Bill Long 11/18/04
Evaluating a Political Rant--In Honor of Henry Breithaupt
There have been concerted efforts now for about two decades to "simplify" the tax code. The perspective of the "simplfiers" is that the code is far too complex and that, as a result, the "little guy" is probably getting screwed. The answer? "Simplify" the tax code. What this means, in general, is to reduce the marginal tax rate for the upper income people from about 40% to 15%, depending on the proposal. In other words, "simplification" is used cynically as a way to try to convince an unwitting American public (and we know how unwitting that can be) to support enormous tax cuts for the rich. It is an example of the way that words can be used as instruments of power without the hearers even being aware that they are being bamboozled by words.
The Power Context of Words
Perhaps the signal contribution of deconstructive literary criticism, that shadowy and opaque movement of French intellectuals reacting to structuralism of the Post WWII world, is that words are instruments of power and that a close attention to their use as means of "privileging" some people and "subordinating" others can unmask the oppressive possibilities inherent in various kinds of "discourse."
The word "simplification" is a word easily drawn into the deconstructionist's ambit. We would note that it is a good and positive word, a word particularly attuned to the American psyche. We are a practical people, whose only contribution to world philosophy has been pragmatism. Pragmatists, by their nature, want to pursue "what works." They don't want to be confused with unnecessary theoretical baggage or lengthy explanations. The two-page memo (preferably one page, or even one paragraph, thank you) that sorts through issues, simplifies problems, and clarifies options is the kind of memo that executives want from the worker bees.
So, a person or movement can get a lot of mileage just out of the word "simplification." People generally want it, regardless of whether they understand what really is meant by the word. Our lives are complicated enough. Give me simplification.
The Problem with Simplification
The only problem is, that if you actually study what Americans do in filing their taxes, you see immediately that tax simplification is not a desideratum of almost all Americans. Don't get me wrong. The Tax Code, Title 26 of the United States Code, is voluminous and getting larger all the time. Commentary on the Code reaches hundreds of volumes. State tax codes supplement, complement and extend the federal code. The Code is the arena where many lawyers and corporate executives fight their battle. Just don't let them convince you, however, that this is where your battle is or should be.
What I mean can be explained simply (simplified explanation, you know). About 2/3 of all citizens who actually file returns take the standard deduction on their federal Form 1040. What that means is that the whole array of schedules, beginning with A and ending up at some four digit number are, for most people, irrelevant. Granted, you can take the standard deduction and still fill out self-employment forms and other forms to get various kinds of tax credits, such as education or child-care credits, but you don't have to be a tax lawyer, or even a rocket scientist to fill these out.
Then, of the 1/3 of the people who actually itemize their deductions, in more than 90% the cases itemized deductions flow into three categories and three alone: (1) deduction for interest payments on a home mortgage; (2) deduction for charitable contributions and (3) deduction of state and local taxes paid the previous year. What that means is, when push comes to shove, filing taxes is a relatively easy part of an American's life, if you just get over the initial fear of not knowing what to do when confronted with complex-looking forms.
Nevertheless, the forces are massing out there telling us that we need tax "simplification," that somehow we are laboring under the burden of a confusing code that makes us all oppressed minorities. Reverse the trend! Take control of your lives! Support tax "simplification!" Only thing is, the only people that will gain from tax simplification are those who are currently paying the most taxes. Make no mistake about it, however. Conservative forces in our culture now are absolutely relentless in pursuing this and other issues. Using every verbal strategy at their disposal, religion included, they unashamedly seek to shift the burden of taxation to those least able to pay it. Speaking of religion, however, I thought it might be illuminating to try to apply the tax simplification debate to the field of theology. The next essay does this.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long