The Story Through Another Lens: Taxes

Category: Blog

December 2, 2012

Unless the President and Congress are able to make a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, more taxes will be taken out of nearly everyone’s paycheck in January of 2013. The biweekly take-home pay of a single person without children making $50,000 per year will decrease from about $1,500 (not counting any applicable state or local taxes) to about $1,400 due to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and payroll tax holiday.

Much discussion about the fiscal cliff has focused on the effects of these tax hikes on the still-recovering economy and the need to avoid them to avoid placing additional burdens on families.
Jill Lepore of the New Yorker offered another take on taxes in the November 26 issue of the magazine. A subscription is required to view the whole article online, but selected quotes are excerpted here to help students examine another point of view on taxes. Students should be encouraged to read each quote and think about the following questions:

• What is the author’s perspective? How can you tell?
• How does the author’s perspective on taxes differ from other “players” in the fiscal cliff debate?
• What evidence does the author provide to support her point of view? What additional evidence might you want?
• What more would you need to know to make a judgment about the value of taxes?

The quotes:

• “’Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,’ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, nearly a century ago… No one’s said it better since. And that, right there, is the problem.”
• “…before the Civil War, (Congress) raised revenue almost exclusively through tariffs – duties on imports. ‘We are all the more reconciled to the tax on importations,’ Jefferson explained, ‘because it falls exclusively on the rich.’ But the tariff was uncontroversial, the historian Robin Einhorn has argued, because it skirted the question of human bondage: the American antitax tradition, she insists, has its roots not in democracy but in slavery.”
• “A purpose of a federal income tax was to undergird the Treasury with a stable source of revenue. But it had another purpose, too. The richest one percent of households, which had held about a quarter of the nation’s wealth in 1890, now held more than a third. The tax was intended to answer populist rage at the growing divide between the rich and the poor. In the election of 1908, both parties favored an income tax – Democrats hoping to close that gap, and Republicans hoping to quiet that rage.”
• “…the business lobby succeeded in redefining American citizens as ‘taxpayers,’ a practice that politicians have followed ever since, as if the defining act of citizenship was not casting a ballot but filing a return.”
• “In the past century, opponents of an income tax have called it inquisitorial, confiscatory, meddlesome, socialist, and Marxist. Some people think it’s been a sop. John Kenneth Galbraith called the income tax ‘the greatest buttress of income inequality.’ It gives the appearance of a remedy to income inequality without actually doing much about it.”

Teachers with access to the full article may wish to use it as a reading in a U.S. history class, as it traces the history of taxation through debates about slavery, the industrial revolution, income inequality and populism, the progressive movement, the Great Depression and New Deal, and the Cold War. Students can be encouraged to think not just about the article’s perspective on taxation and how it may change their own, but also about how looking at issues such as slavery, income inequality, and Social Security through the lens of taxation might change students’ views on these issues. Most importantly, students should question what further information and evidence they would need to draw conclusions about these issues.

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