Some things never change. But at least in Duck Soup, the squabbling was funny.

So now that the funny part is over, let's talk about taxes, shall we?

Taxes have been around and people have complained about them for as long as there have been organized societies. No one likes to pay them, but they're an unfortunate and necessary fact of life. They've been used to control or punish populations, support corrupt aristocracies, and marginalize minorities (as in political or religious poll taxes). The real, fundamental purpose of taxes is to raise money to operate the government, but in today's America, taxes serve many other purposes, including:

- Paying for common services the public has agreed are the responsibility of the government (national defense, public safety, education, etc);

- Encouraging business activity (on the theory that the loss of immediate tax revenue from the businesses will be compensated for in the long run by the taxes paid on worker incomes, sales taxes, etc); and,

- Advancing desired socio-political agendas.

Here’s the issue in modern-day America: in exchange for taxes paid, citizens have come to expect certain services from their government ... but there's no widespread agreement on what those services ought to be. At the national level, generally speaking, we expect the government to provide a military to defend us, regulate national-level trade, represent the country in foreign lands, and provide the administrative machinery of a national government (national-level courts, coinage of money, etc). At the state level, we expect the government to provide for a state militia, regulate commerce within the state, and provide for state-level courts, public safety, and state-wide infrastructure. At the local (city/county) level, we expect the government to provide schools, police and fire protection, emergency services, and essential public works (water, sewer, local street repair, trash removal, etc).

So what does that all mean? In some quarters, it has come to mean that the government has a responsibility to provide universal health care for citizens; that illegal immigrants have a right to the same services and protections provided to citizens; that the government has a responsibility to protect the environment and ensure that the food we eat and the drugs we take are safe and wholesome; and that the government should support or underwrite the arts and culture.

All of these things are good and worthwhile (except, in my opinion, providing services to illegals). Unfortunately, we can't pay for them all any more.

What must we do to get our fiscal house in order?

Speaking with all the wisdom and authority I wield as a person with absolutely no background in government, economics, or politics, I believe we need to do two things:

1. Though it pains me to agree with brainless Republican ass clowns on anything, we must cut spending ... but we have to do it smartly, without causing sudden and massive shock to the country. Government must stop doing the things that are nice to do (such as, sadly, supporting the arts and culture) so that it can afford to do the things it needs to do.

2. (cue the howling mobs of hysterical tea party wingnuts) We must restructure the tax code to eliminate loopholes and breaks for special interests, and ensure that each citizen and business pays its fair share of the tax burden. We must end the gross fraud of voodoo, trickle-down economics that shifts the tax burden away from businesses and privileged classes to the lower and middle classes.

Easy to say, of course, but very difficult to do.

Cutting spending is not easy, because no matter what line item you pick at random out of the government budget to cut, reinforced battalions of well-funded lawyers and lobbyists will spring out of the ground as if sown from dragon's teeth, spouting dense clouds of statistics and spewing lawsuits, fighting tooth and nail and marshaling earnest crowds of deeply aggrieved Plain Folks to argue that the Republic will fall if the government doesn't provide funding support to (insert desired sacred cow here).

And raising taxes isn't easy either, because businesses and the wealthy have a vested interest in shifting their portion of the tax burden to you ... and they can afford more and bigger lawyers to do their fighting for them than you can.

In my humble and marginally-informed opinion, it's the very height of gross irresponsibility to demand sudden, deep cuts in spending without addressing the idea of revenue as well. Yes, you can cut the lunch hour to 20 minutes and take up the carpet as Mr Firefly recommends ... but you have to take up the tax, too.

Unfortunately, I don't think anyone in Congress has the guts to do both, so start tightening those belts, folks - we Real People are going to receive fewer services (both essential and nice-to-have) while finding more of the tax burden shifted to us.

We need a leader like Rufus T. Firefly: at least he was honest about fleecing the citizens.

Have a good day. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday.

More thoughts then.



KathyA said...

Alas, not one of them has the chutzpah to do what is right. Oh Rufus!! Rufus!!!

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

all this tax talk on April 15th.
I know, we've been given a reprieve until the 18th but all the same to me - it's still tax day and I had to send in my check today. someone who is barely making ends meet has to send in a check after losing my job 6 months after my husband lost his. Lovely world I live in. But when he and I each made six figures a few years ago before the shit hit the fan we didn't have to pay as much if at all- something is seriously wrong with this picture.

Mike said...

We need a 3% surtax on all gross income to pay down the war debt we've accumulated.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A pity Marx Brothers movies didn't continue like this when they moved studios.