Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey, Cubby Wubby Womb Room* . . .

The talk of American politics this week is the so-called "tea parties" or "tea bagging" of politicians. There is much to be said on the topic, and everyone is having some fun. The obvious reference to very non-conservative sexual practices is one place to start, for those whose humorous tastes stopped developing in the 10th grade (not that there's anything wrong with that). Others have pointed out that the protests are anything but spontaneous uprisings of regular folks but are, instead, heavily financed by the usual suspects on the ideological right.

While the protests seem to be about a miasma of issues ranging from corporate accounting to simply opposing everything about Barack Obama (his citizenship, his religion, his Obama-ness), the gist of the tea party movement is, obviously, about opposition to taxes. As today is the date on which tax returns must be filed (unless you fill out an incredibly simple form for an automatic six-month extension to file), and as taxes are my academic beat, I feel that I should weigh in on this phenomenon. But what is there to say about a phenomenon that appears to be a combination of cynical manipulation of public unease and hard-core anti-government dogma?

Surely, it does little good to point out, as Bruce Bartlett (a former Reagan and Bush I tax advisor) has, that federal taxes in the U.S. are lower now than they have been at any time since 1950 or that the U.S. has a much lower aggregate tax rate than most other countries in the world, ranking 26th out of 30 OECD countries. (We have higher taxes than Japan, Korea, Turkey, and Mexico, which together hardly make a prima facie case that low taxes equal economic prosperity.) Taxes can always be lower than they are, after all; and we have a rump opposition party that has staked its future on the idea that the answer to every problem is to reduce taxes.

It does not even seem to matter that the protesters' evocations of the American Revolution clearly miss the point. The Declaration of Independence, as I pointed out in a TaxProf guest post in 2005, contains exactly one reference to taxes: the King had allowed Parliament to "impos[e] Taxes on us without our Consent." In other words, the revolutionaries really were upset about taxation without representation, not taxation itself. Even so, some protesters at these events are carrying signs with slogans such as "Taxation With Representation Sucks, Too!" At least they are aware of the historical inaccuracy.

What is interesting and less widely known, however, is that the protesters' use of the tea party meme is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of American history. As David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, put it: "[A] tax favor for the friends of King George prompted the Boston Tea Party." That's right, the Boston Tea Party "was a protest against a tax exemption and the creation of a royal monopoly. The Constitution grants Congress the power to tax in a broad way because of the experiences of the colonists with the crown's use of tax favors for political purposes." (The latter quotation can be found here, in the 10th comment down, which Johnston wrote in response to readers' comments.) In other words, the Boston Tea Party was not even a protest against taxation without representation. It was a protest against a tax cut for a politically favored special interest.

Not that any of this will change anyone's mind. We seem to have reached the point where taxes are for too many people simply a rorschach test -- a quantitative subject about which facts apparently no longer matter, and all we have to do is wish that something is true to make it so. Fortunately, notwithstanding all of the media attention that this silliness is attracting, the grown-ups finally seem to be running things again. I certainly do not agree with everything that our new leaders are doing, but at least they are living in the real world.

* Cubby Wubby Womb Room tea is a fictional tea blend that was mentioned in "So I Married an Axe Murderer," an under-appreciated film from Mike Myers -- back when he was still funny.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan