Brooklyn College professor accuses administrators, allegedly afraid of controversy involving the foundation of the brothers who bankroll many conservative politicians, of passing on a chance at millions.
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.
Submitted by John Thelin on September 13, 2012 - 3:00am
Higher education of the 1960s usually brings to mind student rebellion and campus unrest. Berkeley and Mario Savio are often invoked to symbolize the era of colleges and the counterculture. But this is distorted because it is incomplete. Why not have a collective student memory that includes Mitt as well as Mario?
This seems counterintuitive to the counterculture -- but only because we have overlooked all the innovations that were taking place on American campuses in these tumultuous years. I want to make the case to add seats on the historical stage of higher education – especially with the upcoming November presidential election.
To truly understand the long-term legacy of the 1960s, we need to include Harvard’s Joint M.B.A. and J.D. program as the institution -- and its famous alumnus, Mitt Romney, as the individual – that also are part of the higher education lyrics when boomers are “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.”
Scott McKenzie attracted a lot of listeners in 1967 when he sang, “If you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair....” Mitt Romney, however, was not listening and went in a different direction – politically and geographically. In 1969 he left San Francisco (well, Stanford and Palo Alto) and -- after a detour to France -- headed east to graduate school at Harvard for its brand-new joint M.B.A./ J.D. program, which was founded that year. The rest is history -- and no less than the higher education of perhaps our next president.
Put aside such artifacts as Steven Kelman’s memoir about student protest at Harvard in 1969-70 in his book, Push Comes to Shove. Forget James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement and its provocative subtitle, “Notes of a College Revolutionary.” Above all, suspend from memory the images of Harvard first-year law students as depicted in Hollywood’s The Paper Chase. It’s time to reconstruct the early years of Harvard’s joint M.B.A./J.D. program and its students, which were a powerful, albeit low-profile counter to the counterculture.
Harvard’s joint program brings to mind the academic equivalent of epoxy cement -- two ingredients (law school and business school) each of which is rigorous in its own right, and when mixed, create an incredibly hard bond -- probably impervious to broad humane or societal considerations. Two articles over the past six months in the New York Times provide some insights into both the joint program and into Romney as a graduate student: Jodi Kantor’s “At Harvard, A Master’s in Problem Solving,” and Peter Lattmann and Richard Perez-Pena's “Romney, at Harvard, Merged Two Worlds.”
As Lattmann and Perez-Pena wrote: “One of the most exclusive clubs in academe is a Harvard University dual-degree program allowing graduate students to attend its law and business schools simultaneously, cramming five years of education into four. On average, about 12 people per year have completed the program — the overachievers of the overachievers — including a striking number of big names in finance, industry, law and government. ...In addition to Mr. Romney, founder of Bain Capital, the roughly 500 graduates include Bruce Wasserstein, who led the investment bank Lazard until he died in 2009; leaders of multibillion-dollar hedge fund and private equity firms like Canyon Capital Advisors, Silver Lake Partners and Crestview Partners; high-ranking executives at banks like Citigroup and Credit Suisse; C. James Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., one of the nation’s top trial lawyers.”
No doubt these graduate students were smart and worked hard. Beyond that, it’s important to note some characteristics that accompanied this program and its work ethic. First, the formal curriculum pulled inward rather than outward.
Second, Romney as a student in the joint program tended to screen out external events as distractions. According to Kantor, “And unlike Barack Obama, who attended Harvard Law School more than a decade later, Mr. Romney was not someone who fundamentally questioned how the world worked or talked much about social or policy topics. Though the campus pulsed with emotionally charged political issues, none more urgent than the Vietnam War, Mr. Romney somehow managed to avoid them.” Kantor reinforces this depiction by quoting one of Romney’s law school study partners, who recalled, “Mitt’s attitude was to work very hard in mastering the materials and not to be diverted by political or social issues that were not relevant to what we were doing.”
The program pushed toward intensive insularity using the case study pedagogy that relied on no books or contextual sources – all at a time when genuine interdisciplinary, broad perspectives were finding some breathing space in prestigious professional schools elsewhere. It’s too bad for the education of future business (and political) leaders that the joint program that started in 1969 did not consider the very different perspective offered by Earl Cheit, professor (and later, dean) of the business school at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1964, with support from the Ford Foundation, Cheit invited five scholars outside the field of business to join him in conducting a workshop that for the first time brought together business school professors with others to explore and preserve “the connection between the intellectual adventure and the business adventure.”
What a contrast to the Harvard Business School’s case study approach! Cheit’s Ford Foundation program at Berkeley featured, first as talks and later as readings, a cornucopia of ideas and issues, led off by the economist Robert L. Heilbroner’s “View From the Top: Reflections on a changing business ideology.” John William Ward, historian and president of Amherst College, spoke about “The Ideal of Individualism and the Reality of Organization.”
Henry Nash Smith of Berkeley’s English Department discussed businessmen in American fiction in the “Search for a Capitalist Hero.” Historian Richard Hofstadter asked, “What happened to the Anti-Trust Movement?” The economists Paul Samuelson and Cheit himself analyzed changing roles of business in how managers cultivate social responsibility – and how American society balanced personal freedoms and economic freedoms in a mixed economy.” Guest speakers from France and Belgium provided American businessmen with perspectives on business in Europe.
Cheit’s knowledgeable involvement in exploring the past and future of higher education did not stop with this Ford Foundation business program. In 1974-75 he sought (and received) permission to teach a graduate course in the School of Education – one in which he explored how it was that professional schools of business, agriculture, forestry, and engineering came to have a place in the American university. The course content and topic were so novel that it led to publication of a book by the Carnegie Commission, The Useful Arts and the Liberal Tradition.
Once again, it showed that an intellectual and administrative leader in the business school could look outward within the multi-versity and reach outward to the larger society and the economy by complicating the questions rather than doggedly seeking to solve business problems. Cheit also was one of the leading economists to sound an alert to the deteriorating financial condition of the nation’s colleges and universities in his 1971 book on higher education’s “new depression.”
In contrast, what were the aims and goals of the Harvard joint program? One observation provided by NYT reporters is revealing: “But former students and professors say it makes sense that a group of overachievers would be drawn to financial markets, a hypercompetitive field with the promise of immense riches.”
Really? Why were these overachievers necessarily confined to these goals? What if the teaching and discussion had included some consideration of ethics, public good, and social responsibility – along with pursuit of individual prosperity? It’s important to remember that there were good alternatives. For example, Cheit’s Berkeley approach with the Ford Foundation project was to create curiosity, exploration and reasonable doubt about our national obsession with business.
The Harvard joint program, especially its business school component, emphasized the sharpening of decision-making tools, especially in finance. Each, of course, has their place. But if a concern of a university is to ask, “Knowledge for what?,” it is Cheit’s Berkeley model more than Harvard’s joint program that is sorely needed for the thoughtful leadership, whether in business or politics, required for the early 21st century. I’ll be thinking about that on my way to the polls on Election Day in November.
John R. Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky. He was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley from 1969 to 1974. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (2011).