David Bouchier: Value For Money

Apr 12, 2021

The Federal tax deadline has been put back this year, which must please a lot of people. But the whole Kafkaesque system somehow seems less formidable than it once did, now we are living in a post-truth society where anyone can say any crazy thing and expect to be believed. Lies have been certified as truth at the highest level, which should make filling in the 1040 form much easier. The IRS, which in any case is overwhelmed by a backlog of tax returns, would surely never question our sincerely held beliefs about income and expenses, no matter how unlikely they seem.

Taxation has a long history. It was the original and, for a long time, only purpose of government. Kings and princes needed an income to support their extravagant lifestyles — and their wars — and tax collection was simpler in those days. There were no forms to fill in, and no accountants to consult. The involuntary transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, which is the oldest and most successful conspiracy of them all, was accomplished by simple violence and intimidation. But we are more civilized now, and comply with the annual tax demand because we believe it is for our own good. We have come to expect governments should DO something for their citizens in exchange for their taxes — to look after us with social services and to protect us from wicked people like jihadists, North Koreans, atheists and above all from each other. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up this position when he said: “I like paying taxes; with them I buy civilization.”

That’s true, as far as it goes. But while we are paying for government, we are also paying for politics — that is the theatrical performance that goes on in the political foreground while the government is getting real things done behind the scenes. At the front of the stage we find Congress, and we may ask, as we prepare to pay our taxes for last year: "what did the 116th Congress do for us in the 2020?" The short answer is: virtually nothing, other than presiding over a huge increase in spending and the national debt. Permanent gridlock has transformed Congress from a Legislature into a theater where the show never changes or improves. The two parties are no more able to have a rational debate than two football teams in the middle of a game.

Congress has never been popular, and I suppose we shouldn’t expect it to be useful. There are no term limits, so it can become a lifetime career, and the salaries and benefits are so extremely generous that the main objective of every non-legislating legislator is getting him or herself re-elected. But Congress is a big budget item – not far short of a billion dollars in 2020, including salaries and benefits. A billion doesn’t sound like much these days, when trillions are being tossed around. But I can remember when a billion dollars was worth something and, to me, a billion in exchange for nothing does not sound like good value for money. If the IRS ever catches up with our tax returns for 2020 a generous refund is the very least we should expect.

Copyright: David Bouchier