David Cay Johnston
Bill Long 10/23/04
Perfectly Legal--in Salem, OR
For the second time in a week, we in Salem, OR heard from a Pulitzer Prize-winning NY Times columnist, this time David Cay Johnston, who has been writing on tax policy and issues since 1995. Sponsored by the AAUW, Johnston's one-hour talk and discussion was alternately inspiring, illuminating and stupefying. His best-selling book, Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich--and Cheat Everybody Else, provides grist for his public-speaking mill. His basic thesis, seemingly uncontroverted by all the reviews of his work, was that since 1970 the American tax system has changed dramatically to benefit those richest Americans (making at least $8,000,000 per year) at the expense of those making between $50,000-1,000,000 per year.
Johnston's Basic Philosophy
But it is not as if Johnston just recites a litany of facts. He does that, but you can easily track them down on lots of web site interviews with him/reviews of his book. What he also does is ground his work in a philosphical observation: that the progressive tax, that is the tax which assesses people on ability to pay, was invented along with democracy in ancient Athens, and that every major economic thinker who has thought about the issue since then has concluded that progressivity ought to be the foundational principle of taxation.
Actually, in ancient Athens, tyranny and the flat tax were wedded. Calling it a "moral principle," he stated that democracy and progressivity of tax are twinned. But the startling reality for Johnston is that this twinning has been increasingly severed in the United States in the past generation, leading to significant inequities among peope, and, more offensively, leading to the possibility of a single mother of two, with an income of $30,000, "paying" for the tax breaks of the super rich.
The "bad guy" in Johnston's scenario is a supine Congress that has increasingly bowed to pressures from the super rich to write legislation benefitting them and to balance the shortfall on the backs of the increasingly-squeezed middle class. At times Congress passed legislation to close loopholes, such as the 1969 Alternative Minimum Tax, drafted as a response to published stories that there were 155 millionaires who paid no tax in America at the time.
But the AMT has since grown out of control so that it punishes some of the very middle class taxpayers it was designed to protect--such as the story he told about the Kansas lawyer whose medical care for his cancer-afflicted son actually increased their tax burden under the AMT. Because the tax laws are written in such obscure language and are often drafted to benefit small numbers of people, it is diffcult to get to the bottom of what has happened, but Johnston's humor and clarity of exposition helped cut through a lot fo difficult verbiage.
What to Do?
Johnston's talk was really a clarion call to action, an entreaty for us to realize that what was at stake in Congressional tax policy is not simply the giving away of a few benefits to greedy corporations and individuals, but the endangering of our system of government itself. He was not an apocalyptic preacher, however, pointing out an inevitable war between the principles of light and darkness. Rather, he seemed to want to lay the responsibility for making America better right in the collective laps of those of us who live, work, think about and love this land.
While musing on the thoughts stimulated by Johnston's talk, I happened to run into someone who attended a talk I gave on Thursday (10/21) on my new book on Job (A Hard-Fought Hope: Journeying with Job Through Mystery). He was joining a few of his friends for coffee. Would I care to come along? Sure, I said. We met at a nearby coffee shop, and for the next 90 minutes, these seven people, in their 50s and 60s, talked about Johnston's ideas, their (our) perceptions of where America is now and how we might respond. As I drove home in the early afternoon, I wasn't sure whether anything would come out of this, but I knew that lots of people think that all is not well with America, and that one of the culprits is the way that revenue laws are written to benefit the richest of the rich.
Times will be changing, imperceptibly so, I believe. I believe that the strongest engine for change will be a renewal of a positive philosophy of government. It doest not exist now, and it needs to be restored if the nightmares Johnston related are not to fall on deaf ears.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long