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Athwart

Wine in the Red

by James Lileks

Paul Ryan’s in a restaurant, enjoying a meal with some economists. Perhaps they had some of that delicious Road-to-Surf-and-Turfdom. The meal’s gotten to the stage of satiation where you’re dawdling over dessert, enjoying some conversation about the money supply and core inflation, when a woman shows up at the table and upbraids him for drinking $350 wine. She was ANGRY, of course; as the bumper sticker says, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention to what other people ordered and looking it up on the wine list, and e-mailing the findings to liberal blogs.

Since Ryan belongs to the GOP, which seeks the extirpation of hope, justice, mammograms, and cowboy poetry, the price of the wine was terribly relevant. Apparently anyone who suggests reforming entitlements is required to eat ramen noodles and drink tap water, and go around wearing cardboard shoes held up with a rope. If Ryan had been advocating the abolition of children’s medical programs to finance an elimination of taxes on a sommelier’s tips, you might have a point. Otherwise we have a case of a fellow spending his own money. Problem?

Of course. It’s not his money. At least it shouldn’t be.  Personal income, in Michael Moore’s words, does not belong to individuals. It’s a “national resource,” like trees and Mount Shasta. It belongs to everyone. Wresting it from the miserly claws of the kulaks is patriotic, really. The fight against the shame of excess income is often led by those who stare in dismay at their tax returns, appalled at the light touch of the IRS.

As the president recently said about the debt-ceiling debate:

I do not want, and I will not accept, a deal in which I am asked to do nothing, in fact, I’m able to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income that I don’t need, while a parent out there who is struggling to figure out how to send their kid to college suddenly finds that they’ve got a couple thousand dollars less in grants or student loans.

The plaintive wail of the undertaxed rich: That’s a $350 bottle of whine, right there. Never mind being lectured on one’s “needs” by someone with his own 747 who believes his money must be blessed by passage through the federal digestive system to work its charitable wonders — the president’s formulation applies to any money you have left over after body and soul have been kept in hailing distance of each other at the end of the month.

But what if you’re dead — or, in the administration’s terms, you’ve entered into a non-kinetic respiratory action? Sen. Kent Conrad recently put forward a plan that hoovered up more revenue from that liberal fave, the death tax. It’s outrageous that people get money they haven’t earned — the sole example of such an objection in liberal theology — so the state must keep the kids from blowing it all on diamond stickpins. Presumably it goes directly to Joe Blokes of 123 Anecdote Street, who was laid off from his job at Amalgamated Widgets. Leftover money will be spent enforcing the Clean Widgetry Act, which increased costs on widget production by 300 percent by requiring domestic widget makers to sequester industrial by-products by loading them into cylinders and firing them at the sun. (All the widget companies promptly moved to China, but we have the moral high ground.) The heirs would just bury the money in the backyard, anyway. Every estate lawyer will tell you the first thing they advise their clients: For heaven’s sake, keep this money out of the economy. You’ll never see it again.

Marco Rubio said something that must strike the Conrads of the world as a crazy-smart insight: We don’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers. The “more taxpayers” part made instant, instinctive sense, but since Rubio’s a conservative, he must be up to something. You mean, like, give a million people a million dollars, and then tax them at a 90 percent rate? That’s pure profit! No: you take a smaller slice of a larger pie. But it’s still a smaller piece. I don’t understand. The pie is bigger, so you get more money. But the first lady is opposed to bigger pie. Bigger pie is leading to an epidemic of obesity. Kids are coming down with obesity left and right. If we eliminate the loopholes that allow Big Pie to fly around on corporate jets, we can fund programs on pastry awareness –

This has nothing to do with pie! you’d shout. It’s a metaphor! Like when the president says we have to eat our peas, when he’s really talking about taxes that discourage pea planting, depress innovation in pea-cultivation technology, and decrease hiring in the pea-gathering sector, seasonally adjusted! And he’s just talking about mandatory pea consumption now, with a promised reduction in the mandatory pea ration ten years out, except that’s just a reduction in the rate of increase of peas on your plate — and if history is any judge, aggregate pea mandates will skyrocket anyway, since they’re just targets, whereas the peas we have to eat now will be locked in by statute.

But you’ve gone from tabigger pies to nasty peas, and the basic point is lost. You’re arguing about whether the government should take 40 percent of an estate or 41 percent, instead of arguing whether the estate tax is the moral equivalent of the taxman showing up at the funeral and pulling the rings off the dead body. Anyone got a bolt cutter? These things ain’t coming off.

That’s the heart of the debt-ceiling debate. Obviously taxes have to go up. Look at that man’s bar tab. What more evidence do you need?

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