Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” If this is true, then President George W. Bush would like us to pay less for civilization. But history warns against this. The tax issue – which wasn’t an issue before the election because most Americans have higher social priorities – is illuminated by a look at the past.
First, we have America’s oldest party, the Democratic Party, to thank for income taxes. Nobel Peace Prize winner President Woodrow Wilson, along with “The Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan, were the most powerful supporters of an income tax, which our nation didn’t have the power to collect until 1913. There were efforts to raise government revenue earlier, but conservatives resisted. For example, in 1894, a small tax was placed on wealthy Americans and an opposing lawyer called it the first steps of a “communist march.”
Today, Bush complains about “class warfare,” and before the election, a conservative National Review columnist wrote, “Beneath the veneer of humility and compassion, behind the perfunctory gesture of respect for the private sector is our old pal Socialism,” in reference to Al Gore. This Easter, Al Gore and the Easter Bunny were reading Marx and hunting for taxes.
As we all remember, before Wilson and Bryan, Republicans opposed taxes, just as they opposed the popular election of senators (which we didn’t have until 1913) and a woman’s right to vote (which wasn’t achieved until 1920). America wasn’t the same republic that it is today. Labor historian David Brody notes, “In 1910, 30 percent of the labor force worked a seven-day week; nearly 75 percent a 12-hour day.” In 1910, a government study found that four out of five American workers did not earn enough to support a family. Incidentally, when Republicans took over our Congress in 1994, their rallying cry was “Back to 1900.”
Conservative refusal to shape a social safety net through taxes set the United States apart from the rest of the industrial world. The U.S. was unable to provide unemployment relief, social security for the aged or some form of paltry assistance for the needy when the Great Depression struck.
Fast-forward to 1981, when Reagan passed a supply-side tax cut. It was a gift to the privileged, as well as the disaster behind the debt that we’re still saddled with and that keeps us from solving today’s social problems. Bush’s Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill, handpicked by Bush himself, said the Reagan cut “put America in a ditch that was horrendous.” Reagan’s tax cut had a social cost as well, and so might Bush’s. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, now a visiting distinguished scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told me: “What is important is what we are giving up for a large tax cut. For example, the Bush administration cut the money allocated for training pediatricians at children’s hospitals, and nurse’s training generally.”
The social cost of Reagan’s tax cut was paid, in part, by the mentally ill, who were cast into the streets when funding for mental clinics was slashed. Now, without a mandate, Bush seeks to force Reaganomics on us.
Reagan’s budget director David Stockman gave away the real reason behind the ’81 tax cut in a revealing interview with the Atlantic Monthly. Stockman said the tax cut was “…a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate [for the wealthy]. It’s kind of hard to sell ‘trickle down,’ ” he admitted, “so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really ‘trickle down.’ Supply-side is ‘trickle-down’ theory.” Supply-side is also a cloak for disemboweling our government by cutting out the funds needed for vital programs. What’s worse, Bush would do this with a pitifully dull mandate. Hopefully, our representatives will have the strength and heart to stop him.
John Bennett is a senior English and history major as well as a Nexus columnist.