Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tax Time- how Americans were sucker-punched

Standing in the long line at the post office this morning, I had that feeling I get every April 15 like I’ve been severely had. This time the feeling was particularly strong. Partly to blame was the added humiliation of needing to pay for certified mail because of the IRS’s diminishing ability to keep track of its mail (and its imperious habit of blaming the mailer). And of course it didn’t help that every time I turn on the news I learn about some new way the piggy bank we call the U.S. government is opening its riches to graft and greed of all kinds, with foxes guarding the henhouse.

But most importantly this year I’m upset by the knowledge I gained about the history of American taxes, particularly the federal income tax, from a concise and powerful essay by Harvard historian Jill Lepore , “Tax Time: Why we pay,” in the Nov. 26, 2012 New Yorker Magazine. Lepore makes clear, in a way you never hear from our prominent anti-tax voices, that the income tax was foisted on America through a con job as deceitful as any on the street.

Lepore is non-partisan, in the real sense (not in the “crossing the aisle” sense). Her skill is in stating facts that do all the debating themselves, leaving aside whether they come from the right or left. She writes: “Since the 70’s all the political talk has been about cuts, surprising because more than 90% of Americans receive social or economic security benefits from the federal government.” Much of the article deals with the practice, originating ironically with New Deal and Great Society liberals, of identifying government support like Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid as types of insurance, while Aid to Dependent Families and Food Stamps are “welfare.”

Seen in Lepore’s light the current conservative assault on taxation is based on a false premise, that the people protesting “welfare” are not themselves receiving government assistance. Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, does not seem to recognize the distinction, as he exhorts his followers to theoretically cut their own incomes.

Lepore puts our present political stalemate in historical perspective, starting with this rather obvious thought from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” That’s easy to forget these days. From the moment you get up in the morning you are supported by things paid for with your taxes, whether it’s the safety of your neighborhood and your drinking water, or the road you drive on. It’s hard to argue that taxation itself is a bad thing in some absolute sense.

But we were not always taxed so much.

Before the Civil War, Congress raised revenue almost exclusively through tariffs- duties on imports. Lepore relates that this made sense to Jefferson, because, as he explained, “…it (a tariff) falls exclusively on the rich.” This is the beginning of a long history in which taxation has been presented to the American public as a tool aimed primarily at the wealthy.

In 1862, after noting that the British funded the Crimean War with an income tax, Lincoln established the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which, per Lepore, was “charged with administering a graduated tax that taxed incomes of more than $600- at 3%- at the time, the average income was about $300- and incomes of over $10,000 at 5%. The Confederacy’s lack of political will to do the same cost it revenue and is thought to be a contributing factor in its defeat.”

After the war, the federal income tax was allowed to expire, over the protests of John Sherman (of the Sherman Antitrust Act), a Republican from Ohio, who, Lepore says, ”…argued that tariffs were a burden on the poor and that only an income tax could properly tax the rich.”

By the 1860’s most states taxed property, largely to pay for the Civil War, but there was still much sentiment that taxes should be levied on the rich.

In the 1880’s, Lepore recounts, “Populists advocated an income tax…believing that it was essential to the survival of a democracy undermined by economic inequality. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, the Populists prevailed. By then, income taxes had become commonplace in Europe.”

Yes, you read that right: Populists advocated the income tax, because it was conceived as asking mostly from the rich, and less or nothing from the middle class and poor.

In 1894, a 2% federal income tax passed that applied only to Americans earning more than $4,000. But, per Lepore, “the next year…the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the tax was a direct tax [on income, not goods and services], and unconstitutional. Dissenting, Justice John Harlan said the ruling had turned provisions ‘originally designed to protect the slave property’ into ‘privileges and immunities never contemplated by the founders,’” references to the Constitutional debate over whether slaves were taxable property or people. The Southern view, per Lepore, is the origin of the American anti-tax movement.

Lepore continues: “In 1896, the Democratic Party [prevalent then in the South], for the first time endorsed an income tax, ‘so that the burdens of taxations may be equally and impartially laid, to the end that wealth may bear its due proportion of the expenses of Government.’”

Lepore gives great significance to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which, she explains, “…caused the financial panic of 1907, leading to the 16th amendment, in 1913, which granted Congress the right to levy an income tax, and to establishment of a central banking system, the Federal Reserve.”

The panic of 1907 and the recession and widespread unemployment that followed produced a giant boost for populism, and thus for the prospects of an income tax. Lepore writes: “A purpose of a federal income tax was to undergird the Treasury with a stable source of revenue. But it had another purpose, too. The richest 1% of households, which had held about a quarter of the nation’s wealth in 1890, now held more than a third. The tax was intended to answer populist rage at the growing divide between the rich and the poor. In the election of 1908, both parties favored an income tax (Democrats hoping to close that gap, Republicans hoping to quiet that rage).”

Republicans won and William Howard Taft supported the 16th Amendment. It passed easily in 42 of 48 states, 6 more than required, and took effect on Feb. 25, 1913. The House voted on an income-tax bill in May, and Woodrow Wilson signed it in October. Its highest rate was 7%. The next year the Bureau of Internal Revenue printed its first form 1040.

Lepore writes: “The Revenue Act of 1916, anticipating the US entry into the war in Europe, raised taxes….Rates on the wealthiest Americans began to skyrocket, from 7% to 77%, but most people paid no tax at all.”
She quotes W. Elliot Brownlee’s “Federal Taxation in America: A Short History”: “By 1918 only about 15% of American families had to pay personal income taxes, and the tax payments of the wealthiest 1% of American families accounted for about 80% of the revenues.”

What happened to the once common view that the income tax was to be levied specifically on the wealthy? Lepore recounts how the shift happened: “Business interests fought back. Wilson’s tax policies were one reason that his party lost Congress in 1918, and the Presidency in 1920. In 1921,Wilson’s successor appointed Andrew W. Mellon, industrialist and philanthropist, as Secretary of Treasury- he served under three Republican presidents. The American Bankers League became the American Taxpayers League, and paid the expenses of state ‘tax clubs’ whose members testified before Congress, urging tax cuts. Under Mellon, [whose family supported tax clubs] and at his recommendation, the excess-profits tax was abolished, the estate tax was cut, capital gains were exempted from income, and the top tax rate was capped at 25%. “

Mellon wrote that high taxes kill “the spirit of business adventure,” and claimed that lowering taxes would raise the standard of living. He set the ideology of the current anti-tax movement, using the exact opposite of the populist reasoning employed to talk the middle class and poor into the income tax.

Lepore explains the origin of our current distinction between Social Security, Medicare et al as insurance, and “Welfare” as a hand-out: “The crafters of the New Deal were squeamish about taxes, so they decided to fund Social Security with an indirect tax, on payroll, so they could caste the taxes as insurance premiums.” Great Society liberals continued the usage with Medicare and Medicaid. Thus today, the 59 million Americans who benefit from Social Security do not consider themselves on welfare- a conservative view supported with liberal terminology.

Lepore details a number of attempts from wealthy interests to annul the 16th Amendment, and she writes “in this period, the 30’s, the business lobby succeeded in redefining American citizens as ‘taxpayers,’ a practice that politicians have followed ever since.” Interesting how susceptible our vocabulary is to manipulation. It is common now for politicians to refer to citizens as “taxpayers.” Who knew this was purposely introduced to convince people that paying income tax is a duty of the citizen?

Lepore continues her history into the World War II years: “The Revenue Act of 1942, which included a steeply progressive income tax, broadened the tax base: before long, 85% of American families were filing a return. Tax hikes were sold to the public as emergency measures, ‘taxes to beat the Axis.’”

But, Lepore observes dryly, “The wartime tax regime survived into peacetime.”

I’d like to take a moment to reiterate that Lepore is non-partisan in the real sense. Here again she teaches something that argues across all the current left-right divides: The American people were lied to when they accepted the income tax. They were sold a bill of goods- believing that the income tax was an equalizer aimed at the rich. It is a powerful and overwhelming fact, stated without any call to the emotional currents of partisanship.

Moving into the post-war years, Lepore writes, “Eisenhower’s Cabinet included the former president of General Motors. With Eisenhower’s pro-business Administration, Adlai Stevenson said, New Dealers made way for car dealers.”

The Cold War kept the gravy train rolling. And the rest is history.

A fascinating history, for sure, but I’m feeling scant consolation today, April 15, 2014. Knowledge is supposedly power, but only if anyone recognizes the knowledge. Our mouthpieces in the current anti-tax crusade, whose voices dominate everyone else’s, seem intent on an amalgam of fact and expedient fiction, garbled now to the point where I doubt anyone knows exactly where in our two party system sentiment for tax reform belongs. So much for power.

Meanwhile I keep reading the news and learning how the money my wife and I and our kids earn and then give up to the IRS is flying out of wide open doors to any scam artist with the proper grease and sophistication in what appears a truly bipartisan effort. I’ll keep paying my taxes, sure- as they say, you can’t fight city hall. But if we can’t have a rational public discourse on taxes, can we at least close a few of those wide open doors?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bad words

Isn’t it odd that a word can be bad? Odd, that is, that the word itself is bad, not its referent. And odd that there’s no clear logic behind the bad word’s badness. For instance, “murder” and “torture” refer, in most people’s minds, to bad things, but the words are not bad. The word “fuck,” however, is bad, though it doesn’t refer to anything bad in an absolute sense.

"Fuck" is probably the most bad of the bad words, though, as noted, its referent, expressed acceptably in Latin as "copulate," ("couple together") is morally neutral.  How does such a word become bad?

History demonstrates the agonized process.  Christian Konrad Sprengel, 18th century German naturalist, was the first academician to suggest that flowers are sexual organs. For his pains he was hounded out of polite society and his work vilified. Today it is common knowledge that a wholly female flower is a type of vagina, that male-only flowers are types of penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.

The point being that Sprengel turned “flower” into a bad word.

As an elementary and high school teacher I spent a lot of time and energy trying to dissuade children from saying bad words that denoted sexual organs, various sex acts and, of course, excrement. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and what our culture is trying to accomplish.

I’m a crossover person who remembers bygone eras. In 1955 my family went to see the movie “Picnic” because we’d heard that William Holden said “damn." A hushed, almost worshipful audience awaited the big moment, and when the word was uttered a gasp in unison pervaded the theater. The movie producer’s gamble had paid off: box office dividends from a bad word. Few at that time realized that the dam was about to burst (sorry).

Fast forward to San Francisco State, 1969- my Chaucer professor charges breathlessly into the classroom. Instead of giving us a page number to find, he asks if we’ve heard what’s going on at U.C. Berkeley. Mario Savio and an army of dedicated young people have taken a stand for free speech, he informs us. We can say “fuck” if we want to!  Add cable tv and the rest is history.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!

Fast forward from the 60's to 1983, when, as a new elementary school teacher in inner-city L.A., I face a demure little black girl who, standing before my desk, has just said, “fuck.” There is no context, just the word, hanging understated in the air. I track down the mother’s work number and call. The mother’s response: “Let me get this straight. You called me at work to tell me my daughter said ‘fuck’?”

“Er…yes…” I stammer, and realize I need a zeitgeist upgrade.

Fast forward a few years and I'm a high school English teacher, listening all day to kids speak in 60's style linguistic abandon.

Like everything else in our society, our language protocols are in a state of flux.  At times of head-spinning change, it's helpful to ponder history.  The Norman invasion of England in 1066 gives some needed background. The Normans spoke French (though they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry) and imposed their language on the indigenous Anglo-Saxons, whom they despised beyond words, especially four letter words. The Anglo-Saxons said things like “fuck” and “shit,” scum that they were, while the Normans, heirs to Latin, could say, in the French versions, “copulate” and “defecate.” Thus Savio's battle for free speech represents a continuation of the thousand-year struggle for the Anglo-Saxons' right to speak the mother tongue.

The "four-letter" words do of course have another property: they carry emotion.  Compare these two sentences:

1. There are dog feces on the mat.

2. There's dog shit on the fucking mat!

The first sentence is devoid of emotion, an expression of information only; the second, identical to the first except for two bad words, a contraction and an exclamation mark, explodes with emotion.   It is their prohibition that has attached emotional power to the bad words.  They are forbidden... special.  The process has given us useful words that express levels of emotion other words cannot.

Once the prohibition has been gone long enough, the words' power will diminish.

In the high school portion of my teaching career I formulated a policy on the goodness or badness of words based on their usefulness. “Plethora" I identified as a bad word because it’s ugly and show-offy, making its common synonyms more useful.  When we read an Anglo-Saxon bad word in literature, I encouraged students to assess the word's usefulness in its context.  Words are either useful or they're not. They are useful if they carry meaning and force; they are not useful if they don’t. If I have to hear “mother-fucker” all fucking day, that phrase is not useful. If it's only used once in a while, well then, maybe….

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Havasu getaway

My wife and I fell into three free nights at a time-share in Havasu City, a sprawling collection of townhouses and malls on a gentle bajada leading down to the Arizona  (eastern) shore of Lake Havasu, which straddles the southern California/Arizona border.

It was good just to experience again the California deserts.  I used to argue with my dad about whether there would be room on the planet for all the world's people.  I thought there would not, but my dad pointed to the big empty deserts of the west and said there would be plenty of room for new cities.  He was proven partially right, as two major cities, Palmdale and Lancaster, popped up in later years in the desert north of L.A. (they look like Havasu City except flat and without a lake).

On Pearblossom Highway, heading east into the still vast and empty desert, my dad seemed further vindicated.  You could build dozens of Palmdales and Lancasters in these deserts, but now I would ask my dad, "Do you want to cover the planet with townhouses, franchise restaurants and malls?"  Just to spar with me, he might have answered, "Yes."

My dad and I would have argued about Havasu City.  I would have moaned from the back seat that it was ugly.  On this trip Susan and I arrived at sunset, a beautiful red splash across the desert horizon, and in the foreground RV lots, warehouses, high tension wires, stray Taco Bells and Burger Kings, and then finally malls, Denny's, Starbucks, Chili's and thousands of townhouses.

I'm older now than my dad was when we had those arguments, and I've accepted certain things, for instance, the importance of comfort. It didn't take long for me to love our Havasu time-share, with its king bed and big plump pillows.  The two mile walk to the nearest mall was aided by wonderful air, warm and cool at the same time, somehow buoyant, as if you were swimming in it. Beautiful desert canyons are everywhere around the city, with isolated trails that go for miles.  The old downtown, where we watched the Veteran's Day parade, has a lot of charm and character, as did the parade.  Not a bad retirement spot, really.  I must channel the 14 year old me and tell him to dull some of his sharp edges.

The history of Havasu is poignant.  It was the last refuge of the Chemehuevi tribe. Their name might mean, "people who play with fish," or it might mean, "nose in the air like a roadrunner." As the meaning of their name is forgotten, so they are largely forgotten, except in Havasu City in the waiting room for the ferry that takes you to the California side and the Indian casino.  On our visit most of the passengers waited outside, but I wanted the air conditioning in the waiting room.  Inside, several teenagers were enjoying an adult free atmosphere.  I noticed a series of posters around the room that told the story of a Native American tribe.  A boy and girl were horsing around by the first poster, so I had to nudge towards them until they moved aside.  I read that the Chemehuevi were nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Their ancestral territory covered thousand of square miles from the San Gabriel Mountains, through Nevada and Arizona. They liked to take long trips in small groups, but sometimes men traveled long distances alone.  They were an inquisitive people who "liked to visit all tribes, whether friends or enemies; to speak strange tongues, sing strange songs, and marry strange wives."

They were not particular to the Havasu area, but were hemmed in by European settlement and, at times, hostile Mojave Indians.  Early in the 20th Century a Chemehuevi reservation was created at the low point in the Havasu Valley, no doubt chosen because of frequent flooding.  At this time there were only a few hundred Chemehuevi left.  In the 1930's, Parker Dam, built to supply water to L.A. from the Colorado River, created Lake Havasu, at the bottom of which are the remains of the Chemehuevi reservation.  To make amends, the tribe was offered land on the western shore, which, as it happened, was traditional enemy territory for them.  At this point most members left, or married out of the tribe. Some of the bloodline were able to establish the casino, and these remnants of the tribe, although they no longer command the deserts and mountains- let alone the strange wives- receive boatloads of money.

Is this a happy ending?  It depends on how you look at it.  Certainly the story entails the death of a culture, which is an all-American story.  When my grandfather left Ukraine around 1900, he left a culture that had existed for over a thousand years.  That culture is now gone, though people who were formed by it live on.  Just about every American can say something like that.  We are all Chemehuevi, with our village at the bottom of a man-made lake.

Havasu City is not a great city.  There are no central areas for people to interact- unless you count Starbucks- and little in the way of arresting architecture.  But Havasu City does have the desert, the river, the big sky, the mountains, canyons, friendly people and the spirit of the Chemehuevi. When you think about it, that's a lot.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Happy Yom Kippur!

Not really: Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, when you stand before God and He sees you, really sees you, not normally a "happy" experience.  Before the last (second) Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE., the temple contained a physical space for the Yom Kippur meeting with God: the "Holy of Holies," in which a high priest or (according to some traditions) a common person who represented everyone, entered the space, where this person would be joined by God. Today, at least before we fight World War III to get the space back, we must conceptualize that space, and each Jew is supposed to enter it on Yom Kippur to confront, or be confronted by God.

Imagine how it would be to stand in an enclosed space the size of a closet, no one in there with you except God.  Clearly an intense experience.  To add to the intensity, Jews must fast for 24 hours, the duration of Yom Kippur.  I have made the decision not to fast, because I see the holiday as a meditative one, and I can't meditate when I have a headache and can't think of anything but a grilled Reuben. Further, I'm not sure that being in the presence of God (defined here as any force affecting human life that we can neither see nor understand) requires mortification of the flesh.  I find guidance in the Book of Genesis where Jacob struggles all night with the angel of God.  In the morning the angel proclaims that Jacob's name will now be "Israel," meaning, "He who struggles with God and prevails."  In my personal Yom Kippur meeting with God, I don't seek to "prevail, " but to make contact, to communicate, laying bare my weaknesses and mistakes, and my strengths, and then, as in a conversation, awaiting a response. Mortification may ensue, but that's not my job.

Yom Kippur comes one week after Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish new year.  As noted in the next essay on this blog ("Happy Jewish new year!"), my wife and I celebrated Rosh Hashona at our Reform temple in L.A., but planned to observe Yom Kippur in the Twin Cities, the morning service at the Orthodox temple in St. Paul where we were married, the evening service at my sister-in-law's Conservative temple in Minneapolis.  So here I sit in a St. Paul Caribou Coffee the day after Yom Kippur, enjoying the 40 degree early fall outside (it's 105 in L.A.), recounting my experiences yesterday.

In the morning, my father-in-law, Max, my brother-in-law Steven and I, with my wife Susan and her mother Edith, set off for their Orthodox temple in St. Paul.  I describe us separated by gender because the temple experience described us so.  On arrival, Max, Steven and I entered the sanctuary, where I saw the Lubavitcher rabbi who married me and Susan 43 years ago, standing at one of several podiums before a prayer book, chanting and rocking back and forth in a form of physically expressive prayer called "davening," scores of men around him absorbed in similar fashion, creating a soothing cacaphony of recitation.

I took note of the gender screen at the back of the sanctuary, actually a wooden partition topped with tinted glass through which I could see all the women- daughters, mothers, sisters, wives- wearing hats (as the men wear kippahs) and watching the mens' service intently.  I was surprised, because in my memories of the segregated women I see them talking and laughing, basking (as I write in "Happy Jewish new year") in a secret knowledge that Judaism, if not human culture in general, is female driven and directed. But Susan told me that my new impression was correct: the women were fascinated by the men's service and watched it quietly for the many hours duration.   I found this revision in my understanding so surprising as to be almost disorienting.  The "war of the sexes," as we used to jokingly call it, does not seem a joke anymore, but, at least in certain arenas, a real war for dominance and redefinition.  Yet here these women sit, many of them younger, reverently watching the men monopolize spirituality.  I don't think this precludes their having a female world of irony and revisionist history, but it's startling enough to see, anywhere in the modern world, a seeming acceptance of patriarchy.  Susan, who normally views patriarchy as the failed experiment it increasingly appears to be, explained that the experience behind the partition was comforting: viewing the men, not as megalomaniac, but humbled, joining with each other in common search for sense in the universe, with entire extended families together in the small building, youngest to oldest, set to come together in a communal meal at sundown.

In the sanctuary, my memories of freedom of movement and expression and family togetherness were confirmed. Young boys davened or horsed around with each other amongst the men, accepted both as spiritual and childlike.  How often do you see that?  A little girl wandered in to try to tickle her praying brother.  I expected some sort of outrage, but she stayed for a long time, her father clearly happy to see her.

It appeared to me that the magic of orthodox Judaism is that, for those it fits, many modern obstructions to family life are transcended. The need for men to think and feel like men; their need to be loved by women even though they think and feel like men; the reciprocal need of women; the need for adults and children to be "on the same page," to see the same world and agree on what they see: these treasures, so hard to come by in the "real world," seem to magically arrive, at least once a year, for orthodox Jewry.

Further notes: doctrinally, I could find no major distinctions between the orthodox and other Jewish denominations.  I did note an indifference to architecture.  The orthodox temple is an unremarkable structure on a residential street, the sanctuary all dry wall and plaster, even the Ark of the Torah a simple plywood cabinet.

Which brings me to the Conservative temple in St. Louis Park (a suburb of Minneapolis) where we attended evening services.  This temple was architecture intensive: visible from many blocks away, its imposingly arced and thrusting spire enveloped in a huge stained glass window which, from within, rises above the altar, beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.  Women, of course, were everywhere, sitting with the men, standing and singing on the bema, though the rabbis were men.  A final note: Conservative services entail considerably more mortification of the flesh than do Orthodox, with long periods of motionless standing (one such period lasting about a half hour).

The Twin Cities are great for religion and art.  Sitting in the middle of what seem infinite plains, either freezing cold or blazing with new life, its monuments to spirit and art seem painted into a surreal tableau.  Later today we're going to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where religion comes to rest.