Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 May 2004, 14:34 p.m.

Death, Taxes, And Sumana Writing About Taxes

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2004 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Reading Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Dennett writes clearly and entertainingly, even though it's a university press book with a tiny audience. Good job! Also, he amuses me by saying, "Let us examine the Byzantine tax system of Syria" and actually meaning "Byzantine."

The Arab Empire experienced, of course, some of the same problems that the modern US and modern Israel have. If you use reduced taxes as an incentive for some behavior (such as conversion to Islam or investment in state and municipal bonds), then people will do that and your tax receipts will go down. If you reduce the incentive, then the interest group you have just created will grumble or rebel. If you tax everyone else more heavily to make up the difference, you're fomenting class war. If you try to make up the difference with deficit spending or spending cuts, you might lose credibility, or even the ability to govern effectively. (You can only cut police and military spending so much!)

Finally, from Waltman's Political Origins of the U.S. Income Tax:

If we accord the income tax a high place in the patheon of bequests from the Progressive era, we must sadly note it is a legacy bequeathed only by racism. Were it not for the Democratic leadership in Congress being in the hands of those who wanted to spare the common man much of the taxes he bore in 1913, we would not have had the progressive income tax. But who were these economic humanists Ratner and others have praised? Kitchin, Simmons, Underwood, Hull, Williams, Garner. Every one of them was from the South, and they were all guardians of white supremacy. In fact, even their homilies on taxes are laced with crude racist stories and jokes. When they turned to such issues as black soldiers being armed during World War I or antilynch laws, their venom knew few bounds. To be sure, some were worse racists than others, and to be sure it can be argued that had they deviated from the "party line", their replacements might have been worse. And it is almost certainly true that without their votes and leadership we would have had much more exploitative tax policies. Yet, it is a sad tradeoff. Progressive tax policies were bought with impediments to any progress along racial lines. Before we celebrate the virtues of our income tax therefore, a tear is in order for those to whom taxes were secondary.

Every action has an opportunity cost. If you are sleeping, you can't be writing, and if you are sleeping or writing the Great Customer Service Novel then you cannot be hyping your new one-woman show.