Social Sciences / Education

review of Romain D. Huret, 'American Tax Resisters'

I do not know if he was an ancestor of the talk-show host, but one Jean-Baptiste Colbert served as minister of finance for Louis XIV. A page on the tourism-boosting website for Versailles notes that his name lived on "in the concept of colbertism, an economic theory involving strict state control and protectionism."

An apt phrase can echo down through the ages, and the 17th-century Colbert turned at least a couple of them. The idea that each nation has a "balance of trade" was his, for one. And in a piece of wit that surely went over well at court, Colbert explained that "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing."

Procrastination makes tax resisters of us all, at one time or another. But mostly we submit, just to get it over with, and we keep the hissing to a prudent minimum. Not so the politicians, ideologues, and organizations chronicled by Romain D. Huret in American Tax Resisters (Harvard University Press). Relatively few of them carried rebellion so far as to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy in defense of their principles by outright refusing to pay up. But they were unrelentingly vocal about their fear that the state was hell-bent on reducing them to peonage.

American Tax Resisters proves a little more narrowly focused than its title would suggest; its central concern is with opposition to the income tax, though Huret's interest also extends to protest against any form of progressive taxation. The author is an associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France, and writes that he’s now spent two decades pondering "why Americans had such a complex relationship with their federal government."

In selecting one aspect of that complex relationship to study, he makes some surprising though defensible choices. He says very little about the Boston Tea Party or Shay's rebellion, for example. Instead, he takes the Civil War as the moment when anti-tax sentiments began to be expressed in terms that have persisted, with relatively little variation, ever since. The book is weighted more heavily toward narrative than analysis, but the role of major U.S. military commitments in generating and consolidating the country’s tax system does seem to be a recurrent theme.

Before taking office, Lincoln held that government funds ought to be raised solely through tariffs collected, he said, "in large parcels at a few commercial points.” Doing so would require "comparatively few officers in their collection.” In the early months of the war, his administration tried to supplement revenue through an income tax that largely went uncollected. With most of the country’s wealth concentrated in the Northeast, most of the burden would have fallen on a few states.

Instead, revenue came in through the sale of war bonds as well as the increased taxation of goods of all kinds, which meant driving up the prices of household commodities. By 1863, a Congressman from the North was warning of "the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes and arbitrary power.” The link between anti-tax sentiment and racial politics only strengthened after the Confederacy’s defeat.

The need to pay off war debts, including interest on bonds, kept many of the new taxes imposed by the Lincoln administration in place into the 1880s. Businessmen who prospered during the conflict, as well as tycoons making new fortunes, resented any taxation of their incomes -- let alone the progressive sort, in which the rate increased as the amount of income did. Anti-tax writers insisted that progressive taxation was a policy of European origin, and “communistic,” and even a threat to the nation’s manhood, since it might (through some unspecified means) encourage women to assert themselves in public.

Another current of anti-tax sentiment reflected the anxiety of whites in Dixie, faced with the menace of African-American equality, backed up by the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other Reconstruction-era government agencies. Huret reprints an anti-tax poster from 1866 in which hard-working white men produce the riches taxed to keep a caricatural ex-slave in happy idleness.

The rhetoric and imagery of anti-tax protests from the late 19th century have shown themselves to be exceptionally durable (only the typography makes that poster seem old-fashioned) and they recur throughout Huret’s account of American tax resistance in the 20th century and beyond. With each new chapter, there is at least one moment when it feels as if the names of the anti-tax leaders and organizations have changed, but not much else. Certainly not the complaints.

Yet that’s not quite true. Something else does emerge in American Tax Resisters, particularly in the chapters covering more recent decades: people's increasingly frustrated and angry sense of the government encroaching on their lives.

By no means does the right wing have a monopoly on the sentiment. But every activist or group Huret writes about is politically conservative, as was also the case in Isaac William Martin's book Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent, published last year by Oxford University Press and discussed in this column.

Neither author mentions Edmund Wilson’s book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1962), which criticizes “the Infernal Revenue Service,” as some resisters call it, in terms more intelligent and less hysterical than, say, this piece of anti-government rhetoric from 1968 that Hulet quotes: “The federal bureaucracy has among its principle objectives the destruction of the family, the elimination of the middle class, and the creation of a vast mass of people who can be completely controlled.”

Wilson wrote his book after a prolonged conflict with the IRS, which had eventually noticed the author’s failure to file any returns between 1946 and 1955. Wilson explained that as a literary critic he didn’t make much money and figured he was under the threshold of taxable income. Plus which, his lawyer had died. The agents handling his case were unsympathetic, and Wilson’s encounter with the bureaucracy turned into a Kafkaesque farce that eventually drove him from excuses to rationalization: his growing hostility led Wilson to decide that failure to pay taxes was almost an ethical obligation, given that the military-industrial complex was out of control. He vowed never again to earn enough to owe another cent in income tax, though he and the IRS continued to fight it out until his death 10 years later.

I don’t offer this as an example of tax resistance at its most lucid and well-argued. On the contrary, there’s a reason it’s one of Wilson’s few books that fell out of print and stayed there.

But it is a lesson in how the confluence of personal financial strains and the cold indifference of a bureaucratic juggernaut can animate fiery statements about political principle. It’s something to consider, along with the implications of Socrates's definition of man as a featherless biped.

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Essay on the message it sends students when academic stars take jobs at public universities

I recently went with a friend to an event at Columbia University, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ph.D. program in sustainable development. At the beginning of the event, the organizers screened a short clip with interviews of students and faculty in the program. One of the students said that one of the most amazing things about the program is that you read op-eds of great thinkers and practitioners, such as Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, and then you see them in the halls and in class. I was completely in awe.

As a Hunter College student who came to this event with a copy of The Price of Inequality to have signed by Stiglitz (I already have a signed book by Jeffrey Sachs), I couldn’t grasp what it would be like to have such a well-known thinker as your professor. The next day, after finishing an econometrics exam, I saw that Paul Krugman has decided to move from Princeton University to the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. My first reaction, naturally on Facebook, was “This is epic!” It is epic, but not only for the students of CUNY. Paul Krugman’s decision should also start a discussion about inequality, prices of education, and the role of prominent scholars in this debate.

Krugman’s announcement came shortly after Cathy Davidson, a prominent English professor and expert on the digital humanities – and a scholar who frequently talks about the centrality of public higher education -- announced that she was moving from Duke University to CUNY’s Graduate Center.

Professor Krugman, is a New York Times columnist and a Nobel laureate in economics. He wrote in his New York Times blog that he is moving to work in CUNY’s Luxembourg Income Study Center because, “more and more of my work has focused on issues of income inequality, and nobody does more important work producing the hard data on which all of this work relies than the Luxembourg Income Study.” Professor Krugman sees CUNY and the Luxembourg Income Study as a natural continuation of his work. In addition, Krugman added, “I also, to be honest, like the idea of being associated with a great public university.”

Almost any intro-level economics class will start with the explanation that consumers and suppliers are both rational decision makers, working for their own self-interest. The assumption (or maybe the hope) is that when all actors work in their own-self interest, the “invisible hand” works so they are also serving the needs of the society at large. Krugman, in his self-interest, moved to CUNY, and in doing so bolsters a system of colleges and universities in which most of the students don’t have the resources to go to private universities where Nobel laureates roam the halls on a daily basis.

In his writings, Krugman has frequently discussed inequality and the importance of regulation on the market to reduce inequality. But what about the inequalities students face when they choose their university? I frequently hear great scholars praise public universities such as CUNY for allowing access to higher education to many New Yorkers who would not have otherwise been able to fund their education, but many of these scholars choose their intellectual homes to be the same private universities that cause most of their students to end their undergraduate education with huge levels of student debt. Elite private universities offer professors resources and name recognition, which can help them pursue their ambitions.  Of course, private universities also on average pay much more than public universities, even top public universities.

This is a very mixed message. On one hand, these scholars say that the government should invest more in public institutions so more young people can get quality higher education. On the other hand, by choosing to work in private institutions they send the message that state universities are not good enough for them. Too many students at public universities, including those who are passionate about social equity and social good, dream about Ivy League graduate schools, or – for those seeking careers in academe – jobs at the kinds of places that Professors Krugman and Davidson are leaving. These universities are the homes of their intellectual heroes.

Those who wish to inspire will be much more effective if they also act as role models, like Krugman. Through his move to CUNY, Professor Krugman demonstrated he is willing to practice what he preaches, and is joining a university with top faculty and students.

As an international student from Israel who came to New York City with the hopes of earning a liberal arts education, I was extremely intimidated by the prices of many of the universities where I considered applying. Hunter College, as part of the CUNY system, offers affordable in-state and out-of-state tuition, which gave me the opportunity to pursue my academic ambitions. Before coming to Hunter, I completed national service in Israel as a medic, and I was sure that I wanted to be a doctor. However, at Hunter I was given the opportunity to explore other disciplines, and I discovered through inspirational professors that my true passion is economics and politics.

Currently, universities like CUNY are homes to amazing scholarship opportunities for both students and faculty, but the gap between the opportunities at public and private universities could be bridged if more distinguished scholars joined public institutions. I am not diminishing or dismissing the value of the amazing private institutions here in America, but just like minimizing the income gap would still leave some people wealthier than others, so too can this gap in education be minimized. I don’t expect Hunter College to compete with Harvard University in scholarly opportunities or in faculty pay, but having distinguished faculty such as Paul Krugman in a public institution lifts the level of attractiveness of affordable education.

Finally, on a personal note, Professor Krugman, thank you so much for coming to CUNY. I am a B.A./M.A. student in economics at Hunter, and I will come and knock on your door when I start looking for a thesis adviser. You will probably say no because it isn’t your job, but it won’t be the answer that is important. It will be the fact that at that moment I got an opportunity to approach you, at the graduate school of my university.

 

Abraham Gutman is a student at Hunter College.

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