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

12 comments:

Howard Wasserman said...

Interesting. And it revealed a hole in my historical knowledge; I had learned (as I recall from grade school and "Schoolhouse Rock") that the protesters went after tea because the taxes to which they objected were on tea, not as a general objection to all taxes. So I knew these folks were being silly and ahistorical, I just did not know why.

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freefun0616 said...

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狗熊克星 said...

絢香 故郷でのラスト唱に水嶋ヒロも
加藤清史郎、紅白史上最年少で初出場
羞恥心とPaboの合体メンバーとして出演した上地雄輔
「藤岡藤巻と大橋のぞみ」
人気声優、水樹奈々(29)も内定
嵐の出場も有力視されている
人気グループ嵐
紅白歌合戦は今年で60周年
KinKi Kidsはデビュー
井上陽水がついにNHK紅白初出場
陽水がついに紅白に出演する
松方弘樹さん、特大マグロ釣る
伊東美咲が入籍、24日ハワイで挙式
女優伊東美咲(32)が18日
タレント植松真美の結婚式
同結婚式で伊東と榎本氏
西川きよしの長男「足震えた
3月に吉本興業入りしたタレントの西川忠志
新喜劇出身の西川きよし(63)ヘレン(63)夫妻
長澤まさみ、本当は超能力を信じていない
本気で超常現象を信じるテレビ番組
『曲がれ!スプーン』
松たか子主演「ヴィヨンの妻」
広末「ゼロの焦点」韓国で邦画史上最大上映
歌手活動を無期限休止する絢香
今年2月に電撃結婚した俳優・水嶋ヒロ
必ず覚せい剤をやめ、介護の仕事を勉強したい
酒井法子被告初登校
酒井は学生時代に戻ったような
仲間由紀恵熱愛報道、所属事務所が否定
NHK、朝の連ドラ「8時スタート」に変更検討
山P&北川景子 手つなぎデート
大安の18日、美咲が人妻になった
神田うの(34)がデザイン
ほしの&SHIHO「ザジ-」新作発表会に出席
美咲の友人でタレントの植松真美
北川景子、着物姿で
小畑由香里が妊娠 柳沢がパパに

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