May 11, 2008

Politicians, Promises, and Proper Choices

Way back when, there used to be a course called "Civics." That was before my time. At Thomas S. Wootton High School, in Maryland, outside Washington DC during the Carter Administration, the class was called "Government," and its teacher was Mr. Stewart.

Mr. Stewart was right out of a Robert Heinlein novel; he was a decorated veteran who lost an arm during "The Big One." He didn't discuss it with us, but my dad learned that he had been hit 27 times by machine gun fire. He had a mechanical arm that ended not in a hook, but a rubber hand. He used it mostly for effect, occasionally adjusting it so he could glare at us from the front of the room with crossed arms. And he had opinions; he wasn't afraid to tell you his point of view, or to contradict "common knowledge." His job wasn't just to teach us how Government worked, but how we were supposed to make it work.

THE LESSON: Politicians and their Promises

"Any politician who tells you they will lower taxes," he declared, "is lying to you. Period. Taxes have never been lowered in all of human history, and anyone who tells you different is also lying."

The son of the Congressman from a southern state raised his hand. "But Mr. Stewart, I know that they just passed a law that lowered the tax on (whatever the heck it was). My dad voted on it."

"Did they really?" Mr. Stewart set his arm so he could clasp it behind his back as he paced around the classroom. "I'm sure it LOOKS like they did. But read through it, and you'll find that they replace the lost revenue with usage fees. And guess what? Now you're paying more."

With click and a twist, he crossed his arms again. "That's how it works; they tell you they'll lower a tax on, say, gasoline. Then they add a surcharge that the distributor has to pay to cover inspections costs, and that cost is passed on to you. Or they create a new tax on something else. You're duped into thinking that you're paying less because it doesn't show up as a tax on gasoline, but it's only been hidden somewhere else. Your tax load will never, ever go down."

He repositions his arm, hooking the rubber thumb into his trouser pocket while he paces. "The thing is, the government has to pay for its services; there are things that only it can do: national defense, law enforcement, regulation of weights and measures, and so on. And there are things we have chosen for government to take care of: education, social welfare, and environmental regulation."

"Take the highway system, for example. We discovered the need for an interstate highway during World War 2. But it needs to be maintained. Let's say we decide to cut taxes, and actually for once the taxes get lowered. Now there's less money to do things. What gets cut? Maintenance. Maybe not completely, but let's say we spread the work out. Instead of re-surfacing every 10 years, we do it every 25. That's less jobs for road builders, asphalt suppliers, and so on. More people on unemployment. But the roads end up being in worse shape, so you wind up paying more to bring them back to a safe condition. Now it's an emergency instead of maintenance. Now it has to be replaced, and before you can replace it, you have to remove it. So now we're spending three or four times what we would have paid for upkeep in the first place, and our taxes have to go up to cover it."

"So lowering taxes is simply not a realistic approach. So, who can tell me why anyone would promise to do something they can't possibly do? I'll tell you."

"To get elected. Plain and simple. They tell us what we want to hear. Politicians are counting on you to not examine the facts to discover the truth; they rely on your ignorance."

He shrugs his shoulder to unlock the joint, and folds his arm back up to glower at us from the front of the room. "And that's why we're here; so you can learn to see the truth. Politicians lie to get elected. It's up to us to learn how to see the lie. The only way to get honest leadership is to make sure you don't elect the people lying to you. So when a politician promises to lower or abolish taxes, you know that they are lying to you. Vote for the other guy if you want honesty."

"And if you vote for the guy who is blatantly lying to you, you deserve the government you get."


Over the years, I have seen this lesson proven again and again; George H.W. Bush promises to veto a tax increase, and doesn't. Florida lowers taxes on some things, only to raise them on others. Taxes get abolished, and are replaced by "fees" or "licenses" that cost more than the taxes did.

And in the rare case where a tax is lowered and the revenue isn't replaced, we end up having to re-instate them later at a much higher rate to repair the resultant damage. We pay more in taxes now than in any point in our history - even while Bush's so-called tax cuts were in effect.

So here we are, over a quarter century past Mr. Stewart's lecture. Now, as then, we face rising fuel costs due to problems in the Middle East (another lesson we didn't learn).

With three real candidates vying for position, two of them have chosen to lie to us.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain both state that they will push to suspend the Federal Tax on gasoline this summer, so that the cost of gas will come down for consumers. But as numerous sources point out, there's no guarantee that suspending the tax will lower the cost to consumers; it's far more likely that gas distributors will pocket all or part of the difference to make up for the drop in sales they've experienced as people cut back on their driving.

And even if distributors do pass on the entire savings, those taxes are supposed to pay for things; road repair and maintanence, for instance. Mr. Stewart's own prophetic example. Have we forgotten the people who were killed in the Minnesota bridge collapse so quickly? And there are hundreds of roads and bridges in need of immediate repair to make them safe, and thousands more that are degrading.

And even if anyone really thinks that allowing our roads to fall into ruin is a good idea, there's still the matter of the ever-increasing deficit. We're already billions of dollars in the red; we can not afford to run that debt up further.

The time to fight rising fuel costs was 20 years ago; that boat sailed when the Reagan Republicans decided that setting better fuel economy standards wasn't a worthwhile endeavor. It's rather sad and pathetic that the average vehicle was more fuel efficient 15 years ago than they are today.

As Mr. Stewart pointed out to us all those years ago, the promise to lower the tax is a false one; it won't lower your costs, and it will likely hurt the country.


So here we are, two politicians vying to be the Democratic candidate for President who will run against Republican John McCain.

Until now, I've been vacillating. If I could choose anyone in the world to be President, it would be Joe Biden. But he's been out of the running for months now. Obama is inspiring, but doesn't have a lot of experience. Clinton has the experience, but radical conservatives hate her guts and shouldn't we be done with Presidents who polarize us to that degree? But we did well under the last Clinton adminstration, but she supported the war in Iraq.

Barack or Hillary. Hillary or Barack. I couldn't decide.

And then Clinton promised something no one can deliver, and Obama pointed out the truth.

So the choice is now obvious. "When a politician promises to lower taxes, they are lying." I can vote for the liar, or I can vote for the one who isn't lying to me.

I'm voting for Barack Obama.

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