Magazine | November 27, 2017, Issue

Fighting over the Scraps

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan introduces his new tax policy at the National Association of Manufacturers Summit in Washington, June 20, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

I have it from Capitol Hill that “Republican” tax “reform” (already two-thirds of the way toward Voltaire’s summation of the “Holy” “Roman” “Empire”) will include the repeal of sundry deductions and credits. The beneficiaries of these sops are predictably, and perhaps understandably, unhappy, as they’ve made choices over many years with an understanding that their tax consequences would break one way and now they’re set to break another.

Many of the targets seem almost gleefully arrayed among the administration’s enemies, broadly construed: The haute bourgeoisie in high-tax coastal states and snooty graduate students seem to fare worst.

But other targets, like the adoption tax credit, as well as conspicuous omissions, like the muted and mitigated expansion of the child tax credit, are upsetting plenty of folks on the right, as well.

These changes are said to be anti-family, or at least insufficiently pro-family, and it’s argued that families should be held harmless in Paul Ryan’s desperate search for pay-fors.

Let me just say I agree. Let’s not get rid of any tax credits. In fact let’s do away with all other forms of social engineering and do all policy via tax credit. I want tax credits for staying out of jail. For avoiding the clap. I want tax credits for flossing. For calling my grandmother on her birthday. For punctuality, pep, and spirit.

I want a future in which your virtue is a direct function of how many tax credits you receive.

All behaviors not outlawed should be rewarded with tax credits. And all behaviors not rewarded with tax credits should be outlawed.

Just think of it, a fully formed utopia sprouting from the place you’d least expect it: the Internal Revenue Service.

Or a minority report, from Brother Jay Nordlinger, lately seen on the Corner:

Years ago, Senator Moynihan said something that made an impression on me: Tax policy is social policy. So true. I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could divorce tax policy from social policy.

Jimmy Carter said our tax code was “a disgrace to the human race.” I agree, in no small part for this reason: It pits Americans against one another.

It pits homeowners against renters. Married people against unmarried people. Married people with children against married people without children. Married people with children going to college against married people with children who aren’t going to college.

Just so.

Look, I get why people who are smarter than me, and wonks who are wonkier than me, and  National Review editors who are  National Review editor–ier than me, favor the tax code as a locus for family-friendly policy. But I’d just as soon take the cash without all the caveats and codicils about how I spend it.

But the real drag isn’t good-faith disagreement about the worthiness of the child tax credit. It’s the sinking feeling that we’re having an ersatz debate about an ersatz tax bill. A debate about how much of it we shouldn’t even worry about paying for. A debate about what is likely to be a temporary corporate-rate cut that’s a grimy little gift to profit takers instead of a permanent cut that might spur real growth and investment. A debate about whether we can get away with even limiting mortgage-interest deductions instead of burning them to the ground.

This isn’t where a party that controls every branch of the federal government, and the majority of the states’, should be setting its sights in the first year of a presidential administration. Dubya did far better, twice, and even his biggest failure — Social Security reform — was much bolder and nearly made it to the finish line.

But there’s none of that will in the current administration. And its most bruised-knee cheerleaders seem destined to rewrite any outcome into a flawless victory, while good, public-spirited conservatives seem content to fight over scraps like the adoption tax credit.

Fighting over the scraps is set to be a big feature of our postmodern political wasteland. There’s something of this sort going on with the grotesque pleasure in some circles that Hollywood has turned out to be precisely the iniquitous predators’ ball we always thought it was. And in the bated breath before, and one-sided grave-dancing after, we find out whether the latest mass shooter is a Muslim or an angry white man.

It’s not schadenfreude, or “whataboutism.” Or it’s not merely those things, anyway, as both require the vantage of a moral high ground to be enjoyed. On the contrary, absent the hope of any restorative transformation in the political culture, fighting over the scraps claims no moral high ground at all. It rather acknowledges that we’ve been brought low and delights in seeing our enemies brought just as low as us. It’s the last pleasure afforded to us, politics as a bloody and doomed Khan vowing to chase Admiral Kirk round perdition’s flames.

And how many of those who scream “Make America great again!” the loudest are fighting over the scraps as if it were a lost cause?

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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