The Agony of Having It All

The Occupy Wall Street crowd, that introduced America to the concept of the One Percent who had it all, and want to keep it all, and use their vast wealth to make sure they keep it all, by buying the levers of power, jumped the gun. They made their move in late 2011 and nothing much came of it. Americans seemed to still think that the few at the top were better and smarter than the rest of us, that the rest of us weren’t up there on top because there was something wrong with us – and maybe if we got our act together, if we shaped up and did the right things, we’d be right up there with them too. Those were the smart people, and the good people, and the job creators after all – even if some of them were jerks, even if many of them caused the economic collapse of 2008 with their wild speculation and by lying and cheating the poor suckers who took out absurd mortgages or bought their worthless mortgage-backed securities, those at the top still had to be protected. They were our financial system. Maybe they were a necessary evil, but they were necessary – and you can’t resent someone for being successful. You might be successful one day. You wouldn’t want people to resent you. That wouldn’t be fair.

It took a few years but America finally got over that. This is the year that those two documentaries on the Koch brothers were finally widely available – Koch Brothers Exposed and Citizen Koch – and this year also brought us Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty – if you prefer reading a book to watching a movie. Those two are the face of the One Percent, and the big bestseller this year is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – the detailed explanation of why we have the widest income inequality we’ve ever seen, and why it’s going to get much worse, and how that’s big trouble. Books on economic theory, by economists, never become bestsellers, but this one did. America final caught up to Occupy Wall Street. Something is wrong here. They whole system is out of whack. Almost everyone is getting screwed over. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s dangerous.

The Democrats will run on this in 2016, and Hillary Clinton had better watch her back. She can say it’s not fair and it’s not right, but who would believe her, the friend of Wall Street and the woman whose speaking fees could feed a family of four for a decade? Elizabeth Warren, who lives and breathes economic populism, and who can give one fiery speech after another on economic fairness, and actually believes it all, might clean Hillary Clinton’s clock. The Republicans can only respond with what they always say – don’t pick on the successful – they made America great and will continue to make America great – and you too will be just as successful one day if the government just leaves everyone alone – and look, someone you don’t like is getting affordable healthcare and their funny looking kid is getting free lunch at school, and it’s fresh healthy food too! The battle lines have been drawn.

Save for the resentment-factor, this doesn’t seem like a fair fight – the chances of everyone becoming as wealthy as the Koch brothers or the Walton family are far more remote than winning those the big multistate lotteries twice week for a month. Everyone knows that’s not gonna happen, but luckily, those who have it all, and want to keep it all, and use their vast wealth to make sure they keep it all, by buying the levers of power, had found and nurtured and financed a steadfast ally in that effort – the Tea Party movement.

That has worked out well. The losers in life, making little and still paying taxes, and seeing people not like them receiving goodies from the government, paid for with their pwn painfully forfeited tax dollars, damn it, hate paying taxes as much as the rich folks hate paying taxes. And they hate big government just as much the rich folks hate big government, even if for different reasons. The rich want low taxes in order to stay rich and get even richer, and they want small-government so there’ll be no meaningful pesky regulation of what they’re up to, for the same reason. The low-end movement that they nurtured and financed, however, just wants some relief from their tax burden, to survive. Their resentment of the wrong sort of people getting “goodies” from the government, paid for with their money, was the fuel for the fire of outrage that the Koch brothers could light to get what both sides wanted – and they lit that fire. All it took was a few millions dollars targeted here and there – chump change for the Koch guys and a few others, and money well spent. Everyone hates taxes, even if they have quite different motivations. Everyone hates the IRS – so attack that. The IRS is the enemy, not the rich.

There’s not much new here. Think back to 1998 – the year Frank Sinatra died and Bill Clinton was impeached and Google was founded – and the year Senator Bill Roth had his IRS hearings:

The Internal Revenue Service was once again under fire on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as a Senate committee launched another round of hearings, this time focusing on alleged abuses of power inside the tax agency.

In the first of four days of testimony from taxpayers and agents, the Senate Finance Committee heard instances of the IRS stepping over the line, including stories of retaliation against whistleblowers and raids on taxpayers’ homes that may not have been justified.

Some of the harshest criticism was aimed at the agency’s criminal investigation division, as witnesses complained that the investigators used excessive techniques and were out of control.

Tax attorney Robert Davis characterized the investigative agents as “cowboy agents” who are “undisciplined, who are inadequately controlled, and who think that the end of putting away the bad guys justifies the means, that is these intrusive, intimidating and oppressive investigations.”

Steve Benen has characterized those hearings this way:

One of the great scams of the 90s was the Roth Hearings, a brilliant piece of performance art staged by Senator William Roth as an attack on the Internal Revenue Service. The hearings were deliberately dramatic: Roth held them in a committee room designed to block electronic eavesdropping and had guards search everyone before they entered the chamber. IRS employees called as witnesses were blocked by black curtains and had their voices electronically altered, like mobsters afraid of being murdered in their sleep.

The testimony was equally dramatic: IRS agents, they said, routinely made false accusations against people, busted into people’s homes and waved guns in their faces, and once even forced a girl caught in a raid to change her clothes while agents watched.

As it happens, virtually none of this was true, but that didn’t matter. Republicans lined up to denounce the IRS as “Gestapo-like” and a law was quickly passed that handcuffed agents and slashed the budget for audits and enforcement, especially against high-income taxpayers. It was a boon for the rich in the same way that it would be a boon for drug dealers and street criminals if Congress slashed the budgets of local police departments.

Hey, it worked, and that was before there was a Tea Party to represent the oppressed “little guy” getting screwed, and Kevin Drum sees how this sort of thing continues:

The most recent is the seemingly endless investigation into charges that the IRS targeted grassroots conservative nonprofits at the behest of its partisan masters. These charges have turned out to be almost entirely groundless – just like Roth’s – but don’t make the mistake of thinking this makes them pointless. You just have to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Drum notes that the other shoe just dropped:

The House late Monday night adopted proposals by voice vote to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) amendment to the fiscal 2015 Financial Services appropriations bill would cut funding for the IRS by $353 million. Specifically, Gosar’s amendment would cut that funding from the IRS enforcement account and use it toward deficit reduction.

Gosar argued that funding for the IRS would be better used toward reducing the deficit than toward the agency caught in GOP crosshairs…”More directly than financial or condition of the country is the fact that this agency has shown contempt for the American taxpayer.”

Drum:

The Roth Hearings ended up with reduced funding for IRS enforcement, something that took over a decade to recover from. Now Gosar wants to cut IRS enforcement funding too. Coincidence? Not so much. If you want to reduce taxes on the wealthy, after all, there are two ways to do it. You can either reduce their tax rates or you can make it easier for them to evade the tax rates that already exist. Either way, it’s a boon to anyone with lots of money and good tax planners. But I repeat myself.

In any case, this was always inevitable. The goal of anti-IRS jihads is always to reduce funding for enforcement. And despite what Gosar might want you to believe, very little enforcement has ever been aimed at middle-class taxpayers or small nonprofits. It’s mostly aimed at the rich, for obvious Willie Suttonish reasons. Weakening enforcement actions against the Republican Party’s core constituency has always been the end game for the IRS scandal, and now we’re finally there.

The famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks and gave the obvious answer – “because that’s where the money is” – and Drum thinks this is the same sort of thing. Defund the IRS and keep your money. It’s pretty simple, as is this from Rita Rudner – “Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That’s how rich I want to be.”

Were Elizabeth Warren a sixty-year-old left-leaning comedienne she’d say something like that, but she’s a bit more circumspect – and it’s not the the rich don’t know folks will laugh at a line like that, because it seems to hit on the basic idea here. In fact, Paul Waldman examines their plight:

As we well know by now, being rich in America is tough. Imagine driving your Porsche out the Goldman Sachs garage, intent on a relaxing weekend at your Hamptons retreat, only to find some wretched Occupy sympathizer giving you a dirty look through the haze of patchouli and resentment that surrounds him. Who could endure it? No wonder they keep comparing their fearful existence to that of the Jews of late-1930s Germany.

Cute, but Waldman points out that now, according to the Washington Examiner, these folks have a new worry:

Democratic super PACs have outraised their Republican counterparts by millions, a factor attributed in part to GOP donors’ fear of being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service – or “getting Koch’ed.”

Republican political operatives concede that there are multiple reasons for the Democrats’ advantage in super PAC money raised.

Among them: Labor unions have become among their largest and most consistent donors. But this election cycle, two new challenges have chilled GOP super PACs’ effort to raise cash from wealthy individuals and corporate donors: anxiety that they could get slapped with an IRS audit and unease that donating could lead to public demonization.

It’s that damned IRS! Those folks must be stopped! And Waldman is amused:

Not to let facts intrude on their paranoid fantasies, but let’s not forget what the IRS scandalette actually involved. There’s never been any credible allegation that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs. There’s never been any allegation that the IRS “targeted” donors to Republican super PACs. The worst thing that happened was that some Tea Party groups that had applied for 501(c)(4) status – claiming, utterly falsely, that they were charitable, non-political organizations, I might add – had to wait longer than they should have to get approval on their applications. (And, I have to repeat, when you’re waiting for your approval, you’re permitted under the law to act as though you’ve gotten your approval. You can raise and spend money, which they did.)

On the second point, I suppose one might be concerned that Harry Reid would go to the Senate floor and denounce you for undermining our democracy with your donations, even if those donations are perfectly legal. But in order for that to happen, you’re really going to have to get into the first rank of donors. A couple hundred thousand dollars isn’t going to do it; in order to be “demonized,” your contributions are going to have to reach at least eight figures.

Maybe it’s time for these folks to grow a pair:

I’m sure it’s unpleasant for the Kochs to get criticized by politicians. But being criticized – even vigorously and even sometimes unfairly – is the price you pay for certain choices you make. If you decide to do anything that puts your efforts in front of the public – running for office, becoming an actor, or being a writer, among other things – people who don’t like that work are going to tell you so. They may even say rude things, like “You’re an idiot” or “You suck,” or whatever other insults their limited creativity can produce. People track me down to tell me things like that all the time. It certainly isn’t fun to hear, but since I’ve chosen a profession where my work is public, it’s just part of the deal.

That is the deal. If you hate the IRS, because you believe that all taxation is theft – from you, specifically – and that the government is always too big and should not do much of anything – then say so out loud, and put you money where your mouth is, and show everyone your receipt from the treasurer of that SuperPAC – waving it around, proudly. Stand with the Koch brothers. What, is Elizabeth Warren going to say bad things about you? What do you care?

Of course it’s never that simple where the rubber meets the road, literally, as Greg Sargent explains:

It’s funny how quickly House Republicans will tell conservative groups to take a hike when refusing to engage in basic governing becomes politically unsustainable.

Late yesterday, the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly passed a temporary $10.9 billion fix to the Highway Trust Fund, replenishing it until next spring. The White House had warned insolvency could grind state infrastructure projects to a halt and cost as many as 700,000 jobs. As Glenn Kessler explains, this figure is probably overstated. But economic firms such as Moody’s Analytics were warning that failure could imperil the recovery just when it may be poised to accelerate.

The House GOP fix is loaded with gimmicks, and it defers the tougher decisions over how to keep the fund going over the long term. But it avoids a short term disaster, so the White House is supporting it grudgingly. I’m told the Dem-controlled Senate will likely pass it. “We’ll probably end up passing theirs,” a Senate Dem aide emails.

It seems no one has the courage of their convictions:

Conservative groups such as Heritage Action had warned darkly that Republicans must not “bail out” the HTF. Yet the HTF fix passed the House by 367-55. As the New York Times observes, this was “another in a series of defeats for conservative groups” who think “responsibility for highways and bridges should return to state and local governments.”

That might be unworkable:

The battle over infrastructure in the context of the HTF is one area where GOP anti-government rhetoric collides with reality. It’s easy for Republicans to strut around ranting about crony capitalism, and they know they can attack the Export-Import Bank’s efforts to help U.S. exporters as improper Big Gummint meddling in the economy because no one cares about it. But here was a case where infrastructure projects – and jobs – could have been put on ice in many GOP districts.

Sargent also points out the New York Times editorial board points out something basic, that infrastructure funding is “one of the most basic functions of government,” and the “enormous cost to society of poor infrastructure grows every year, and most of the blame can be placed directly on a Congress that refuses to collect and spend enough money to fix it.”

You may think government is useless, in the abstract, but roads and bridges and ports, and running water and electricity, are pretty nifty. Every country should have those. Any country that doesn’t isn’t much of a country. There are the most basic functions of government, and then there is ideology. Perhaps we can save the ideology discussion for later, when funding for a new space telescope comes up again. As for roads, could we all just chip in for roads? People need to get to work, manufactures need to get their products to market, and people and products to travel not only from town to town but also from state to state, so maintaining a highway system is exactly what a national government ought to be doing. What’s so hard about that? Sargent also point out that according to Moody’s calculations state and local investment in infrastructure as a percentage of GDP is lower than at any point since World War II – so they’re not doing a damned thing. Someone has to do something.

Will it be the libertarian small-government no-taxes wealthy and the Tea Party cheerleading squad they’ve hired? They’ll do nothing, at least as David Atkins sees it:

Republicans aren’t really “conservative” anymore. These are radical economic libertarian ideologues as wild-eyed and unrealistic about human nature and economics as any Bolshevik. What they want is a society that has never existed before in modern history, testing an already-discredited economic theory that has never been pursued to its full extent because it’s too demonstrably crazy, with social order enforced by a code of morality and institutional hierarchy most voters have already rejected.

That’s why American politics is so impossible right now. These are not traditional disagreements over this program or that, or the size and scope of this effort or that one. Modern Republicans aren’t conservatives so much as revolutionary revanchists, seeking to “take back their country” by creating a libertarian economic utopia such as has never existed (nor, due to its internal unworkability, will it ever exist) in the world. The left can point to other countries that work reasonably well along the lines we would prefer: we can point to Canada, Germany, Sweden and many other countries besides whose solutions to vexing American policy problems have worked out substantially well for them. Republicans cannot point to similar examples because they do not exist.

Yes, they cannot point to another wonderful country where if you want to go somewhere you buy the land and hire someone to build you a road, or you stay home. There is also no other rich and successful nation where there is nothing like the IRS because no one pays any taxes at all. No one likes the tax man, and being rich can be a drag, with all the little people whining about this and that, and a strong central government establishing basic rules for how citizens must behave can seem oppressive, but maybe some things are necessary. Perhaps those who believe otherwise should move to that other imaginary country. Somalia is supposed to be nice this time of year.

No, they’ll stay here, telling us about the agony of having it all when everyone else has very little, expecting a bit of communal sympathy – and deep respect too – because the pain of it all is just not fair. Then they’ll ask for our vote. Everyone knows what happens next.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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