‘A disgrace to the human race,’ &c.


This spring, I have been pondering taxes, as happens most springs. And I realize, once more, how complicated and even diabolical our tax system is. It is chockfull of bias, favoritism, preferences, dodges, shadings, guesswork. I don’t often quote Jimmy Carter positively, but I remember something he said as president: The tax system is “a disgrace to the human race.” I agree.

The thing about a flat tax: It is also fair — fair for those who don’t play the politics of envy, and who can do without special pleading. Currently, our tax system pits single people against married people, renters against homeowners, those with children against those without children, those with children who are going to college against those with children who are becoming carpenters or mechanics, etc., etc.

It pits American against American.

Senator Moynihan once said, “Remember: Tax policy is also social policy.” (I’m paraphrasing.) “We can’t forget that.” Well, I don’t forget that: and I think it’s wrong. I am for less social policy in our tax policy. Let everyone pay a percentage of his income: whether it’s Rockefeller or the kid at McDonald’s. Let everyone contribute in rough equality to the commonweal. And then get on with life. Let social biases and special pleading go jump in a lake.

Our federal government should be neutral, as it taxes. I know this is a controversial point within conservatism — but that is in part what this website is for, no?

An additional point: I favor a flat tax not only because it is neat and simple, which it is: Send in your info on a postcard, etc. That is not good enough. I favor it because it’s fair and right and logical and — if I may — American (though not contemporary American).

Another additional point: Plenty of sophisticated people feel they cannot do their taxes on their own — they will miss what is required or possible, and therefore overpay or underpay. So, they call on the services of an accountant. Is a tax code right if so many people feel they can’t make out their returns, with accuracy and fairness, on their own?

Last on this subject (for now!): Some years ago, I interviewed Phil Gramm, whose economic thinking — and other thinking — I respect enormously. He favors a retail-sales tax: on the grounds that “you have to get taxation away from income.” Otherwise, the government will always find a way to play games. Someone will say, “But I have a mortgage!” or “I gave to charity!” or “I’m a good person, and my activities and desires are better than my neighbors’!” And the government will say, “Okay.”

Yes. But wouldn’t it be something if a real flat tax could be implemented? Couldn’t happen, because of current American attitudes — because of the state of our culture. But wouldn’t it be something?

Above, I mentioned quoting Jimmy Carter — positively. There is something else I like to quote from him — something I like. Campaigning in 1976, he said, “We must adapt to changing times with unchanging principles.” True ’nough, as they might say in Plains.

A poll the other week found that 53 percent of Americans judge capitalism superior to socialism. My reaction: That high a percentage? I’m surprised it isn’t lower, for this reason: When do Americans ever hear a good word about capitalism? Do they hear it in school, pre-K through Ph.D.? Do they hear it in our movies, or television programs, or popular music? When are the principles and values of an open economy explained and hailed? And when are the perils of collectivism stressed?

I never heard a single good word about capitalism until I discovered National Review and The American Spectator and some other samizdat. Fifty-three percent? At least we’re still hovering above half . . .

For a people that has flourished in large part because of capitalism, Americans have a shaky grasp on economics, and the sources of their prosperity. A partial exception to this: immigrants.

I raised an eyebrow at something in the news last week: “Under Obama’s new Iraq war strategy, announced in February, the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be drawn down to between 35,000 and 50,000 — a number that anti-war critics consider too high — by the end of August 2010. The mission of those left will be redefined mostly to help train Iraqi forces. But they too must leave by the end of 2011.”

An interesting word, “strategy”: “Under Obama’s new Iraq war strategy . . .” Is that what it is? A strategy?

From time to time in this column, I note the horrors visited on Chinese people by their own government. And I am especially amazed at the abuse of old people: the beating of them, the torture of them. Reports of such abuse land in my inbox every week. For example, here is something typical — and not especially dramatic — from HRIC, Human Rights in China:

“On April 4, 2009, Sun Wenguang, 75, retired professor of Shandong University, was brutally beaten by five unidentified men as he returned from paying respects to the memory of the late Zhao Ziyang, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, who visited students on Tiananmen Square during the 1989 democracy movement, and of Zhang Zhixin, a dissident killed during the Cultural Revolution.” (For the full report, go here.)

If Beijing were a right-wing government — particularly one closely allied with the United States — these abuses would be famous. And for that reason, they might well be stamped out. At least I suspect so. When I was coming of age, when people talked about human rights, they meant three countries (chiefly): the Philippines, Chile, and South Africa.

These were right-wing governments, and they were American allies: the Marcos-led Philippines, the Pinochet-led Chile, and the Afrikaner-led South Africa. I soon learned that there were other countries whose governments did horrific things — but you weren’t supposed to talk about that much. Particularly when those countries were behind the Iron Curtain.

You were “poisoning the atmosphere of détente,” you see. That was a big catchphrase. And you were a “right-winger” — a right-winger if you wondered about, say, the Gulag.

But you know all this . . .

Interestingly, people do care about Tibet — they care about what the Chinese government does to Tibetans. And they care about Sudan — about Darfur, that is. They care that Beijing is the world’s number-one backer of the genocidal regime in Khartoum. When people protested the Beijing Olympics, they protested on those grounds: Tibet and Darfur — not on what the Chinese government does to Chinese people.

Interesting, what human-rights causes catch on and what don’t. For 20 years, Khartoum committed genocide in the south — a genocide of Christians and animists, mainly. Elie Wiesel called this a “slow-motion genocide.” No one really cared, much — except for some Christian groups in the United States, some of whom redeemed slaves (which is to say, bought them in order to manumit them).

Now I walk down the streets of New York and I see people with T-shirts that say “DARFUR.” Strange. I will address this at length, sometime: the curious phenomenon of human-rights causes (and non-causes).

(If only Cuban political prisoners were confined and tortured by a right-wing government, allied with the U.S. — then they’d be some of the hottest commodities on earth.) (Arab political prisoners are very unlucky indeed — the world is more interested in getting along with their tormenters than in confronting them.) (Same goes for Iran.)