Apr 15, 2014

The Good Old Daze

commentary by killre

I was scrolling through my so-called news feed on Facebook when I came upon something one of my contacts had, um... "shared" I believe is the accepted parlance.  It was a slightly too big for bumper-sticker argument from something called The Progressive Radio Network.  It is an organization I admit to knowing little about.  The word Progressive --usually another way of saying liberal-- gave me pause, for three reasons: (1) were I forced to put a label on said contact's political leanings, that label would be "conservative;" (2) the post's message is undeniably libertarian, which is often hyphenated with conservative; (3) the word Progressive is juxtaposed with the word Radio, which, well... need I spell it out?

The post was a black-and-white photo so old it was actually brown and yellow.  The picture was of a very early model "horseless carriage."  Probably a Ford.  I couldn't tell you if it was a Model A or a Model T or a Model X,Y,Z because (a) I am not an expert in ancient automobiles, (t) the image was far less important than the caption, which was (x,y,z) laid over the image, partially obscuring it.

The caption in question, with all its pimples, says this:

"Up until 1913 Americans kept all of their earnings.  Despite this, we still had: schools, colleges, roads, vast railroads, streets, subways, the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, (who managed to win 8 wars).  Tell me again why We The People need to be extorted???"

I would have responded to the post directly, but it is so egregiously riddled with half-truths and outright inaccuracies that the length of my rebuttal would have done to the customs of Facebook what the denizens of Westeros have done to the decorum of weddings.  So, I brought the discussion here.

Obviously, the post is an argument against income taxes-- specifically, I assume, the federal income tax.  The year 1913 clearly refers to the ratification (in February) of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which cleared the way for Congress to pass legislation (in August) requiring We the People to put our (then) two cents (of every dollar) in.  Just as obviously, I have no problem debating the merits of a one hundred years old Amendment-- just as I have no problem debating a two hundred years old Amendment, like the Second.  Unlike some (conservatives), I don't pick and choose which ones are open to criticism and which ones aren't.

Also unlike many conservatives, I feel such discussions should start in the realm of facts, not fiction...

"U... ntil 1913 Americans kept all of their earnings."  Not strictly true, unless you narrowly define "earnings" as "wages."  Various levels of government --including city, county, and state-- have exacted taxes since (and in some cases before) the nation's inception.  Prior to 1913, those taxes were largely on property, voting, and imported goods.  Note the second item on that list: voting.  Citizen had to pay in order to vote.  This, I suppose, was considered the flip side of the "no taxation without representation" coin: with representation comes taxation.  (This is as good a time as any to mention, contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution was not fought over Taxation; it was fought over Representation.)

Note also the tax on imported goods, called a tariff.  The purpose of tariffs --which were first enacted during the Washington Administration-- was three-fold: (1) the protection of American industry from foreign-made products, many of which were at the time both superior in quality and competitively priced; (2) the raising of revenue for the federal government, which then spent some of it (3) subsidized American industry (yes, Virginia, it happened even then).  Of course, tariffs are a proverbial double-edged sword: when you tax trade, the people you are trading with often respond by taxing it, too.  That hurts sales, which in turn slows the economy.  Some would argue that all taxes have this effect.  To some extent that's true.  However, while a sales tax (for instance) increases the price of all things for all people, effectively reducing Demand, it does not partition and punish a particular segment of the Supply side of the equation-- an action that tends to foster retribution.

"Despite this, we still had: schools..."  True, we had schools.  They were both funded and regulated locally or at the state level (much as they are today, rendering the caption writer's point in this category largely an empty one, but not entirely), which means many were not particularly well-funded and standards were wildly different from one region to the next.  Far too many schools a century ago were of the one-room variety, with one teacher trying to instruct every student in every subject-- often only as far as what was then considered an eighth- or ninth-grade level.  It is itself a symptom of federal intervention that it would now be considered only a fifth- or sixth-grade level.

How effective the system was back then probably varied greatly from schoolhouse to schoolhouse and teacher to teacher.  If you want to say our education system is no more effective today, I can't really argue with you.  All you would have to do is cite the caption we're discussing right now.  It contains at least three questionable choices of punctuation, one very questionable choice of capitalization,* and one giant error of applied arithmetic.**

* The Constitution of the United States begins We the People, not We The People.  I would agree with you that an upper- versus lower-case t in the word the is like debating how well-centered the dot over the i in nit is, were it not for two things.  (1) The person who wrote the caption is the same type of person who holds the Constitution up as being handed down from on high, so you'd think they could quote it accurately, specifically in print and especially considering (2) it's the first three [fornicatin'] words!  Seriously, if they are not the most-quoted words in the whole damned document, they are in close competition with freedom of speech and keep and bear Arms.

** By my count, the United States fought five wars between 1776 and 1913, not eight.  More on this later, after a quick dash through much of the list...

"...colleges..."  Yes, there were colleges.  Most of them were privately funded, and still are.  The others were only mostly privately funded; what little government money they received came from the state, and still does.  This is another point that works out to being a non-point.

"...roads..."  Oh, and what roads they were!  Whilst we wax wistful for the rutted two-tracks, washer-board byways and one-lane timber bridges of yesteryear, let us also click our heals and wish for a good ol' smallpox epidemic.  Sound fun?  I have always been of the opinion that no party really gets started until there's been a cholera outbreak.  As of 1913, there was no federal highway system --neither U.S. highways nor Interstates-- and absolutely no standards.  Simply put, the roads were atrocious: poorly built, even more poorly maintained, and lacking virtually any road signs-- meaning nobody knew where they were going unless they'd already been there.  At the time, it wasn't a major issue because few people had cars or trucks and almost all long-distance travel or commerce was done via...

"...vast railroads..."  Privately funded then; privately funded now.  Yet another non-point.  Debate the pluses and minuses of Amtrak as you like.  Our Comments button gets lonely.

"...streets..."  This is not just another word for "roads," it is another empty point against a federal income tax, since the building and maintenance of streets is funded the same way now as then: locally, by the city and/or county.

"...subways..."  See last paragraph; substitute "railroads" for "roads" and bring extra change-- there was probably a fare increase recently.

"...the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, (who managed to win 8 wars)."  As I mentioned earlier, I can think of only five wars that the United States fought prior to 1913.  I don't count Shea's Rebellion; nor John Brown's Rebellion; nor the so-called Whiskey Rebellion; nor the celebrated skirmish near the shores of Tripoli, which involved all of, like, eight Marines... I'm talkin' WARS.

Discussing them is best done individually...

1. The American Revolution.  We had virtually no navy during the Revolution, nor any marines.  What we had was a pirate named John Paul Jones and a proverbial boatload of help from the French navy.  Do you want to go back to that?  What's more, we didn't have an army, either: we had a motley, disparate collection of militia that the Continental Congress one day decided to start calling an army.  They avoided levying a tax to pay for having an army by... not paying them.  Or feeding them.  Or supplying them with arms and munitions.  Or clothing them.  Or keeping them warm through some of the most brutal winters on record.  Congress also lied to the troops about their length of service.  In doing all of this, they risked the revolution against the British turning into a rebellion against the so-called United States.  General Washington averted that by putting the most active malcontents in front of a firing squad.  Sweet guy.  In the end, the French paid nearly all of the up-front monetary cost of the American Revolution.  We paid it back by levying tariffs on British imports, which, surprisingly, was not the major issue leading to...

2. The War of 1812, or "American Revolution 2: Twice the Impressment."  By now we had a navy --I think it consisted of two battleships, five frigates, and a fleet of fishing trawlers whose owners refused to fight-- and the aforementioned eight marines.  As for the army, consider the following...  The signature victory of the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans.  Andrew Jackson was leading a militia force through what is now Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, fightin' Injuns.  U.S. Secretary of War James Monroe issued a fiat naming Jackson a Major General, drafting his rag-tag band of sharpshooters into the U.S. Army, and ordering them to defend New Orleans from an impending British invasion.  Jackson marched to the city, declared martial law, suspended habeas corpus, jailed dissenters, recruited a local crime boss for additional manpower, and built entrenchments that stymied a poorly executed British attack.  To use a football analogy, the Brits tried to run a play that day that should have been good for at least 40 yards, but they fumbled the handoff.  Kudos to Jackson for tackling them for a loss.  Too bad the scrimmage had already been called: the Treaty of Ghent had been signed more than two weeks prior.  Moreover, while we like to call this war a victory, history says it was more of a tie.  History also says we only pulled it off because we were playing the Brits' practice squad.  Their first string was at the Waterloo Bowl, playing the French (again).  We paid the French back (again), eventually.  130 years later, we liberated them from a Nazi occupation... but we did it with a federal income tax.  And war bonds.

3. The Mexican War-- a.k.a. the Mexican-American War, since we were there too.  Congratulations, you just beat Mexico.  Who are you playing next week?  Canada?

4. The Civil War.  Technically not a foreign war, unless you accept the argument that the Confederacy was an independent nation for four years.  Lincoln didn't.  The North won the American Civil War through the inexorable application of greater manpower, more highly developed industry, greater resources and, ultimately, more money.  How did they raise the money?  By instituting a federal income tax for the duration of the conflict, that's how.

5. The Spanish-American War.  The McKinley Administration defrayed part of the cost for the war against Spain by recruiting volunteers: 125,000 troops, plus a much-bullyhooed cavalry regiment known as the Roughriders.  Do you think asking for volunteers would work today?  They also sold war bonds, and levied taxes on tea (ironic!), tobacco, alcohol, and inheritances.  Yeah, you read that right: they paid for a war with a death tax-- which, by the by, sort of counts as a tax on income, doesn't it.

"Tell me again why We The People need to be extorted???"  I'm not even sure this sentence qualifies as a question, let alone one requiring three question marks, but I'll respond anyway.  Extorted is an ugly word.  Intentionally ugly.  Transparently intentional.  As long as we are discussing ugliness, this is as good a time as any to point out that yes, the United States made great strides during the 19th century-- in some respects.  It rode the wave of the Industrial Revolution, exploiting vast natural resources.  It had men who were rich enough and ruthless enough to do so-- scourging both the land and its people in the process.  What often gets trapped in the filter of nostalgia, though, is that the standard of living for the average American did not truly improve until the 20th century, with all its accompanying complications like labor unions and regulations and social programs and Federal taxes.  In short, We the People were mistreated then, too-- just not financially.

As I said before, the Revolution was fought over Representation, not Taxation.  I'm sure nearly everyone feels underrepresented these days, and I know for a fact nobody likes taxes.

There are, however, bills to be paid.

Discussions over which ones should not begin with intentionally inflamed rhetoric and long lists of empty arguments and historical inaccuracies.

P.S... Bud "Wait, I Thought It Was Reggie Jackson Hitting Three
         Home Runs Off Packenham In New Orleans" Selig must go.


Lena Hansen (The happy Dane) said...

I just saw the same on fb and was curious - so I found your blog :)

I live in Denmark and I pay 45% in tax and I love it.
We have free schools, free colleges, free universities and we even get money so we can attend the last 2.
We also have free healthcare and much more.
Sure it sometimes feel bad that you are not able to spend all your money but until this year, we were the happiest people in the world and our infrastructure is a big reason for that:)
And by the way - We are not ruled by communists :D ;)

Patricia Ann House said...

Stop paying taxes for this bad government. Exhibit #05.051: Former IRS Commissioner Steven Miller says the income tax is "voluntary" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MG2mcjAuLo4&list=PLfL9_nprqaLwszBrh1EPVFYL99sEuaekq&index=22

Unknown said...

I agree 100% . we were a very poor nation at that time . We were ruled by J.P. Morgan and his ilk . My Great Grandfather could just barely feed his .family