Politics is an ongoing back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse 3-D chess game in which players compete for power, money, and votes via the tools of framing, message, and procedural rules. President Obama’s most recent move is his budget in which he, among other things, proposes an adult conversation about tax code reform. This is important because conservatives only want to talk about spending cuts, but taxes, aka public revenue, is the other half of the budget equation.
President Obama already has funded big initiatives, including health care and Pell grant reforms, by ending tax carve outs for special interests, aka tax loopholes. He did this almost surreptitiously, focusing attention away from funding and tax loopholes. But now he is talking about tax code reform explicitly. In fact, he laid down the challenge that no serious talk of deficit reduction can omit tax code reform.
Since corporate lobbyists worked long and hard to build their intricate network of tax loopholes that few understand, they are not thrilled to see the tax code mentioned at all, let alone potentially thrust under a bright light and a microscope. Their counter move through the corporatist machine relies on five tactics:
1. Fight all regulations on principle. Regulations are bad. In fact, the whole federal government is bad. Would this lead to anarchy, to a police state in which force is used simply to enforce power? Yes it would, but conservatives believe they control the media so tightly that no one would believe the few who might realize this and say so. And they have reason for confidence. Republicans have already gotten away with unpatriotic if not treasonous actions with little notice, not from the media and not from the Justice (?) Department. And Republicans don’t really want no government at all. They want a nominal government that people will accept as theirs but that is really controlled by corporations–we nearly have it now. I suspect a permanent state of emergency is a poor but acceptable second choice.
2. Stoke the narrative!
a. Anticipate and neutralize the opposition using scare tactics. At CPAC, Michele Bachmann warned that Democrats were scheming to get a 75% tax rate! Much as with their estate tax scare story, they neglect to mention that even when the top tax rate was 90%, few in the room would have paid it because they didn’t earn enough. But the point is not truth, the point is to graft on to their narrative. Under this narrative, tax increase = socialism.
b. Go on the offensive. When banks saw a financial collapse coming a few years ago, their sage advice to investors started including warnings that “the market” would not like any sort of financial regulation, no, not at all. And of course, they knew what they were talking about because they had, and still have, the ability to manipulate the market to “react” to prove their point. Likewise, when Republicans warn that this or that will cause a shutdown of the federal government, they really mean that they can cause a shutdown of the federal government and blame it on whatever and whoever they want.
3. Dilute support for reform. Why does this narrative matter? Look at what is happening in Wisconsin and Ohio. As we saw in Egypt, populism wins with numbers, volumes of people who disrupt commerce, won’t go home until they get what they want, and are too numerous to simply toss in jail or be “disappeared.” By reporting a protest, the media informs people who might want to join or start their own protest. By ignoring Wisconsin, the mainstream media might as well be hiding it. And when people on Fox and Eric Erickson on CNN argue that the entire federal government is bad for them, they are encouraging people to not only not join domestic protesters but to turn against them. This protest is about union representation, but this same army of Foxbots is ready to be mobilized against people who protest for fair taxation and tax enforcement. The UK has already had some successful protests over corporate tax avoidance, and the conservative movement doesn’t want that here.
4. Fight to defund what they can’t repeal outright by cutting the IRS enforcement budget. What good are tax laws if no one is there to enforce them? Thirty years of teaching people that taxes are bad can be stepped up to advocate not paying taxes! Permanent tax holiday! Woo hoo! What’s the government going to do about it? Never mind that we are escalating the destruction of our own country.
Corollary: remember when tax shelters were a big problem? They breed particularly fast when income taxes are raised. The one thing that dampens their use is the credible threat of regular audits. Tax shelters are a problem both because they hide taxable income and because their managers regularly fleece investors. Enforcement addresses both of these problems. The only winners in the tax shelter game are the financiers who build them…hmm, that sounds familiar.
5. Distraction! Liberals can’t focus as effectively on tax code reform–or anything else, really–if they are being hit on multiple battle fronts with increasingly extreme proposals that the media will take seriously. Conservatives know that they have far more resources. Therefore, it is to their advantage to spread out, both in issues and geographically (using states they control). They have attacked women, education, unions, the environment, and the usual list of the most vulnerable citizens. Banning Sharia law! Printing state currency! Private state militias! Justifiable homicide against abortion providers! The only thing more surprising than that these bizarre proposals are being discussed in real U.S. government houses is that so few people have spoken out against them. Think about it. How numb does a population have to be to say, “eh, whatever” to all of this?
Never forget that the ultimate purpose of everything above is to move money to the wealthy from the rest of us and keep it there. Every part of the conservative/corporatist machine–the Dominionist ideology, crazy Glenn Beck, birthers, guns, and everything else is mobilized to support this in one of the ways above.
Taxes are the number one way the population collects money to benefit the public. Thus, corporatists work very hard to prevent the wealthy from ever paying tax.
There are some things that only government can do for the public, and when they are done well, the result lifts everyone. It is fair that the wealthy should pay more–they benefit more. Our own post-war golden age was financed by high tax rates on the wealthy. And that is why we must never take our eyes and our efforts off tax reform.
Personal note: I am a member of the Progressive Leadership Action Network, and we could use your help to fight this sort of thing. Join us at www.planamerica.org