Monday, April 13, 2009

Missing the Boat

Seems the Libertarian nutjobs are coming out of the woodwork, holding little "tea parties" here and there. But these so-called tea parties have just about one and a half things in common with the original in Boston, besides the name, that is.

First, they are disguised. In 1773 the famous tea party-istas were disguised as Native Americans. In 2009 the cheap knock-offs are disguised as patriots who are standing up for the common people.

In 1773 of course the issue was "taxation without representation". The British colonies in North America had no elected representation in the British Parliament, though some of them did have influence via money. The American Revolution was a mixed bag, led by wealthy landowners - most involved in slavery - and by common craftsmen and idealists who believed in Thomas Paine's quite radical "Rights of Man."

These 21st century tea-party-goers have the principle just about reversed. They reject the basic principle established in the English wars of parliament versus king, carried on in the American rebellion, that the power to tax derives directly from the democratic process, and - I'd argue - that its primary purpose is to "promote the general welfare."

So, taxes would be the second thing this year's tea parties have in common with the 1773 party, except that it's similar in name only. That's why I say one and a half things in commmon.

There is certainly plenty of wastage of tax money, always has been. Business-obsessed and war-mongering public officials put our tax money to the worst possible uses: aggressive wars, subsidies to the biggest and most destructive corporations, tax breaks to the rich, deregulating industry, privatizing public services (yes, these activities cost tax money).

On the other hand, taxes pay for schools, libraries, streets, sanitation (in many places), public health, fire departments, adult education programs, and other things that clearly "promote the general welfare". Social security, disability, and child and family welfare programs are excellent uses of tax money. We could use twice as many teachers, and a lot more expenditure in most of these neglected areas. Better levees and a half-way decent evacuation plan might have saved half a million poor people's homes in 2005. Clearly a comprehensive response after the fact was missing, sidelined to the more pressing objectives of the richest 1 percent of our population.

So clearly taxes are not the problem, per se. The problem is a two-parter: how we spend taxes, and how we collect tax. Taxes are not too high, in fact; they are too low - on the rich. Sure, they're too high on most of us - sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, all regressive (they hit you harder, the lower your income). This is not a wonkish detail; it's the very heart of the issue. Libertarians (emphasis on the capital 'L') who gloss over this crucial reality are either clueless or faking, at the deepest level.

A lot of coded racism plays into this nowadays, too: anti-welfare "queen" ideology a la Ronnie "Rayguns" Reagan, etc. On a very important institutional level this is a familiar "divide and conquer" politics of the sort that allowed the English to conquer the Native Americans, India, and so on, and still keeps the American people under the thumb of its wealthy. It distracts our righteous popular anger over the repeated bail-outs of the rich and deepening neglect of most of us - away from the authentic popular pressure that is striving heroically in the opposite direction: toward a "people's bailout" and what some are calling equity.

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